Holbeck: Jones and Cheika walking a fine line

by James Holbeck

As former teammates, and now coaches of Australia and England, Michael Cheika and Eddie Jones can only add to this upcoming series with the fullness of their personalities.

We get to sit back and enjoy their mind games as they attempt to influence their players, the opposition, the media and each other.

They are master motivators in their own right but slightly different in how they achieve a common drive in players.

In my experience Cheika is more likely to speak to his players as a family that earns respect, while Eddie drives for consistency of excellence. Cheika’s focus is on passion. Eddie concentrates on developing efficiency and effectiveness.Michael Cheika said it was easy to let David Pocock change his deal. Photo: Getty ImagesThe way both men go about their business is to constantly push boundaries. Perhaps this is the innate nature of these high performance environments and the characters it attracts.

Cheika and Jones both however walk two fine, and sometimes blurred, lines of passion and motivation.

More passionate men than Michael Cheika and Eddie Jones you will not find.

Where the optimum line of passion lies as a virtue, we see Cheika jumping into training to demonstrate that what he asks of his players is nothing more than he would do himself. Or as a young coach I watched him offering himself up as fodder for his charges to smash.

Passion becomes a vice though when we see broken glass doors and abused cameramen, charges that were directed towards Cheika as NSW Waratahs coach.

Cheika is not the only player to try and remove my eyeball at the bottom of a ruck but he is indeed the only teammate to try and do so.

Those who have played with or against Cheika will understand that if I lay in between him and the ball, his actions would have been justified in order to get what he wanted. Or more correctly what the team needed.

He is the sort of guy you want on your team. Simply, Cheika goes after what he wants with a passionate drive that occasionally switches from being a virtue into being a vice.

Additionally, most adult players would prefer to be motivated without the power imbalance that can exist within a coach-player relationship. They want to be treated with the respect afforded of adults. The line between respectfully influencing players and manipulating them is a blurred one in high performance environments. A few former Wallabies have suggested that Eddie’s style is a manipulative bullying.

Eddie Jones the England head coachI still remember the first time I was slammed for making a mistake at training by Eddie. As I heard his words, I remember looking up to see his face break from harshness into a wry grin. He was testing me. He was calling me out to be better. I bought into his style because I knew that he wanted me to improve.

There is a fine line here. At what point do you lose a player’s confidence and trust after ‘negatively critiquing’ a skill they have failed in executing?

In these high stakes environments do players implicitly give permission for the coach to push them to where they need to go? Very few people are willing to challenge themselves to go beyond their breaking point. Should coaches seek permission to push players in this way?

On the other end of the spectrum, Michael Cheika used the analogy of the golf driver to give his Waratah players permission to trust their instincts. The threat was that the Waratahs would seize up under the pressure of the unknown. He was giving them permission to just go for it and forget about the consequences.Michael Cheika will stay on as Wallabies coach until the 2019 Rugby World Cup. Photo: ARU Media/Stu WalmsleyEddie’s feedback perhaps demonstrates that there is a time for practising skills that you have not yet mastered and maybe in a final team run is not that time.

English forward, James Haskell recently said that he holds Eddie Jones with an equal measure of respect and fear. I think many players would agree that Haskell has nailed it!

Haskell also suggested that Eddie could be like a ticking time bomb who players are waiting to go off. Yet who at other times is willing to sympathise with his player’s mistakes and listen to their opinion.

The line is drawn when the passion and influence is no longer used for the benefit of the team but because the coach is not getting his or her own way. No doubt we all see parts of that in ourselves.

Eddie Jones, in an unusual tactic recently named his own Australian team for Saturday’s Test. Cheika was described by Jones as using a ‘smoke and mirrors’ tactic ahead of naming his own Wallaby side.

Cheika retorted that Jones is trying to do whatever he thinks is best for his team by playing games.

What is Jones up to? Former Wallaby David Croft recently told a junior rugby club in Brisbane that Jones is an expert in finding weaknesses in his players so that he can prod and poke that liability until it strengthens. It was a compliment to Jones, who many players see as being their most astute and technical coach.

So is Jones poking an area of Cheika’s personality that he sees as a potential weakness? What area could that be?

How exciting is it watching these great coaches working to get the most out of their players and manipulating us all along the way.

Apparently there is a rugby game involved somewhere too!

James Holbeck is a former Brumbies and Wallabies centre with an Honours in Psychology. James has since earned a reputation as an insightful mentor & coach at Hope Beckons


The opinions expressed in this article are the views of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the ARU.