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Eddie is not the knight in shining armour for Australian Rugby

By Ben Smith
Samu Kerevi of Australia reacts after their team's loss at full-time following the Rugby World Cup France 2023 match between Wales and Australia at Parc Olympique on September 24, 2023 in Lyon, France. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

The emotional outpouring from players and Australian fans following the 40-6 loss to Wales has left many without much hope for the future for the national side.

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Such was the magnitude of the game and demoralising manner of the defeat to Wales, it has been categorised as a death knell for Australian rugby.

Jones cut a dejected but defiant figure in the aftermath, still claiming that he is the ‘one’ to save Australian rugby.

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Like a prophet sent down with divine powers, Jones professes to know the antidote to fix these ills. The grandiose delusion.

His fly-by-night approach is compounding against him, six captains in nine months, flip-flopping around selections, new support staff, new game strategies, all trying to come together at the 11th hour.

Jones is acting out of desperation because he cares for Australian rugby, but this isn’t the formula for long-term success.

The good news though is this result isn’t the death of Australian rugby. The Wallabies are one part of a system, the most visible cherry on top, but by no means one-and-all of Australian rugby.

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The struggle for power and autonomy between the state unions and the national body has been at the heart of problems for the game over decades. Interests aren’t aligned in a way that makes Australian rugby, and the Wallabies, stronger.

The talent identification and player development programmes at state level are too often dogged by politics, one man’s opinion, and often downright negligence. Doors shut on talented players with uninformed stigmas.

Injured Wallabies centre Len Ikitau is now one of the best defensive 13s in the world. He transforms the Wallaby backline when available.

He was a standout 1st XV schoolboy player in Brisbane with explosive athleticism and was clearly a blue chip prospect. He revealed that the Queensland Reds “didn’t know who he was” when his agent shopped him around in 2016, the response was “Len who?”.

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If that is quip in Jim Tucker’s story is verbatim, it is indicative of how serious the malaise is. The GPS 1st XV competition is the only game in town. There is only one place to put your eyes if you are looking for rugby talent.

It is astounding how this could happen to a player who dominated that competition. It’s not that they weren’t interested, it’s that they didn’t even know who he was.

If it weren’t for the Brumbies picking him up, the Wallabies would not have one of the best centres in the game. Ikitau now has 28 Test caps and is a guaranteed starter when healthy.

It is no surprise that the best performing Super Rugby side in Australia is the Brumbies. With a smaller playing base locally, they need to be good recruiters and even better at development. They seem to have a clue.

Then there are the players that are brought through the pathway to professionalism. The case of Wallaby captain Will Skelton highlights shortcomings.

At the Waratahs he was a big body not fulfilling his potential at 148kgs. After diet and lifestyle changes at Saracens, at the time the best club in the Premiership and one of the top in Europe, he dropped nearly 15kgs. His 6 ft 8 frame became a lot more effective.

Skelton returned to the Wallabies as a force to be reckoned with, and his injury has hurt Jones’ plans at this World Cup. But the takeaway here is Australia’s system didn’t develop Skelton into a world-class player. Europe did. He always was going to be a world-class player if he was in the right environment.

Emmanuel Meafou is the next polished gem that France will benefit from this time. They have scalped one of Australia’s undeveloped big men and invested in his transformation into a potential Test player.

The poster child of the Australian systemic issues is Irish winger Mack Hansen. Hansen would not get a look-in for the Wallabies because there are better athletes available and he does not fit their type. If he was wearing green and gold, he wouldn’t be scoring Test tries.

His success with Ireland is a testament to the system they have, both on and off the field. In the right place, he can flourish.

If Australia wants to see the Wallabies reach their potential they need to take inspiration from the new guard.

Ireland have become a rugby powerhouse over the last decade under the watch of Australian David Nucifora as their high performance director. Typically not renown for producing powerful athletes, Ireland built a pack that just tore down South Africa.

Irish rugby has carved its own way of playing, combining smarts and scheme. Now their development programmes are churning out players who are machines with power. Their sports science must be at the pinnacle of the game.

France was a sleeping giant that in the late-2010s was still seen as a laughing stock by the rest of Europe. They have always been strong, but inconsistent, with a club game run by billionaires with a somewhat amateur approach.

Then the FFR tightened up the eligibility rules. They wanted more French-eligible players in the Top 14, not retiring All Blacks, Wallabies and Springboks.

The clubs were forced to start spending elsewhere, like in academies, and start recruiting offshore younger and younger. Now they plunder the world globally for emerging players and invest heavily into building pros who are eligible for France.

France and Ireland are now dominating at U20 level year-in, year-out in the Six Nations. France captured their third consecutive World U20 Championship title, beating Ireland handsomely in the final.

