The questions at hand, though, are these. If Jones and/or Cheika went to coach league, how would they go? And what reason is there to believe they would do any better than their predecessor as Wallabies coach, Alan Jones, who went on to coach league and was nothing less than a – what’s that word again? – disaster.
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To get to the answer, we first have to revisit – one more time for the road – why Alan Jones failed. You see, he really was a highly accomplished Wallabies coach with a record of overwhelming success in the first three of his four years at the helm, before taking over the highly ranked Balmain Tigers and driving them into the dirt in the space of just two years. And I have recounted before my seminal conversation with Benny Elias on the subject.
In 1990, soon after it was announced that Jones was to take over Balmain, I ran into Benny and offered a friendly warning that his life would soon be filled with extra training sessions, Jones phone calls and exhortations to give ever more to the Balmain cause.
“Mate,” he replied, “I’m already at the limits under Warren Ryan. We already are training five days a week. I already am giving all my energy to winning. There’s nothing more that Jones can try to get out of us that Ryan hasn’t got.”
And there is the answer to the question in a grossly simplified nutshell.
The reason for Alan Jones’ great success at union was not particularly because of technical knowledge, though he was innovative in trucking in what knowledge he didn’t have, in terms of specialist coaches. It was because he extracted a professional commitment from amateurs and imposed professional standards. No money changed hands, but his was a professional intensity and focus, and the result was a team that played like professionals, right up to the point such fierce focus burst into flames and the whole thing turned to ashes.
But in league, he was a professional competing against professionals. Even then, Jones might have swung it, but for one thing: the learning curve he was on – in a game substantially foreign to him – was one that had already been travelled down many years before by men with surnames such as Sheens, Gould, Bennett and Ryan. The mistakes Jones made in his first year were mistakes that the others had made years before and long ago eliminated from their coaching.
Would the same happen to Jones and Cheika if they were given the reins of an NRL team?
I think not. Yes, both have an intensity of approach that would do Alan Jones proud and, like Jones, that very intensity was one of the major reasons for their success in union. For me the major bouquet on Cheika’s record is the 2014 Waratahs team that played rugby across the park like no one had ever seen, while Eddie Jones’ accomplishments are myriad but include winning Super Rugby with the Brumbies, coaching Japan to beat South Africa and England to humiliate the All Blacks in the 2019 World Cup semi-final.
But here is the difference between Cheika’n’Eddie and Alan Jones. Cheika’n’Eddie have long been aficionados of league in the first place and have actively studied league defences, attacking structures and coaching methods so as to improve their union teams. If ever they got the chance both would be working in a game in which they are already deeply steeped, in which they have had ideas for years that they could now apply. In the case of Eddie, he would be bringing a track record of world-class success with just about every team he got a hold of.
I still don’t think it will happen. But if it did, you would have two footballing communities tuning in to see results. In the case of Alan Jones – to sound a brief and entirely uncalled for churlish note – I tuned in to assure myself that his team had indeed lost, and I was rarely disappointed. In the case of Cheika and Eddie Jones, it would be in the hope that their teams had won and it would be fascinating to see what they could achieve.
Peter FitzSimons is a journalist and columnist with The Sydney Morning Herald.