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FEATURE Are the three wise men regretting their jobs?

Are the three wise men regretting their jobs?
9 months ago

You know the old joke about London buses? You are waiting for half an hour and nothing arrives. When the double-decker finally heaves into view, it is accompanied by two others. Chances are the second and third buses are completely empty.

The rugby equivalent was a rash of top-tier sackings in the elite coaching fraternity towards the end of 2022. The first dragon-red bus pulled in on Monday 5th December, with the exit of Wales coach Wayne Pivac, to be followed swiftly by the departure of Eddie Jones from the RFU the very next day. Only five weeks later, on 16th January 2023, Dave Rennie lost his job as head honcho of the Wallabies, to be replaced immediately by none other than… a job-seeking Eddie Jones.

In their quieter moments, all three may be wondering whether they made the right decision to take on such a task so close to the end of a World Cup cycle, with the biggest competition in the world barely nine months away at the time of their appointments. The role of last-minute messiah may look alluring, but it all too frequently ends in unwanted martyrdom.

Borthwick offered the most sober appraisal when he told the BBC: “When I looked at the team [England] in the autumn, when I measured the team and got all the data for the team, we weren’t good at anything. It was as frank as that.”

Jones was initially bumptious, proclaiming his Wallabies would be one of only six sides capable of lifting ‘Bill’ in 2023: “There is [only] a blade of grass between the top teams… Now I’m going back to Australia and I’m approaching it like it’s all about 2023. I want Australia to win the World Cup in 2023 and that’s all I’m focusing on at this stage.”

The confetti of the prodigal son’s return had barely settled on the ground before the narrative shifted abruptly. After four successive defeats, the proposed ‘smash-and-grab raid’ sounded like it had been shelved in favour of planning for the future. As Rugby Australia chairman Hamish McLennan recently commented: “I have always taken a long-term view that 2027 is where we need to peak, [though] obviously we would like to do well in France this year. We are breaking the cycle of short-term thinking.”

Wallabies coach Eddie Jones.
Eddie Jones gave a bombastic press conference as the Wallabies departed for France and the Rugby World Cup. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

Some key veterans in Michael Hooper and Quade Cooper have been unceremoniously discarded and now it’s all about building for the future. For Australia’s loss of Hooper and Cooper, read Alun Wyn Jones and Justin Tipuric in Wales. It was Warren Gatland who made the most candid admissions of all to the BBC’s Scrum V podcast:

“When I came into the Six Nations, I had no idea. I didn’t realise a lot of the things that were going on and the issues that were behind rugby and the squad and the players.

“At the time, if I had known, I would have made a different decision and probably gone somewhere else.

“Welsh rugby’s going to go through pain from a financial perspective for the regions. These issues were here before, but there’s no doubt that the success of the national team in the past probably papered over the cracks.

“Now, probably for the better, they have come to the fore and there is a chance to focus on the things that needed fixing. There’s a great chance for us to have a really positive reset on a number of things.”

Australia, England and Wales have garnered five wins and 15 losses between them since the new men took over, a meagre 25% win-ratio. With all three nations in the weaker half of the draw at the World Cup, that win percentage will improve, but the sheer scale of the remedial job has been fully revealed. If anything, it has grown to monumental proportions.

The truth is the work of reconstruction is far better begun at the start of a World Cup cycle, with newly-installed coaches given time to experiment and build progressively toward a goal four years distant.

Being placed in charge nine months from the tournament is the job nobody really wants. The difficulties of building something solid in triple-quick time have beset all three coaches, and none more than Gatland. In his previous tenure, he benefited from a beehive of busy strength and conditioning experts led by Craig White, he built one of the best Welsh scrums in history and one of the biggest and most physical backlines in the world. Above all, he had a trump card – a top defensive mind-motivator, in the shape of Shaun Edwards. The building of all four corners took time and patience, but those foundations lasted for most of the New Zealander’s dozen years in charge.