The two systems are very different, one is a centralised model and the other has a private club model. But they both figured out how to maximise what they have and align with the national interests. It started bottom up as they bolstered their systems.

The ultimate reward will be reaped at the top level soon enough. Over the last three years France and Ireland have dominated Test rugby with winning rates that are elite and have been sustained.

In pool play at this year’s Rugby World Cup they have both knocked off the two leading old powers, New Zealand and South Africa. One of them is highly likely to win their first ever Rugby World Cup.

Based on the results at U20 level, both will be leading contenders again in four years time in 2027.

It is a long road ahead for the Wallabies to get back to the top but the first step is to address the system. Rugby Australia needs to take back control of how the playing talent is developed.

They cannot afford to leave player ID and development under the watch of the lazy states, New South Wales and Queensland, who happen to preside over the two largest playing pools.

There are no shortage of players coming through in Australia. It is the system that can’t develop them to reach their full potential.

If a Wallaby like Angus Bell, a starting international prop at 22-years-old with immense potential, spent the next three years at Leinster in the Irish system, there is little doubt that he would end up a much better player than he would if he stayed home. And that is what has to change.

Just how they do that is unknown, but maybe the guy they need to bring back before they sack Eddie Jones is Nucifora.

But what is true is that the Wallabies can, without a doubt, rise again but it won’t happen overnight and short-term fixes won’t do it.

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Comments

61 Comments
D
Derek 260 days ago

FOUR MORE YEARS. Acually, it might take a little longer.

C
Chris 262 days ago

Eddie has put the ‘strines in the toilet faster than a man touching cloth.
The saffers deserve to be there too just for their brutish attitude and dim racial superiority theories

D
Dave 262 days ago

Bang on Ben. I've been saying for ages that this is not a great SA side and needing to play 14 or 15 forwards (and still lose) proves it. Too slow, too old, some even too unfit.

D
Derek 262 days ago

That is spot on and NZ has been very slow to react to it too.

F
Flankly 262 days ago

One requirement for Australia to do well in the RWC would have been a coach that exudes confidence. That's a challenge for Eddie, because he would surely have preferred to come on board and declare that it was a mess (as Borthwick did btw), and that it would be a foundational rebuild, targeting 2027.

Instead he started with a public stance that Australia could win the 2023 RWC. I hope he told his bosses at the time that a 2023 RWC win would require several long-odds bets to come off.

RA need to decide whether or not to back Eddie for the long term. Personally I don't think the 2023 RWC should be a big factor in that decision, as it was always going to be a last minute best effort.

Arguably the late pivot to selecting the young team was about a recognition that the 2023 plan was not going to work out.

Anyway, whether it's Eddie or someone else, Australia need to pick a leader, back them, and have patience. It can take years to build a winning team.

B
Bruiser 262 days ago

Hamish Mc Lennan should step down now. Removing Rennie worst decision in ARU history, especially for a coach 10 years out of date

L
Louwrens 263 days ago

Rugby is a professional game. Why on earth would you have rules like "The Gateau Clause" limiting the amount of player you can select playing in other leagues (Provincial competitions). Especially when you do not have a healthy
provincial competition back home (you are shooting yourself in the foot). Imagine Argentina, Fiji and South-Africa only choosing locally based players, they would not be competitive at all. It is a stupid stupid rule picture Argentina soccer team making a rule that Leo Messie cannot play for them because he plays is football in Spain and not locally. Short term fix for Aussie rugby is to open a pathway so that everyone outside of Australia is eligible to play for them. People like Kerr-Barrlow and numerous others will then be eligible. Then get your own house in order and bring back a domestic system outside of super rugby (club competition below super rugby is never going to work, you are missing a whole tier of rugby)

B
BigMaul 263 days ago

“ Jones professes to know the antidote to fix these ills. The grandiose delusion.”

Exactly the same as when Jones was with England. Claimed to have the solution. Never delivered. He has to be one of the worlds greatest modern con artists.

f
finn 263 days ago

If Eddie is sacked and Nucifora gets a job as performance director or something like that, who are the frontrunners to become head coach? Larkham? McKellar?

I'd love to see Ronan O'Gara coach an international side, and Australia might be the only tier 1 job going after the world cup (given that the Springbok job presumably will only ever go to a South African), but would there be an appetite for buying him out of his contract?

j
john 263 days ago

The Wallabies will never be successful while the Tahs insist their second rate players like Porecki and Donaldson are selected and Eddie goes along with it to please them.

Neither Porecki nor Donaldson are in the top three players in their position in Australia but there they are captaining Australia and controlling the game.

How the hell does your captain get penalised for being too lazy to roll away from a ruck 2 minutes in to a must win World Cup game.

The sense of self entitlement to put yourself in that position, as captain, is breathtaking and disgraceful. The Wallabies never stood a chance, which must really really irk the other players ......

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