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FEATURE Why Eddie Jones' doomed Wallabies keep repeating history

Why Eddie Jones' doomed Wallabies keep repeating history
10 months ago

“I’m old – not obsolete” protests Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator, reprogrammed to defend the hero against a newer, more sophisticated model in the Hollywood blockbuster sequel Terminator: Genisys. Australian rugby supporters everywhere, including Rugby Australia’s CEO Hamish McLennan must be wondering which one of the two best describes Eddie Jones after the Wallabies’ second-round loss to Argentina at the CommBank Stadium in Parramatta.

Big Arnie was five years older than Jones when he made that movie but the underlying question is no joke. McLennan hired Jones with unholy haste after he walked out of the gates of England’s Twickenham HQ for the final time last December, and he dumped Dave Rennie abruptly in order to do it.

Now Rennie’s 2021-2022 record of three wins out of four against both of Australia’s first two opponents in this year’s Rugby Championship is looking very tidy by contrast. The chickens may come home to roost with a vengeance unless Jones can turn things around dramatically in the Bledisloe Cup double-header at the end of the month.

A winless preparation for the World Cup will do Australian confidence no good all, whatever crumbs of comfort may be drawn from the relative weakness of the Wallabies’ group at the World Cup itself.

Tom Wright of the Wallabies (C) looks on following The Rugby Championship match between the Australia Wallabies and Argentina at CommBank Stadium on July 15, 2023 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Scott Gardiner/Getty Images)

It is doubtful that Eddie’s post-match comments will inspire much confidence either. In the aftermath of the 34-31 defeat to the Pumas, he told the assembled press:

“I’ve come here to get the team ready for the World Cup. Ideally, we would have won every game we’ve played, but that hasn’t happened, and it might not happen. We’re getting the team ready for the World Cup…

“We’ve changed the teams and we have tried to change the way we play, so it’s a double whammy.

“It would have been easy if I come in, pared everything back and played a really simple game, but that’s not going to win us a World Cup.

“We need to be able to play [in] a number of different ways, and we need an attack that’s unpredictable to the opposition – which at the moment is unpredictable to us, too. So, our attack is beating us and letting the opposition win, but we’ll get that right.”

The deeper you dig, the worse it gets. Remember Eddie’s caustic criticism of ‘possession rugby’?

So much for those of us who thought that the Wallabies’ game-plan was already simple – kick-first-and-think later, three-and-out football. The narrative has changed overnight, and now Eddie’s charges are looking for unpredictability and variety on attack. Confused? You will be.

The main problem at Loftus Versfeld was that Australia kept giving the ball to South Africa, mostly via the kicking game, and the Springboks had no intention of returning the favour.

Now, look at the following basic stats from the game in Paramatta:

  • Argentina enjoyed 62 per cent of possession and 65 per cent of territory. The Pumas held the ball for eight and half minutes in the Australian red zone (22-metre area), four times more than the Wallabies.
  • Argentina built twice the number of rucks (116 to Australia’s 55), forcing their opponents to make 200 tackles in the process.
  • The Pumas won the penalty count by 14 penalties to 10. The Wallabies have now conceded 27 penalties in two matches, more than twice the number given up by the opposition (13).
Quade Cooper of the Wallabies in action during The Rugby Championship match between the Australia Wallabies and Argentina at CommBank Stadium on July 15, 2023 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

The deeper you dig, the worse it gets. Remember Eddie’s caustic criticism of ‘possession rugby’? The Pumas had moved past four phases of attack on nine separate occasions before Australia finally screwed their courage to the sticking point, and followed suit in the 50th minute of the game. The Wallabies kept the ball for eleven phases, won a couple of penalties, and that built the pressure which led to Nic White’s try from a five-metre scrum three minutes later.

By then, Argentina had already kept the pill for a total of 71 phases and enjoyed over 10 minutes of active possession time. They had won three penalties, scored two tries and forced two goal-line drop-outs which allowed them to start all over again on attack. By the end of the match, they had achieved eight positive outcomes out of 12, keeping the ball for 96 phases and just under 14 minutes of live possession time. That represented a winning situation for Argentina.

There were positives seeded throughout the game for Australia: the invigorating return of ‘Marky Mark’ Nawaqanitawase on the right wing and Angus Bell at prop; the formidable early power and purpose of the Wallabies scrum and maul, driven by the tighthead combination of Allan Alaalatoa and Will Skelton; the increased number of involvements for Marika Koroibete and Samu Kerevi on the carry. Australia only kicked the ball away 13 times, down from 32 in Pretoria, so why didn’t they enjoy more of the ball? What stopped the seeds from flowering into full-blown blooms on attack?

Where Argentina lost the ball at only one ruck of the 119 they set, the men in green-and-gold lost it to pilfers at seven of their 55 breakdowns. Up until the 65th minute of the game, they coughed up the ball within three phases of play on eight different possessions.