On Saturday against the Springboks in Cardiff, the scrum crumbled leaking five penalties, and the pedestrian Welsh attack created more try-scoring chances for South Africa than it did for the home side.

One of the most unfortunate sinkholes in Welsh attacking play from region to nation, is the lack of connectivity between backs and forwards. That always used to be a hallmark of the great Welsh sides of the 1970s, and it was the foundation of the Grand Slam-winning team of 2005. But today, they no longer produce ball-handlers of the calibre of Irishmen Tadhg Furlong, Dan Sheehan, Tadhg Beirne and Caelan Doris.

The days of Gatland’s tried-and-trusted ‘exhaust-and-stretch’ formula are long gone. Ten years ago, Gatland’s forwards would roll around in waves all the way out to one five metre line, then his huge outside backs would pick up the thread going the other way – big men with speed and power in George North, Jamie Roberts, Alex Cuthbert and Jonathan Davies, running into space.

It was an effective blueprint in its day, but times have changed, and the backs and forwards no longer have such compartmentalized roles. Wales were still in touch at 12- 9 down after half an hour, then conceded the next 40 points before picking up a consolation prize, their first try in the 73rd minute.

The floodgates opened principally because of the complete dominance of South African defence over Welsh attack. Let’s pick up the play towards the end of the first period, on second phase from a Welsh lineout. Two waves of home forwards have taken the ball slowly into midfield, with number 15 Cai Evans adding himself somewhat mysteriously to the cleanout at the second of the two rucks.

When the third wave of Welsh forwards arrives, there is no finesse, no attempt to disguise the play. Hooker Sam Parry turns his body early in the direction of the passer behind him (number 10 Sam Costelow), and that is the trigger for the Springboks backs to pour through on to the men opposite them. The Springbok edge defender (Cheslin Kolbe) has no interest in defending the last Welsh attacker, he wants to get a jump on the pass from Costelow.

The Welsh fly-half gives the ball to a man outside him (number 12 Johnny Williams) who is in a worse position to reach the free man, Tom Rogers out on the right. Williams checks back to keep himself ahead of the receiver, but when he finally goes to pass, Kolbe is still very much in the way.

That was typical of the lack of connectivity between backs and forwards, and they tended to behave as separate units with ball in hand.

One group of backs to the right, and a gaggle of forwards to the left. That makes life very easy for a defensive side as good as the Boks. When a second pass is eventually made out to the left, the Welsh forwards are ignored and wing Canan Moodie is free to zero in on the second receiver Costelow.

By the hour mark, Moodie had really got a taste for his defensive work, and it is hardly surprising he now has a shot at making the number 13 jersey his own next Saturday at Twickenham against South Africa’s most ancient of rivals, the All Blacks.

This is another backs-only move with no finesse and no attempt at disguise, and the Springbok right wing gratefully seizes on the ‘freebie’ to bag the seven-pointer.

One of the big problems with backs and forwards playing as separate units is the imbalance it creates at the breakdown.


All backs to the right and a bunch of forwards to the left, and the Wales backs are quite unable to remove a presence as powerful as Duane ‘Thor’ Vermeulen from over the top of the ball.

Moodie’s intercept was not the only South African try straight from a turnover on the ‘telegraphed’ pass.

Pieter-Steph du Toit is quite confident the ball will go to the one Welsh back (number 15 Evans) on the end of the formation and bypass the two forwards, and he is right to embrace the risk-reward matrix with the odds heavily in his favour. He knows there is little chance of Dan Lydiate (in the grey hat) receiving a pass and that leaves him free to break on the ball.

By way of contrast, one of the biggest improvements in South African play since the 2019 World Cup has been made via the integration of their forwards as ball-handlers in attack.

That is number 6 Siya Kolisi and number 2 Malcolm Marx combining outside full-back Willie Le Roux for South Africa’s first try, and number 5 RG Snyman inter-passing with Marx and scrum-half Jaden Hendrikse in the build-up to the second. It is hard indeed to imagine the current crop of Welsh forwards (with one or two honourable exceptions) achieving the same outcomes.

