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FEATURE Has Eddie Jones named a squad capable of besting the Springboks?

Has Eddie Jones named a squad capable of besting the Springboks?
11 months ago

The ‘Dad’s Army’ tag is a throwaway line most often flung at ageing English cricket or rugby teams by Australians looking for a chuckle but it’s a tag that could be just as easily applied to the first Wallabies squad of Eddie Jones’ new tenure in charge.

They really will be a Dad’s Army battalion in 2023 with doting fathers Michael Hooper and James Slipper unexpectedly united as co-captains.

The push towards the Rugby World Cup in France will start with their 251 Test caps ploughed into a “very strong apex to our leadership.”

That’s the belief of coach Jones who looked into leadership models within other Australian sports to see the strategy in action. The AFL’s Sydney Swans made a grand final in 2022 with three players as co-captains.

Most will see this as more of a formal rebranding. Everyone knows Martin Johnson was a forthright captain of England’s 2003 World Cup champions but senior players like Jason Leonard, Lawrence Dallaglio and others were all “captains” in their own way.

Professional Rugby highs lows
Martin Johnson was well-supported on the road to England’s 2003 World Cup win with a host of experienced leaders in the pack. (Photo by Steve Cuff/EMPICS via Getty Images)

The fatherhood aspect to Slipper, 34, and Hooper, 31, is significant because it has shaped this last substantial push in two Test careers that span more than a decade.

Hooper unexpectedly stepped down from the captaincy and the Wallabies 11 months ago when he wasn’t mentally in the right place to be playing international rugby.

The recent father had too many things running through his mind, wanted to be with his wife and newborn, his mindset wasn’t there for Test rugby and he took a well-deserved health break.

He has rebooted and the new environment with Jones is extra help after playing Super Rugby Pacific at the NSW Waratahs free of the full-time captaincy.

“I’m thrilled about what this next four months could be (after) being unsure what my position looked like in rugby (in August, 2022),” Hooper said.

“Eddie checked in with me, particularly with my history of the last 18 months where it didn’t quite work out.

Jones has finally shed some substantial light on what he’s thinking ahead of the World Cup with his 34-man squad for Tests against South Africa (July 8) and Argentina (July 15) in the Rugby Championship.

“I can’t wait to give everything I’ve got.”

When Hooper was asked what it was like under Jones, he wryly answered that it was too early to tell with the first of potentially 12 Tests still to unfold in 2023.

“I’ve only had seven days in camp. It’s early days. Maybe ask me in November,” Hooper smiled.

“Change is good and exciting. It’s fresh and the players have trained that way by ripping in.”

Slipper recently became a first-time, nappy-changing, sleep-deprived dad of a daughter which instantly tweaked his perspective on life.

“The footy is easy,” the respected prop said with a grin, “It’s been a whirlwind last month but I’m cherishing this year. It’s a big one.”

Michael Hooper and James Slipper will jointly lead the Wallabies in 2023. (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

Jones has finally shed some substantial light on what he’s thinking ahead of the World Cup with his 34-man squad for Tests against South Africa (July 8) and Argentina (July 15) in the Rugby Championship.

One thing for sure, Jones is going to find himself a heavy-hitting, strong-running, lineout-winning No 6 if it’s the last thing the Wallabies do this year. He has five options in this squad but only needs to find one as good as World Cup-winners Willie Ofahengaue (1991) or Matt Cockbain (1999). A Scott Fardy-type cloned from his excellent 2015 World Cup would do just as well.

Jones has drafted rookies Tom Hooper, an abrasive, hard-toiling 120kg Brumby in a 1.99m frame, and the explosive Josh Kemeny, from the Melbourne Rebels, as projects to see how quickly they can excel.

Rob Leota, who had his Super Rugby Pacific season wiped by injury, is more recognisable still for his mullet than any sustained performance beyond 40 minutes in his 13 Tests.

Jed Holloway is a seasoned 30, with a knack for lineout pinching, and a late blooming positive at times during his 2022 debut season. He is the incumbent No 6 while Rob Valetini can always play there if Jones decides a juggle is needed with his number 8.

The Wallabies have had many flaws since their golden run at the 2015 World Cup when they punted hosts England from their own tournament and made the final.

While Hooper has largely been a constant at openside flanker, it’s been a bumpy backrow mix in terms of rarely creating any long-term cohesion in a trio.

One of the chief shortcomings has been the musical chairs played in the backrow and quick tease grabs at solutions with players like Caleb Timu, Lopeti Timani and Isi Naisarani.

While Hooper has largely been a constant at openside flanker, it’s been a bumpy backrow mix in terms of rarely creating any long-term cohesion in a trio.