It is their coach’s apparent lack of faith in possession rugby which is killing the Wallabies, and they are not building any self-belief in that area of the game. The great Australian ball-retention tradition – of which Eddie Jones himself was so very much a part in the early noughties – is being avidly dismantled. This is not ‘the Australian way’ as we know it.

Let’s pick up the thread in the third quarter:

Samu Kerevi receives the ball on a typical first-phase barge up the middle from lineout – so far, so good. On second phase, the Wallabies try to run a move which was last fore-fronted on the international stage by a spectacular try scored by Ireland against France in the 2023 Six Nations:

Ireland No 8 Caelan Doris brings the ball into midfield, and scrumhalf Conor Murray drags the defence away to the short-side before Hugo Keenan rampages straight up the middle off the in-pass. When Australia essays a version of the same move, Allan Alaalatoa is pulled up for an obvious tug of jersey as he goes to lever open the path for Jed Holloway.

That was typical of Australian inaccuracy in contact.


The Wallabies win a great ball at the tail of the lineout from Rob Valetini, but Dave Porecki’s poor pass means that Quade Cooper has to be the primary cleanout support at the first ruck. Valetini rescues the situation on second phase with a storming run which produces lightning-quick ball. Freeze that moment in your mind: Australia now has the attacking picture that it wants – the potential for a full back-line assault ranging left, against a mix of regrouping Pumas forwards and backs.

But when Carter Gordon chooses to check back inside, the entire enterprise falls apart, because it forces Quade to become the main cleanout support for the second time in the sequence. It is an unequal contest: a No 10 against two Argentine tight forwards, lock Matías Alemmanno and prop Thomas Gallo – and the Pumas duly win the turnover penalty.

It is hard to shake the feeling that there is no commitment to the cleanout because it is third phase, and the Wallaby attitude – stored away somewhere in the subconscious – is that the backs must land a big punch. Everyone stays out in the line, waiting for the scoring pass.

The outcome was far too much lassitude and imprecision at the breakdown:

In the first clip, nobody recognises the need to commit an extra body to the cleanout once Marika Koroibete has been held up, and both Jed Holloway and Dave Porecki have been ‘spent’ clearing away the debris. It is left to Nic White to try and clear up the mess at the base under pressure from Argentina’s strongest pilferer of the ball, hooker Julián Montoya.

Quade Cooper is also consumed in the re-ruck over the top of White, leaving Australia short of numbers in the line on the following phase. The ball is spun wide regardless, in order to force the ‘strike’ play over the line – it is third phase, after all – and the Wallabies are again outnumbered at the next tackle, resulting inevitably in a turnover penalty for Pablo Matera.

The final straw that broke the camel’s back was Australia’s longest attacking sequence of the whole match, an 11-phase lineout attack at the beginning of the fourth quarter with the game still in the balance at 20-17. It started at a position just inside the Argentine 22 and advanced all the way to the 5-metre line, only for the same characteristic impatience and inaccuracies to re-surface after some stout Argentine defence pushed the Wallabies back to their start-line:


Tom Wright is held up above ground, and Cooper commits as the first cleanout; Nic White is again exposed at the base and bouldered off the ball, and Marika Koroibete goes back with his dustpan and brush to start from scratch. All the momentum has been lost and a mistake duly followed two phases later, with Porecki knocking on a pass from Allan Alaalatoa.

As Matera raised his arms aloft in triumph and a chorus of boos rumbled around the stadium like low thunder, the Stan Sport commentary team called it ‘a benchmark sequence of defence from Argentina’. More importantly, it was a grim touchstone of where the Wallabies attack is at present – looking to carve out a living so very far from its historical roots.

What Eddie Jones really wants from his ‘smash and grab raid’ at the World Cup is becoming murkier, not clearer with every passing Rugby Championship encounter. There was a hint of desperation in his comments at the post-match presser:

“In the first two games we’ve score two super tries, early in the game. We’ve moved the ball with fluency and quickly – it’s how we want to play. But we’re not able to sustain that at the moment.

“While it seems like doom and gloom at the moment, it’s not. Beating inside is fair bit of optimism that we’ll be able to change fairly quickly – in the next couple of weeks.

“If I was the All Blacks, I’d look out.”

Historically, Australia has always made hay in the sunshine of keep-ball, but the tools that make it work take time to forge – longer than a couple of weeks, for sure.

What the essence of that game can be remains a mystery. In the first game Eddie wanted kicking, and a lot of it. In Parramatta, the Wallabies kicked 19 times less than they did at Loftus, but found they were unable to hang on to the pill as well as either they wanted to – or as well as their opponents. Argentina generated only four clean breaks over 119 phases, while the Wallabies created seven in 55, but it was the Pumas who enjoyed more control of proceedings.

So where do the Wallabies go from here? They don’t do either the kick or the chase elements of kick-and-chase particularly well. When they try to strike within three phases with ball in hand, they become impatient and lose shape and focus in the contact area. There is an awfully long road to travel in such a short time.