All three of the late coaching appointments are finding it hard going with development time in such short supply before the real action in France begins. More than one of the trio may be reconsidering the wisdom of their decision to take on the job in the first place.

The biggest issues are arising in attack. England are constrained by the Leicester-dominated coaching structure, which means no more than one phase is played before boot is put to ball from anywhere inside their own half. Jones has veered uneasily between trying to kick the ball and trying to keep it in hand with the Wallabies, and that has meant a huge turnover in personnel.

Meanwhile Gatland has struggled to move Wales forward from an era in which they dominated at scrum time and enjoyed big physical advantages in the outside backs. Right now, Wales are submissive at the set-piece and the split between backs and forwards has become minus rather than a plus.

The forwards who might have helped close the footballing gap – Justin Tipuric, Alun Wyn Jones, Cory Hill, Rhys Carre and Taulupe Faletau – have dropped out of contention for one reason or another, and it has left Wales short of genuine ball players up front.

The old Max Boyce lyrics which fêted the opening of a brand-new Millennium Stadium back in June 1999 – “We’ve got a sliding roof that they can slide away, we’ll slide it back when Wales attack, so God can watch us play” – suddenly seem a far cry away indeed.


Otagoman II 298 days ago

Thanks for the read Nb. I have not got anything to add to it. Off topic what are your thoughts about the hiding that the ABs got from SA?

Mitch 301 days ago

Hi Nick, long time reader of your work on a site you used to write for. I don't think Hamish will regret bringing Eddie back unless we have a pool stage exit which is something I'd rather not contemplate.

I appreciate there probably won't be super rugby articles for a few months but what do you think of the Reds appointing Les Kiss as their coach? It's the first time since Ewen McKenzie that the QRU have appointed an experienced coach and I hope Les Kiss has a successful tenure.

Derek Murray 301 days ago

Lots of CMA from Gatland and Borthwick to kick off their reigns. Are we buying that Gatland had "no idea" what was going on in Wlesh rugby? I'm not. Nor that Borthwick didn't have a view on where England stood before he took over.

Eddie, of course, didn't worry about any CMA, he just went straight from one line of BS to another.

As a Wallaby fan, I'm unhappy with the squad we've picked, the players booted out and the multiple changes of message in a short period of time but I'm more optimistic about our chances than English or Welsh fans have a right to be on what we've seen under their new coaches.

Tris 301 days ago

Australia, England and Wales have garnered five wins and 15 losses between them since the new men took over, a meagre 25% win-ratio.
Just put a bit more emphasis on these stats I think 3 of the wins come against each other, Wal v Eng. That leaves 2 wins in 17 or 11.8% for all other games.

Both wins against Italy for reference.

Jack 302 days ago

Nick, as an Aussie it will be interesting what happens. To be honest I think there was as much chance we would be 0-4 under Rennie as well. Last year the attack broke down even with Quade at 10 (until his injury). Wisemantel quit etc.
I always take Eddie with a grain of salt. Enjoy seeing him admit he is at least "daunted" by the challenge, But think he is probably the personality we need to draw a line in the sand with the performance of pro rugby in Aus and call it for what it is - unacceptable player, coach and junior development at all levels.
Until RA fix deep issues it doesn't matter who coaches Wallabies...they'll just keep burning great coaches (Jones, Connolly, Deans, McKenzie, Cheika, Rennie all respected, championship winning coaches all dumped after the Wallabies underperformed)

JD Kiwi 302 days ago

Great stuff Nick! It's possible for a new coach to be successful at the World Cup after starting in the second half of the cycle. Rassie and Cheika for example.

Neither of them coached their first match in World Cup year of course.

Al 302 days ago

"England are constrained by the Leicester-dominated coaching structure, which means no more than one phase is played before boot is put to ball from anywhere inside their own half."

Perhaps England will try something different against Fiji. One can only hope.

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