Cape Town – Fulsome acknowledgement of the Springboks’ superiority on the heavyweight occasion shines through in losing England head coach Eddie Jones’s starkly honest, personal take on the 2019 Rugby World Cup final a few weeks ago in Yokohama.
A long-time friend of South African rugby through his key association with an earlier, 2007 Webb Ellis Cup-winning Bok side, the much-travelled, Tasmanian-born Jones details the dramatic closing stages and immediate aftermath of the Japanese-hosted showpiece among many other intriguing career flashpoints in his just-released autobiography My Life and Rugby, with Donald McRae.
In an extract published below with permission to Sport24 from publishers Pan Macmillan, Jones confesses that he “snapped” afterwards when a journalist suggested his charges – handsome, loudly trumpeted semi-final winners against the All Blacks just a week earlier – “true to form … choked”.
He says: “I was having none of it … we were beaten by the better team on the night.”
Jones describes how, even amidst his swirling post-match disappointment, he still found time to appreciate the poignancy of Siya Kolisi lifting the trophy for South Africa: “It’s a powerful symbol of progress.”
He also explains why his post-final chat with victorious opposite number Rassie Erasmus was a fleeting one.
Here is the extract, from a chapter entitled “The Final”:
“The Springboks keep pouring into us, playing on the edge of the offside line, making big defensive hits and running with menace. But, still, we hold on. Pollard and Farrell swap penalties and, with just 15 minutes left, South Africa lead 18–12. A converted try would put us in the lead. There’s still hope.
“But all the momentum is with the Boks and a sharp backline movement down the left ends in a Mapimpi try. I know now that the dream is over. Kolbe scores another try and the World Cup is out of sight. It’s lost in a green and gold blur: South Africa 32, England 12.
“In the final minutes my mind starts to wander. My first thoughts are for the (England) players. They will be distraught. They have been brilliant, coming together as a powerful, united England team which has done everything asked of it and more. They have played with flair and tenacity and, during a difficult and uncertain time at home, they have given people something to smile about.
“The subsequent news that the final was watched by the biggest television audience in the UK this year (over 12.5 million), and that supplies of replica jerseys had sold out, proved the boys had made a lasting impact. I look around at my coaching staff and management. They are gutted. They’ve all put in so much work to get things right for the players. There is nothing more I could have asked of them.
“I gaze across the stadium at the masses of white jerseys. That noisy, boisterous white wall has been with us throughout the tournament. I think of the people who have flown in to be at the game and are leaving first thing the next morning.
“The lazy cliché of our fans is that they are arrogant. It’s bullshit. They love the game and the team, and the team loves them. I understood that they would be disappointed but I knew that, with a little time, they would reflect on everything the boys achieved and be proud.
“We’re miles away from 2015 and they know it. A feeling of dread then fills me as I contemplate the time I will have to spend with my friends in the media. Sure as night follows day, those who threw bouquets and went completely over the top in their praise of our win over the All Blacks one short week ago will grab the pitchforks, light the torches and demand immediate answers.
“They will talk of ‘failure’ and rail against my selections and the game plan that didn’t work. It’s a necessary and important part of the job but, trust me, it’s exhausting. True to form one of them suggested later we choked, and I snapped. I was having none of it. Our players didn’t choke. We were beaten by a better team on the night. I often wonder who marks their homework.
“Having shuffled up to get my silver medal, I stand with the boys as we watch the Boks and consider what might have been. There is nothing you can say. We just have to live with the fact that, despite our best efforts, we have come up short.
“Most of the boys gaze into the crowd with faraway stares. They aren’t thinking much; but they feel a lot of hurt. In our misery we watch the World Cup being presented to the Springbok captain, Siya Kolisi. I’d caught some of what he said after the match over the public address system. I heard him speak of the example this victory could set his country. Here is a symbol of what can be achieved when people work together.
“South Africa’s first black captain, a young man from the townships, who had little food to eat as a boy and who had sat in a shebeen to watch our World Cup victory in 2007, now holds up the greatest prize in rugby. It’s a powerful symbol of progress for South Africa. A part of me is pleased for Siya and for South Africa. I sincerely hope it makes a difference.
“I offer my congratulations to Rassie and we share a minute together. It’s a quick chat. The winning coach doesn’t want to talk much to the losing coach, because he feels like he’s being patronizing and you, in turn, haven’t got much to say to him beyond ‘well done’ and ‘well played’. As Bobby Robson used to say after a game, ‘There’s one happy dressing room and one unhappy dressing room.’
“We’re in the sad place without any champagne or noise. I know the happy place far better because, over the years, I’ve won more than I’ve lost.
“But, right now, there is no escape. We lost a dream tonight. The hours pass on World Cup night and the gloom lifts. Of course, I know that when I wake in the morning there will be a dull ache as soon as I remember the game. The hurt will be there on Monday morning, and Tuesday, and every day for weeks to come. In some ways, it never goes away.
“This is familiar territory. I’ve won a World Cup final, with South Africa, but I’ve now lost two. The pain of 2003, and Australia losing to England at home in extra time, ran so deep that it really did take me a couple of years to get over it.
“This feels different. It feels nowhere near as bad. I feel all right because I know we have done everything possible in our power to win the game. The players have been magnificent. They gave their all. My eyes are clear and my heart lifts just a little on a clear night in Tokyo.
“Age teaches you a better and calmer understanding. I am not going to call it wisdom because I don’t feel very wise tonight. I made a few mistakes, but the honest truth is that I really don’t know why we failed to produce the kind of performance we found within ourselves a week ago in this very stadium.
“I haven’t got all the answers; but at least I know enough now not to hang on to this disappointment like I did after 2003. I will go through a grieving period, because the loss of a World Cup final cuts that hard. But experience has taught me to let it go. If we had won I would not have allowed myself to linger over victory for months and years on end.
“I would have enjoyed it for a week and then I would have started planning for the next challenge and the next adventure. If I can keep a win in perspective, it’s not such a leap to do the same when confronted by defeat. We played six games in Japan and we won five. South Africa did the same, as they lost their opening pool game to New Zealand.
“No other team had won the World Cup after losing in the pool stages … but South Africa have proved that history is always there to be made.”
*My Life and Rugby: The Autobiography (Eddie Jones, with Donald McRae) is published by Pan Macmillan, and available at leading South African bookstores. Recommended retail price R330.