Few would have expected a quiet ride to the World Cup when Australia rehired Eddie Jones in January, but even by his headline-a-minute standards, these last few months have felt particularly rich in debate and drama.
Call it the increasingly outdated approach of a populist pretender clinging to a final chance at glory, or the masterful manoeuvres of a veteran schemer successfully taking the attention off his struggling side, but since his return to Sydney as Dave Rennie’s replacement, Jones has most certainly played the hits.
There was the jettisoning from the most inexperienced Australia squad in recent memory of Michael Hooper, presumed skipper, and Quade Cooper. There was the talking up of uncapped flanker Josh Kemeny as a potential wing option. There was the eve-of-tournament departure of attack coach Brad Davis, which brought about the “worst press conference ever” (Jones, 2023), where Australia’s head coach told journalists to give themselves “uppercuts” in his final press engagement before departing for the World Cup.
This week, ex-England fly-half Danny Cipriani accused his former coach of acting like a “horny teenager” by prying into his private life; Jones hit back referring to the allegation as f****** nonsense. Leaving that particular he-said, he-said aside, what about the fact that Jones was appointed to also oversee Australia women – now publicly at odds with the union over claims of mistreatment – but is yet to actually attend a Wallaroos training session? Australia’s men, meanwhile, are yet to win a game since their head coach returned. Welcome back to the Eddie experience, Australia. Did you miss it?
Rugby Australia were prepared to tolerate the noise that accompanies their head coach; the extra attention that Jones brings was actually a key driver in his appointment – in an ever-competitive fight for the eyeballs of the Australian public, there is a buzz around rugby union for the first time in a while.
Besides, as England’s Rugby Football Union (RFU) themselves admitted when indulging his World Cup obsession for so long, Jones remains a noted tournament specialist: two final appearances as a head coach, a 2007 triumph as an assistant and the engineering of perhaps the World Cup’s greatest shock in 2015 provides quadrennial evidence that Jones knows how to build to a crescendo.
Has he had enough time to put his 2023 plan into action? Jones has termed this campaign as a “smash and grab job”, reflecting Australia’s less-than-ideal preparations but also a confidence that he has the heavy mob to produce a heist by force.
His imperfect selection may be low on experience but is high on potential, built around a stegosaurus spine of spiky ball carriers. New captain Will Skelton, prop Angus Bell, number eight Rob Valetini and centre Samu Kerevi are among those capable of providing the heavy percussion.
The warm-up fixture against France may have ended in a heavy defeat but there were glimpses of intelligent attacking play from the Wallabies, not least from a varied kicking game and a strong scrum-time showing.
Much will rest on how Carter Gordon knits it all together from fly half having yet to win at test level, but Australia have plenty of other pieces in place, and will probably be the most confident of the four live quarter-final contenders in Pool C that they have a squad capable of coming together for a deep tournament run.
Jones’ youth movement on squad selection day was a nod to the future in more ways than one, with a home World Cup to come four years down the track with Australian rugby entering a crucial period that also includes a British and Irish Lions tour in 2025.
The comparison has been made between Australia’s lead-up to this tournament and France’s approach in 2019. With Fabien Galthie on board shadowing Jacques Brunel ahead of stepping into the lead coaching role after the tournament, the French laid the groundwork for the side’s development into home favourites four years later.
Australia’s cupboard is not as healthily stocked as France’s but there are relatively recent U20 successes to look to. As many as eight of Jones’ likely starting 15 are 25 or under, and, four years down the line could be right in their prime. The chequebook has already been out to tempt Joseph Sua’ali’i across from the NRL, and more sizeable offers to potential code-hoppers will follow to try and best set up the Wallabies for home success.
But it is worth remembering that the French team of four years ago would, in all likelihood, have been semi-finalists but for a moment of madness from Sebastian Vahaamahina. Australia’s potential quarter-final opponents are equally flawed, and Jones would surely relish a meeting with his old running mate Borthwick, as is entirely feasible.
The Wallabies have pushed all four presumed favourites close in the last couple of years, and the development of their power game gives them a calling card that the other fringe contenders appear, on the surface, to lack. Could it be enough for an unlikely triumph? One thing is for certain – with Jones at the helm, there won’t be a dull moment.
Coach: Eddie Jones
Captain: Will Skelton
Key Player: Samu Kerevi – A fully fit Kerevi should take some of the pressure off the inexperienced Gordon inside him, and his multi-faceted game may further unlock a promising Wallabies attack.
Rising star: Angus Bell – The loosehead prop is a developing force in the loose and at the set piece.
Big question: Can Carter Gordon justify Eddie Jones’ faith and get the best out of the rest of this Australia side?
Forwards: Angus Bell, Pone Fa’amausili, Zane Nonggorr, Blake Schoupp, James Slipper, Taniela Tupou; Matt Faessler, Dave Porecki, Jordan Uelese; Richie Arnold, Nick Frost, Matt Philip, Will Skelton (captain); Langi Gleeson, Tom Hooper, Josh Kemeny, Rob Leota, Fraser McReight, Rob Valetini.
Backs: Issak Fines-Leleiwasa, Tate McDermott, Nic White; Carter Gordon, Ben Donaldson; Lalakai Foketi, Samu Kerevi, Izaia Perese, Jordan Petaia, Max Jorgensen, Andrew Kellaway, Marika Koroibete, Mark Nawaqanitawase, Suliasi Vunivalu.
Saturday 9 September: Australia vs Georgia, Pool C (Paris, 5pm)
Sunday 17 September: Australia vs Fiji, Pool C (Saint-Etienne, 4.45pm)
Sunday 24 September: Wales vs Australia, Pool C (Lyon, 8pm)
Sunday 1 October: Australia vs Portugal, Pool C (Saint-Etienne, 4.45pm)