There is a time where even the well-trodden notions of ‘going back to the drawing board’, or ‘going back to square one’ do not quite do the severity of a situation justice. This is one of those times for Australian rugby.
A rusted-on Wallabies supporter would be fully entitled to wonder whether all the ultra-confident pronouncements from head coach Eddie Jones and Rugby Australia chairman Hamish McLennan over the past eight months, all the predictions of Bledisloe Cup success, potent secret plans and World Cup surprises do not equate, more simply, to leading them up the garden path instead.
The avowed ‘smash and grab raid’ has only revealed the busted flush of Australian rugby more clearly than ever before. The Wallabies were smashed by a workmanlike, but rarely inspired Wales XV, by 40 points to 6, and they never threatened at any stage to grab the win, let alone qualify for the knockout stages of the competition.
Every statement that Eddie Jones made at the post-match press conference had a more sober subtext from the recent past, with previous comments from the head coach included in brackets:
“Our performance wasn’t up to the standard required, and I apologize for that. Unfortunately, we just don’t have the consistency in our play to put pressure on teams like Wales.” [‘I’ve got no doubt we will win on Sunday’].
The head honcho was certain of Wallabies success in the build-up, but ended up apologising for a limp performance after the event. It is typical of the disjointed thinking that has characterised his second tenure. A good yarn is spun, then abandoned poste-haste:
“I came back to Australia to try and help, at the moment I am not giving much help, am I? But that doesn’t mean my commitment to help has changed… We have got to have a really good look at ourselves, to see what we need to do to improve [‘This squad is good enough to win this World Cup, and possibly go on to win the next World Cup’].
At the start of the year, the narrative was ‘possession rugby is dead’ and that was not true either. It was good enough to win Ireland the 2023 Six Nations and it won the All Blacks the Rugby Championship a few months later. After disasters in the first three games, Eddie Jones came around to that view too, and his Wallabies began to improve.
Even after the shattering loss to Warren Gatland’s Wales, Eddie Jones was still defending the lack of experience and leadership in the Australian side:
“I don’t think you can use [the lack of] experience as an excuse. Some teams become experienced really quickly. You just need a period of the game to go well and the team can change very quickly. I am not sure we can use experience as an excuse.”
Did Australia learn from their experience against Fiji? Far from allowing the players to perform within a backfield pattern which was simplified, and easy to understand, the coaching staff doubled down.
In the event, Jones’ Wallabies have cycled through no fewer than six different skippers during his eight games in charge: Michael Hooper, James Slipper, Allan Alaalatoa, Tate McDermott, Will Skelton and Dave Porecki. In the process, they have dropped or demoted most of the players with veteran quality and real maturity, like Hooper, Quade Cooper, Nic White, Bernard Foley and Jed Holloway. There has been no stability in the process of selection, and as a result there has been no stability in performance on the field.
Jones finished by claiming that “I’ve got no doubt whatsoever that what I set out to do, while it looks at the moment like a shambles, I can guarantee you it’s not.” But if Test matches do what they say on the tin, the only possible conclusion to be drawn is that the Wallabies very much are a shambles at the World Cup 2023. That is what their actual performances reveal, when all the cover stories are peeled away to show the skull beneath the skin.
In a previous article written after the loss to Fiji in the prior round, I illustrated the unstable structure of the Wallaby backfield defence, with Carter Gordon positioned underneath most of the Fijian box-kicks and the nominal fullback Ben Donaldson away from the ball in midfield. It cost Australia the game-winning try and it left Gordon’s confidence in bits, which meant he could not be selected in the run-on side to play the Welsh. Ben Donaldson was picked to start instead.
Did Australia learn from their experience against Fiji? Far from allowing the players to perform within a backfield pattern which was simplified, and easy to understand, the coaching staff doubled down, making it more complicated and ensuring that players would experience maximum difficulty in operating it. It did for Ben Donaldson just as it did for Carter Gordon, and some of the permutations had to be seen to be believed. ‘Bewildering’ is too polite a word for it.
