It’s safe to say that no Wallabies World Cup send-off has ever been as chaotic, with head coach Eddie Jones, last week in a Sydney airport doorstop, declining to furnish details around Quade Cooper and Michael Hooper’s non-selection, and the sudden departure of attack coach, Brad Davis.
Instead, Jones repeatedly turned the blowtorch back onto what he contends is constant negativity in the local coverage, labelling the exchange “the worst press conference I’ve ever had in world rugby”.
Readers familiar with Australian politics will know of regional Queensland MP Bob Katter; famous for his wide-brimmed Akubra hat, fitful temper and an uncanny ability to mangle the King’s English and to defy logic like a Six Nations judiciary panel.
Spray for the ages
Perhaps it’s all in the hat? Jones, sporting his own Akubra, courtesy of a sponsored clothing deal, in full ‘Mad Katter’ mode, delivering a spray for the ages, before gathering his luggage and wheeling off to the club lounge to put the finishing touches on the appointment of his new attack coach.
As entertainment, it was a fair attempt to shift the spotlight away from the Matildas’ Women’s Football World Cup campaign. All that was missing was a rational exchange, and bobbing corks.
One constant in the season so far has been Jones’ willingness to be the focus of attention. That’s partly a product of the incredible amount of work he has done to promote the game since his appointment, but it’s also the tried and tested default method he uses to shield his players from scrutiny.
The scenario also made for an interesting contrast to the Wallabies under Dave Rennie. During his term, Rennie was a catalyst for the players determining their authentic identity, and developing culture around that. What duly emerged was a team largely grounded in Pasifika heritage.
But with a sub-40% win record, and Rugby Australia chairman Hamish McLennan keen to reconnect the Wallabies to a more traditional, ‘ocker’ identity, the switch has been thrown to ‘The Man from Snowy River’ mode.
Final stages of the preparation also included a four-day camp in Arnhem Land, in Australia’s Northern Territory; depending on your viewpoint, a feel-good connection with indigenous culture, or a token gesture, given the stubborn refusal of the Sydney and New South Wales Rugby Unions to engage with and develop indigenous talent in the western suburbs of Sydney.
— Planet Rugby (@PlanetRugby) August 17, 2023
By the time Jones was 40,000 feet above the Bay of Bengal, another Rugby League man, Jason Ryles, was being fitted up for his Akubra, confirmed as the new attack guru.
The concern is less around Ryles’ competency – he’s considered the favourite for the plum job to succeed Craig Bellamy at the Melbourne Storm – but the matter of a team having undergone constant change this year in personnel and tactics, being subjected to another round of ‘nice to meet you, what’s your name again?’ on the eve of the tournament.
It will come as no surprise to anyone that this kind of off-field instability mirrors the Wallabies’ on-field travails this year. And whatever the talk of ‘smash and grab’ raids and ‘soft draws’, it is likely that only the most chronically optimistic of Wallabies fans believe that such upheaval won’t be reflected in the outcome of the next two months.
With four losing Test matches under his belt and – assuming contractual arrangements with the FFR are sorted – a fixture against France looming this weekend, Jones’ side has already undergone quite the revolution. Old faithfuls have yielded to new faces, in some cases because players like Carter Gordon, Tom Hooper and Max Jorgensen really are the future; in other cases, like at prop, because there is a paucity of alternatives.
Identifying a coherent and consistent game-plan has proven elusive, with Jones seemingly pivoting after a non-possession approach in Pretoria brought about a 43-12 spanking. Playing more with the ball, the Wallabies certainly looked much better in both matches against New Zealand; enough to suggest a more balanced approach will be carried forward.
And while it’s taken longer for him to get to this point than he would have liked, Jones now has the 33 players he wants. Safely settled on French soil, without the stress of watching for the gaffer’s name appearing on their phones to deliver heartbreaking news, expect the team to continue to take strides forward over the next couple of weeks.
Will that be enough? Enough for what is probably the question.
Last week’s squad announcement carried with it the heady aroma of McLennan walking back expectations, gazing forward with excitement at the prospect of what Jones’ inexperienced team might do against the 2025 British & Irish Lions, and at the 2027 World Cup.
If that’s justification for Cooper‘s omission – and there wouldn’t be a soul who doesn’t honestly believe that Cooper isn’t in the best two fly-halves in Australia – then that might be fair enough.
But it’s a far cry from the “smash and grab”, chest-thumping that accompanied Jones’ appointment.
Instead, it’s all being set-up to claim a quarter-final exit as a pass mark, a semi-final exit as a job well done, and a finals appearance as unequivocal justification for ditching Rennie for the Randwick Akubra wearer.
And, heaven forbid, a win in the final on October 28? McLennan won’t be able to bump Sir Bill Beaumont out of his chair fast enough!
Before those lofty heights are even contemplated, a pool exit must first be navigated. Two wins from three matches against Georgia, Fiji and Wales should be enough for the Wallabies to progress to a winnable quarter-final.
In their own ways, all three sides will provide a stern test. But frankly, if the Wallabies aren’t up to that, then the uppercuts won’t be directed at the media, but squarely at McLennan. After all, it was he who insisted, last September, that “Rennie will coach Wallabies at 2023 World Cup no matter what”.
How far can they go
Who knows how it all plays out from here. For all the airport shenanigans, notwithstanding their woeful win-loss record in recent years, the Wallabies still shape as one of the teams that will have a formative role to play in this World Cup.
In Angus Bell, Nick Frost and Marika Koroibete, there is genuine quality. Mark Nawaqanitiwase, Tate McDermott, Andrew Kellaway and Gordon are improving and will only get better. If Samu Kerevi and Taniela Tupou can settle their bodies and get their mojos back, they will be a handful for any side.
It is assumed that the players have been shielded from most of the nonsense going on outside. All the better for being able to fast-track cohesion with a coaching group as green as they are.
Having suffered blow after blow over the last two decades Wallabies fans are nothing if not resilient. Where there is life there remains hope.
For the rest of the rugby world, even if the Wallabies don’t deliver on the field, the presence of Jones guarantees that they’ll be the most interesting side off it.