Jones has made a statement with his locks too. He wants a beast-mode gear to his locks. Enter French-based duo Will Skelton and uncapped Richie Arnold as frontline options beside the athletic Nick Frost.

He also wants a fit Quade Cooper as his flyhalf because “he’s a different sort of player, a real competitive edge for us if he’s back to his best.” Cooper has played 76 Tests.

It’s what his mended Achilles allows him to do in the five Tests before the World Cup and the signs were promising with a jink or two and some slick passing for the Barbarians at Twickenham recently.

Quade Cooper will be back on deck for the Wallabies this year. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

His wet-behind-the-ears understudies in this squad, Carter Gordon and Ben Donaldson, have played fewer than 90 minutes of Test rugby between them.

Jones said he has the experienced Bernard Foley in his train-on squad as backup.

As predicted, Jones was coaxing better performances from Tate McDermott by leaving the sniping Queensland Reds halfback out of his first training squad.

McDermott picked up his game and has won a spot. Just as Wallabies great Will Genia recently forecast, McDermott, Nic White and uncapped Ryan Lonergan are the three halfbacks in this squad.

Taniela Tupou’s name is there. The giant prop’s comeback from a blown Achilles is set to take another step this week when he scrummages at training on the Gold Coast.

He hasn’t played a game since last November and certainly won’t play in Pretoria. It’s slow and steady for him. It does put some acid on the tighthead stocks of Allan Alaalatoa and rookie Queensland prop Zane Nonggorr, a powerful 125kg unit originally from Papua New Guinea.

There are some big names missing. There’s no James O’Connor, Harry Wilson, Darcy Swain, Jake Gordon or Noah Lolesio and lock Cadeyrn Neville is in the backup training group despite a strong Super Rugby campaign.

The Giteau Law has been replaced by a clumsy mouthful, ‘Rugby Australia’s Overseas Players Selection Policy’.

The basic translation is that Jones can select whoever he likes from overseas if he doesn’t get silly about it. He’s been given the go-ahead for five overseas-based trumps in this squad.

The towering Arnold, back in Australia after his Top 14 title deeds with Toulouse, and Skelton are back from France. Winger Marika Koroibete, centre Samu Kerevi, grounded for now with a hamstring niggle, and Cooper are in from Japan.

There are some big names missing. There’s no James O’Connor, Harry Wilson, Darcy Swain, Jake Gordon or Noah Lolesio and lock Cadeyrn Neville is in the backup training group despite a strong Super Rugby campaign.

Lachie Lonergan has missed out to the uncapped Matt Faessler as one of the three hookers.

Wallabies rookie Matt Faessler was a strong performer for the Rebels throughout 2023. (Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

Jones made more than 20 phone calls on Sunday morning, not to players who made the squad but to contenders who missed out.

He does see a depth of talent in Australian rugby. As Brumbies coach Steve Larkham wisely said recently, the hardest part is on Jones to select the right players in the right positions for the biggest bang.

A big bang is certainly what the Wallabies need in Pretoria where Jones will likely fit four genuine lineout jumpers into his pack.

“The lineout is so important against the South Africans. You’ve got to win your own ball well but also disrupt their ball so they are not winning it where they want to win it,” Jones said.

Jones’ mind is already ticking on how the remodelled Wallabies are going to step up to one of rugby’s great challenges: meeting the Springboks at high altitude.

Comments

5 Comments
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Gary 351 days ago

It would seem to me, IMO, that Jones is going for size to combat the Saffas. I'm not all that confident of a victory for the Wallaby's. At times with size you lack speed and that may come back to burn us. I'm sure the set piece will operate quite well but its the backline that I don't have confidence in. Wright does not inspire me and apart from Korobete there is not too much outright speed available. And defence is somewhat lacking with Wright at Fullback. I would hope that they go with McDermot as backup to White and that he gets a fair run. People criticise his pass but while it is not super it is not too bad and he brings lots of other flair to the game that others lack. Also hope that Cooper is fit and OK and stays on for the duration. On Hooper I have admired him for a long time but like all things time has caught up and I think his best years are behind him I would have McReight as his back up and give him a fair trot

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Nick 352 days ago

Although slipper and hooper are on the older side of things, this squad will be relatively inexperienced on the whole. Im sure the average and total number of caps will be quite low, particularly when those two players are removed from the group totals. Rennie's squad was always very green in terms of age and experience and so will this one, even with a few ring-ins. Really, the core of it will peak in 25 and 27 with the likes of tupou, bell, valetini, ikitau, frost, wright, petaia, mcdermott, lonergan, gordon paisami mostly under 25 let alone 30.

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Damien 352 days ago

Can't have 4 line out jumpers if Skelton or M Hooper is starting. 3 at best.

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