WHO WOULD BE a coach? That’s a question you might have found yourself pondering after Eddie Jones’ tense press conference following the Wallabies’ 40-6 thrashing by Wales at the Rugby World Cup yesterday.
Jones is under immense pressure right now, as you would expect given his team is on the verge of crashing out of the World Cup and it has emerged that he may have had talks with Japanese rugby officials about becoming their national head coach from next year.
Jones, a taciturn and belligerent man who has a tendency to lash out at journalists that question him, has probably contributed to his woes with his defiance, while his failure to deny the allegations made against him haven’t done him any favours, either. The Wallabies’ performance since Jones took over from Dave Rennie at the start of the year have been shambolic, with just one win in eight games. It will be no surprise if Jones steps down or is sacked at the end of the World Cup.
It’s hard to feel any sympathy for the 63-year-old, particularly in light of the claims made against him, but you do have to wonder if the expectations placed on coaches more broadly are reasonable. The problems facing Rugby in Australia are bigger than Jones. The game has been in decline for over a decade and is in a desperate battle for survival in an extremely competitive sporting marketplace. The Wallabies, fielding one of the youngest teams in the tournament, were always going to struggle to progress beyond the group stage.
After Rennie’s reign of mediocrity, Jones was tasked with being the team’s saviour. It’s the same remit all coaches who take over teams in the doldrums are under. If, as a coach, you manage to turn things around, you can expect to become a folk hero, lauded as a paragon of wisdom, a titan of shrewdness, a master of tactics, a whisperer of souls. Journalists will write glowing profiles that celebrate your tactical nous, with anecdotal tidbits illuminating your supposed insight. Your allergy to smiling and unwillingness to let more than a sentence escape your lips will be considered a virtue, the rare times you crack your steely visage in victory prompting gushing op-eds. If you are looking for a reason for why someone might become a coach, it’s because the success, when it comes, is so sweet (and the fawning so cringy).
Of course, if you fail, you are a sinner. This is the binary dynamic in which you must operate, for results are all that matter and when they don’t go your way, the press smells blood. Now, your stiff-lipped countenance and taciturn demeanour will see you cast as an old-school dinosaur who hasn’t moved with the times, has never heard of empathy and can’t relate to your young players.
You could argue leaders in most fields face similar levels of scrutiny and pressure to perform. Corporate leaders are judged on revenue and dividends and are answerable to shareholders. Politicians are at the mercy of the polls and face a similarly braying press pack. So, should coaches expect anything else? In some ways, no. These are all high pressure jobs that exact a significant mental toll.
But coaches are stuck in a peculiar dynamic in which the stakes are at once grave and trivial. On one hand a sporting contest is a confected drama—does it really matter if Penrith win their third consecutive premiership in this weekend’s NRL grand final? To most of us not really, but for diehard Penrith and Brisbane Broncos fans, few things matter more right now. Sporting fans have a greater emotional stake in the performance of their teams than most of us do in politics, for example, despite the fact that we’re constituents in a parliamentary democracy in which decisions are made that could have an enormous impact on our welfare.
The fortunes of a footy team shouldn’t matter but they do. And if you’re the coach operating under this bizarre dynamic you know you’re on a short leash. It’s no surprise, then, that the pressure can affect your health.
Last year the AFL coaches association CEO, Alistair Nicholson, raised concerns about coaches’ welfare after the sackings of Ben Rutten and Brett Ratten, at Essendon and St Kilda, respectively. Mental health among coaches has reached worrying levels, Nicholson said, as clubs find it increasingly easier to either sack them, or not renew their contracts, due to the softening of employment safety nets.
“There is pressure in coaching, but there are people and families greatly impacted,” Nicholson said.
Often coaches can be the scapegoat for deeper structural problems at a club, as well as organisational malfeasance.
Earlier this year, North Melbourne coach Alastair Clarkson stepped away from his role to focus on his physical and emotional wellbeing, with the toll of the investigation into historical alleged racism at Hawthorn behind the move.
A few days later, Richmond FC coach Damien Hardwick, a triple premiership winner and longest serving coach in the league, resigned after the team’s poor start to the year. “It just all became a little bit too much for me,” said Hardwick, who also said he was conscious of not overstaying his welcome at Punt Road, ensuring he left the club he described as “the love of his life” on good terms.
“In all honesty, I would rather leave too early (rather than) too late. The club means so much to me and I want to make sure I leave the game loving the game, not resenting the game,” he said.
That last comment is instructive, for as Hardwick knew better than anyone, despite his previous success, if the poor results continued, the axe would inevitably fall. He was one of the few coaches who’s managed to walk away on his own terms.
In fact, his comments are not so different from ones Jones made earlier this year on The Evening Standard’s Podcast: “I’m only coaching ’til this World Cup. I’ve signed [until the end of 2027], but as I’ve made the mistake before, I’ve stayed too long. So we win the World Cup, it will be time to go. If we lose the World Cup, it will be time to go.”
While that is a strange thing for a coach contracted until 2027 to say, coaches know they are in a results-driven business. They know how fickle fans and administrators are. Jones was sacked by England last year and by the Wallabies themselves back in 2005. Perhaps we shouldn’t be so harsh on coaches for wanting to control their destiny, protect their livelihoods and, frankly, dodge the public blowtorch. The problem for the coach who tries it, as Jones may well find out, is that it too, is a hard game to win.