Eddie Jones is a supremely confident man. England’s head coach is a passionate, hard-working leader who is completely sure of himself and of what he’s doing.
But as he and his side attempt to defy history and win a Test series in South Africa for the first time, it is interesting to wonder if the Australian has a nagging doubt at the back of his mind.
Two and a half years into his tenure as England’s coach, Jones faces his most difficult spell, both on and off the pitch. Not only does he have to find a way to turn around a run of poor form with an injury-depleted side against South Africa in their back yard, he has mounting issues elsewhere too.
Jones’s time seems to be increasingly spent both starting and then putting out fires. His recent press conferences have revolved around him offering bullish titbits, defending his methods and firing out barbs to his detractors.
A bizarre war of words has rumbled on with Bath’s billionaire owner Bruce Craig, with Jones calling him the “Donald Trump of rugby” for daring to question a training style that, Craig says, has led to injuries to Bath’s best.
Beno Obano, Anthony Watson, Dave Attwood, Tom Ellis and Sam Underhill have all picked up injuries on England duty, with Worcester’s Ben Te’o also missing the tour with a quad problem.
Premiership Rugby boss Mark McCafferty has said the level of injuries being sustained on international duty is “concerning” and that relations between club and country have hit a “roadblock”. Might the roadblock be a 5ft 8in Australian?
Jones has remained unabashed and a siege mentality has been fostered. But for such a technique to be successful, those on the inside with you need to be on board – and that’s another area where questions arise.
England landed in South Africa on Saturday on the back of four successive defeats, the most recent of which saw them ship a record 63 points against the Barbarians last month. After a relentlessly positive start to the Jones era, which saw a first Six Nations grand slam since 2003, the impression now is that things are much less rosy.
The players are battered, tired and morale has been affected. Rather than rest after a punishing domestic season, like their injured team-mates, the fit players will now face another stern test.
They start in Johannesburg on Saturday at a venue where no Red Rose side has won since 1972. An experimental Springboks may have lost 22-20 to Wales at the weekend, but under coach Rassie Erasmus they mean business.
Jones’s motivational task over the next three weeks is hindered further by the absence of captain Dylan Hartley, who is unavailable with concussion. The importance of Hartley as Jones’s right-hand man in the dressing room is underlined by his contention last month that English players can be prone to “selfishness”.
“In English rugby in particular the key for the captain is to get unity because it is a sporting environment here that is based around selfishness,” Jones said. “It is something we’re continually battling.” Does this sound like a happy and harmonious camp?
It’s not just the players who are feeling the pressure of the Jones environment either. While those on the pitch have been defined by a large turnover due to injuries, backroom staff have come and gone too.
Defence coach Paul Gustard will join Harlequins as head of rugby after the South Africa tour, leaving his crucial post with the 2019 World Cup on the horizon. While the Harlequins job is a good opportunity, it raises the question of whether a fulfilled Gustard might have rebuffed the approach.
He is not the first to jump the good ship Eddie. Attack coach Rory Teague quit to become Bordeaux Begles boss in January, while some low-profile staff have left before their contracts were up as well.
New attack coach Scott Wisemantel gave an illuminating answer when asked about standing up to Jones. Wisemantel, who has been brought in on a five-week contract for the South Africa tour, said: “It is not easy, but that’s a real relationship isn’t it? Anyone who has worked for Eddie will realise that once you’ve worked for Eddie you are always working for Eddie.”
Are players and staff being burnt out by a full-on, demanding and uncompromising work ethic?
The 58-year-old has of course had a great deal of success with the likes of Australia and Japan during his long coaching career. But he has also never stayed anywhere longer than four years.
There are parallels with another supremely successful yet abrasive character in a different sport. Jose Mourinho has has never stayed anywhere longer than three full seasons, tending to leave football clubs under a cloud after the honeymoon period has faded.
Jones has been with England since November 2015. If the South Africa tour proves as difficult as expected the World Cup in September 2019 will start to look an awful long way off for England’s players and staff.