This applied particularly to the Wallabies defence at Welsh attacking lineouts. Here is the first one in only the opening minute of the game:
The nominal left wing (“1” Marika Koroibete) is defending on the right, with the fullback Andrew Kellaway (“2”) outside him and Mark Nawaqanitawase at fullback (“3”). It was an uncomfortable reminder of the ‘musical chairs’ formula used by Michael Cheika’s Wallabies of 2015-2019, with a dedicated open-side wing having to do twice the work of the man on the other side. Confused? You will be.
Wales immediately put their plan of stripping away the protection afforded to Ben Donaldson in the No 10 channel into action:
The short ball from Wales’ inside centre Nick Tompkins to George North is designed to get Australia’s No 12 Samu Kerevi facing out, and develop the distance between him and Donaldson on his inside. The real point was fully unveiled only a couple of minutes later:
On this occasion, Koroibete is again the open-side wing, defending on the left, and Wales have adopted the same attacking formation as in the first clip, with two potential receivers for the ‘point man’ Tompkins – North on his outer and No 7 Jac Morgan on his inside. In this instance, Kerevi fully commits to his Welsh opposite number and it leaves Morgan with an easy task to beat Donaldson one-on-one. At the instant the Welsh skipper receives the pass, Donaldson is still moving sideways and in no position to attempt a tackle. Scrumhalf Gareth Davies duly finished off the move underneath the posts.
It did nothing for the Australian pivot’s confidence. The New South Wales man fumbled on one exit, threw the ball straight to a Welsh defender after making the initial break, and propelled a restart straight into touch on the full. The baffling switches in the Wallabies backfield also did him no favours at all:
Donaldson is left as exposed as Carter Gordon was against Fiji under the high ball, and Wales’ Josh Adams dispossesses him easily in the aerial contest. The disjointed thinking in backfield defence became plainly obvious at the start of the second period:
It is another Welsh attacking lineout, and in this instance right wing Nawaqanitawase has been inserted in the 10 channel, with scrumhalf McDermott guarding the far right and Kellaway the far left. All three are highlighted, and the formation asks the unsubtle question, ‘who will be defending the backfield as the phases mount’? The to-ings and fro-ings steadily stripped the Wallabies last line of its much-needed protection:
Nawaqanitawase is working his way back to his natural spot, McDermott is still far right and Kellaway is still on the left. A couple of phases later, the middle was left completely untenanted:
Kellaway is running back to the left, so someone – either McDermott or Nawaqanitawase – must rotate into the middle to cover the area between the front line and the in-goal area. It is ‘Defence 101’, but nobody takes responsibility and Welsh No 10 Gareth Anscombe is far too smart a footballer to ignore such an open invitation.
It was unfortunately typical of both the bewildering backfield permutations throughout the game, and the way in which Australian coaching throughout the tournament (and in the five matches before it) has not helped the players to extract the optimal return from their athletic ability. Quite the opposite.
One final epigraph on the same headstone:
On this occasion Marika Koroibete is not trying to act as a right wing, but defending as a fullback instead! He is slightly short of covering the full width of the field out to the Australian right, but still manages to haul down Adams just short of the goal-line to prevent another score for the men in red.
Only a few days ago, in one of his latest pronouncements Eddie Jones claimed the building of a team capable of bringing home ‘Bill’ took as long as six years, or one-and-a-half Word Cup cycles. To expect to be able somehow, to compress that cycle into only nine matches over eight months is surely the height of folly.
‘Fast Eddie’ had his finger on the trigger and he has pulled it far too readily for his own good. He has run through a bewildering array of narratives, coaching ideas, and most importantly people – coaches, players and captains – at full ramming speed, and he has worn out everyone in the process. Now he finds himself sitting high and dry, alongside those who have supported his media agenda so uncritically over the past few months.
The exorcism of all the veteran leadership in the playing group, especially the likes of Quade Cooper and Michael Hooper, left young players in key positions short of guidance when they most needed it. Some of the game-planning and tactical structures have made sure their weaknesses would be exposed.
There is nowhere else to turn, no more excuses to make. It is a shambles. No more pretence, no more stories – accept the rubble around you, and look at the ruins until it hurts. Then, and only then will you be able to rebuild.