It’s a demonstration of how far he will go in the search for talent. ‘That’s where you find something that maybe other coaches don’t,’ says Jones. What did he see in Smith that evening in Brighton?
‘He just had that feel for the game, mate. [The former Wallabies coach] Bob Dwyer always used to say: “Find the players with the things that you can’t coach.”’
Jones has been chasing that elusive quality his whole life. He never had it himself as a player. An undersized hooker who by his own admission was quicker with his mouth than his feet, Jones was a good club player but never pulled on the golden shirt of his national side. Some have suggested he has never got over the disappointment.
But he’s always known what quality looks like. On his first day at kindergarten in Sydney, Jones was plonked down on the mat next to three future rugby internationals – Gary Ella and his twin brothers Mark and Glen. Jones would spend the next three decades playing sport with the Ellas.
Mark in particular was touched by genius and the first indigenous player to captain his country. The rest of Jones’s career has been the sporting equivalent of attempting to recapture the liminal magic of first love.
‘When you’ve played with the best, knowing what they can do, you’re never satisfied with anything less. That’s what you’re always looking for, that level of intuition.’
Such lofty benchmarks mean that Jones feels like he’s constantly failing even when his side is winning. He names only two games where his teams came close to playing the perfect game: Japan’s victory over South Africa in the 2015 World Cup and England’s semi-final victory over the All Blacks in the 2019 World Cup.
He reckons that by the end of his career he will be able to count on his fingers the number of players he has helped to achieve their full potential. ‘I feel like I have fallen way short of where I should be. But if I wasn’t like that I wouldn’t still be coaching. If you can get your players close to their best consistently, then you give them a gift for life.’
A worthy challenge
Jones says the hardest part of his job is breaking up a successful team. ‘I reckon teams have a three-year cycle,’ he says. ‘As soon as you get to your best, you know what’s coming. People want to retain their status, they get a bit comfortable and you’ve got to break that team, which is what we’re going through now.’
Jones dropped several stalwarts of the team following an unsuccessful Six Nations campaign last year, in which England finished fifth, and blooded new players in the autumn series.
‘It’s the most difficult [part of being a coach], but also the most enjoyable because it’s the most challenging to get right. You’ve got one player at this level, you’ve got another player rising. Do you bring him in now or do you leave it a little bit longer? Is it one game too early or one game too late? And sometimes you’ve got to roll the dice.
‘The game against South Africa [in the autumn], I wasn’t sure how they were going to play. You’re going into the game, you’re feeling sick in your stomach and you’re just hoping they come together.’
Ironically it is this part of the job, the bit the control freak can’t control, that gives Jones the biggest buzz. ‘That’s why we keep coaching, mate. It’s like a drug. It’s stressful but it’s so much fun.’
Despite starting to become part of the furniture at the RFU, Jones revels in his status as an outsider both in Japan and in England. ‘One of things I’ve probably learnt – I think – is the skill of discernment: understanding what is really important in a society, not trying to change that and then looking at the things that are negotiable.’