Eddie Jones autobiography: the best sports book in a while
What does it take to write a good rugby book? Eddie Jones and Donald McRae show how it’s done
No live sport to watch, diminishing opportunities to play (unless you’re a golfer or a lonely long-distance runner). How about reading about it? There are some good old books on sport in our libraries and some excellent new ones recently published.
One of the latter is the Eddie Jones biography, written by South African Donald McRae. It’s the best sports book, let alone rugby book, in a while and Jones is a publicist’s dream. The Aussie, who’s been coaching England’s rugby team for the past four years, is seldom out of the spotlight. In recent weeks he’s been in trouble for criticising a Six Nations referee and now he’s pushing for the Tokyo Olympics to go ahead when everyone except the International Olympic Committee, it seems, wants them postponed.
The people at Pan Macmillan must be rubbing their hands as they watch Jones going about his business. Every match, every training session is another piece of publicity that money couldn’t buy. Robin Harvie, Pan Macmillan’s publisher of Eddie Jones: My Life and Rugby, believes the book could have reached 500,000 sales had Jones and England prevailed in Yokohama. A few weeks ago it was almost up to about 200,000 and continues to sell.
It was timed for the Rugby World Cup, but it will never be out of date because every tournament has its own literature. There is the daily bits-and-pieces reporting, forgettable and quickly forgotten, followed in rare instances by something longer-lasting, memorable, and also marketable. The Jones book is that.
Last year’s Rugby World Cup generated a variety of biographies, from a shallow potboiler on Springbok captain Siya Kolisi to the three-year project on Jones. There was a collection of interviews with Springboks past; a reporter’s travelogue; dark and dry humour from Doddie Weir, the former Scottish lock now diagnosed with motor neuron disease; and Clive Woodward, England’s 2003 World Cup-winning coach, espousing his usual theories on "philosophy and principles of leadership".
None has proved as successful as In Black and White, Craig Ray’s biography of Springbok coach Jake White after the 2007 Rugby World Cup. The first print order of 50,000 sold in a week. In the end it sold 220,000, an SA record best-seller.
SA publishers held back on the 2019 World Cup because the risks were enormous. Some hoped to ride on the World Cup’s coat tails. "We all put our toes in," says Jeremy Boraine, publishing director at Jonathan Ball, which produced the Kolisi book.
Others brought out biographies of Tendai "Beast" Mtawarira, one of the 2019 Springbok heroes; James Dalton, a tragic hero of 1995; Warren Gatland, who will coach the British & Irish Lions in SA next year; and All Black Brothers, hoping to capitalise on the three Barretts who are the latest of 39 sets of siblings to play rugby for New Zealand.
Twelve years ago, Struik publishers (now Penguin Random House) took a chance with the White biography. Author Ray remembers the first production meeting in 2006, soon after the Boks had lost twice to Australia, including a 49-0 drubbing in Brisbane, and when White’s future was in doubt.
"They wanted the manuscript by June 2007, to be in time for Christmas," says Ray. Both author and subject balked; the book needed to include the Rugby World Cup, they insisted. What if the Boks didn’t make it to the final, the publishers asked. Left unsaid was whether White would even be there.
"Jake told them the final would be on October 20. ‘We’ll be there,’ he told them. "‘We’ll win it, and you guys work back from that date,’" says Ray.
The rest was history and Ray finished the last chapters two days after SA’s victory over England in the final, writing for six hours in a Starbucks at Cairo airport during a 10-hour lay-over from Paris.
McRae, who lives in London, knows all about the pressure of publisher deadlines, having written 11 previous books, two of which won the Sports Book of the Year in Britain.
This time it was different, and amid family tragedy: during an intense period of his writing, his widowed mother died in Johannesburg. "So there were some difficult days while I was reaching the crunch point in the book."
Yet by September, he’d finished 14 of the 18 chapters. The last four would be written during the World Cup tournament.
Jones and McRae’s project started in late 2016, "so I had three years to research and write it".
The first two years were given to interviews. "It gave me time to get to understand his complex story and the varied coaching adventures he experienced.
"It was also a time to develop trust between us."
The most important work was done in 2019. "We delved far deeper into the personal aspects of his story and the best material only emerged between March and May last year. By that stage, Eddie trusted me and we had moved beyond the routine sporting interview."
The last chapter was "pretty fraught". He met Jones two days after the final. "He was still hurting after SA’s decisive win and we had to cover a lot of ground."
McRae had only two days to write the last chapter, "but the intensity of the deadline helped concentrate my mind".
McRae has allowed Jones to tell the story in the first person and expertly captures the Aussie’s voice. Most of the book is in the conventional past tense, but key matches are told in the present. It’s like Hilary Mantel writing rugby.
"I wanted the reader to feel as if they were at the game, and reliving those moments," says McRae. "I wanted the games [which are often written in a very dull way] to feel vivid and compelling."
Those SA rugby fans who read more than their Twitter feed will find the final chapter of the McRae/Jones book compelling. It’s packed with Springbok schadenfreude. But, after many clashes in the Tri-Nations and Super Rugby, and now with England, the story remains one about a man they love to hate, except, that is, when he briefly became White’s consiglieri at the 2007 World Cup.
The problem for SA publishers was not only financial. They needed a face to pin their books on. Personalities sell books, as the recent success of the AB de Villiers cricket biography proved.
But the rugby people were just not interested. Past attempts to persuade great Springboks Schalk Burger and Jean de Villiers to do biographies were resisted. That didn’t change in 2019.
Also the market is not as strong as it once was, or big enough.
"The days of the big Victor Matfield book or John Smit book are over," says Boraine.
"For a British publisher doing Eddie Jones the risk wasn’t as high [as it would be for an SA publisher]."
If SA publishers are poorer for not taking the risk in 2019, so is the SA reading public. Sports books, and rugby books in particular (because there is so much politics in the game), fill gaps, even when they cater for the prurient, as Dalton’s biography does. Historians of the Springboks’ victory last November will now have to rely on the public prints, with their paucity of insight and detail.
Jones’s biography will fill some of that gap.
Did we know, for example, that in 1998 Jones wept in his hotel room at Camps Bay after the Stormers had beaten his beloved Brumbies at Newlands? A walk on the beach helped him pull himself together.
And it’s not all schadenfreude. Jones pays the Boks of 2007 a compliment. "In all my years of coaching, only one other group has come close to matching the intellect of the Brumbies’ inner circle. The 2007 World Cup-winning Springbok squad, which I helped coach in that tournament, had John Smit, Fourie du Preez and Victor Matfield who were almost as smart … the Brumbies just about edged it as the most cerebral set of players I’ve ever coached — but the Boks pushed them close."
Those Boks also knew how important Jones had been to their victory. And Jones would know too.
When an unexpected parcel arrived, addressed to him, Jones opened it warily. It contained Du Preez’s Springbok blazer. The mandarins of SA rugby had allowed Jones to accept a winners’ medal after the 2007 World Cup final, but denied him the blazer.