Whatever they do, the Wallabies must find a way into the argument over territory and possession. They are currently conceding two-thirds of both to their opponents. They have made twice as many tackles and they have given up twice as many penalties in the process. Possession footy may be an old formula, but it is certainly not obsolete.

Historically, Australia has always made hay in the sunshine of keep-ball, but the tools that make it work take time to forge – longer than a couple of weeks, for sure. The All Blacks are highly unlikely to give Eddie’s charges any quarter on their journey of discovery, or rather rediscovery at the end of the month. Now, it is up to him to defend the Wallabies faith against newer models all around the world. If there is indeed a beating heart of optimism in there somewhere, now is the time to show it.


Wallabies_Larkham 331 days ago

Dave Porecki has been making mistakes over the last two games like leaving a defensive line to spot tackle Andre the giant and miss tackle, running from ruck to ruck without attempting to slow down the ball or pilfer which appears not one of his strengths, missing another tackle on a Los pumas player leading to try. He got turned over 3 metres from the tryline in a maul after Peyper said he need to let it go but responded slow. It is time to try out Matt Faessler or Lachie L.

Wallabies_Larkham 331 days ago

Hi Nick, i think Eddie J is experimenting with a game plan to see how staunchy our defence is. That is why you see the numbers for possession is dwindling and he certainly has a neck for finding his way two a WC final. Those clips of Quadie cleaning out reminded me of Master Sexton doing a lot of the same thing against the Red Dagons under Joe Schimdt in the one of the games.

Otagoman II 331 days ago

Cheers NB, one aspect you have spotted here is the reluctance to secure the ball or the committing of inside backs to the breakdown at different times. Contrast that with the ABs. I saw Smith and Mo'unga go in to clean to ensure the ball is secure and readily available. The high tempo in the first 20 at moments needed that commitment but it also came with top level accuracy in the multi phase movement that give SA no chance.

Flankly 332 days ago

Agree with Eddie's observation that he could have simply come in and implemented a simple game plan. Of course he knows how to do that. The result would no doubt have been a competitive team but not a brilliant one.

Australia opted for a coach that was guaranteed to implement an unconventional plan, as England did before them. The problem is that a plan like this will always take time to work, and in the meantime it is indistinguishable from failure.

So it is not surprising that Australia is still finding their rhythm, and it is predictable that the rugby public is unimpressed. What is not clear is whether Eddie is building something extraordinary, or is building a new fangled plane that will never fly.

Without deep insight into his thinking, the only way we can figure it out is to give him enough time to succeed or fail. England got impatient. Maybe Australia will too.

My gut says he is onto something. Hope they give him enough runway to prove it.

dan 332 days ago

At least it wasn’t as bad as the last time we played Argentina - a 48-17 loss. The problem is expectations and time. I thought the set piece was much improved. But the rucks are a mess. Expect our game will evolve as we redress this area. Bell, Topou and Hooper will improve the forward play. Need to give Skelton more ball to smash through the defence /gainline but I thought he looked more assured in defence this week. I thought our defence was much better than last week but still exposed on the hop. Some decisions around the ball were poor but this will get better too. So many moving parts to a rugby game but we will have a clearer idea about the Wallabies after two games against the ABs.

Dean 332 days ago

Great read Nick and thank you for such an eloquent summation of the challenges facing the Wallabies and the confusion facing both the players and us fans.

Broken Shoulder 332 days ago

G’day Nick and thanks for another article. Starting to get a nice flavour over on these pages with some old faces popping up! It was interesting to hear Lord Laurie’s comments but he essentially said what we’ve all been thinking. The group is playing poorly and looks confused because, well, they are. New head coach, new coaching staff, defence coach who has never played or coached union before, new game plan and all after only 2 matches together.

There’s no point playing the low possession/territory game if your discipline without the ball is poor and you cannot pilfer and turn opposition ball over. Between Brett and Highlander I’ve realised we’ve been penalised twice as much as our opponents whilst stealing opposition ball the least. That just won’t work.

cs 332 days ago

Thanks Nick. Wouldn't want to argue with a word.

So good to see Marky back to his tour form in being fully involved in the game, after he was effectively (and weirdly) starved of the ball during most of the Tah season.

It was also a much better game to watch than last week. Didn't Philips look hungry or what?

Thought Quade actually took on the role as playmaker for a while in the second half, at least. During the first half, I counted three touches by the 10. I'd like to see some analysis of the way our halves are working, when you have the opportunity.

P.S. One obvious thing the other place has over Rugbypass (Eddie should study that concept) is a more friendly comments facility.

Tom 332 days ago

Looking at these clips and analysis Nick gives the impression that Eddie is trying to get the Wallabies to play more of a rugby league style (reflected in his comments and expressed biases elsewhere too). Clearly rugby league learnings have a place in union , but it seems in this instance it still looks like forcing a model that is ill-fitting. Maybe that fit comes with time (which the WBs don't have)...
I'd be curious to know how the England play changed over the first period of Eddie coaching/ how quick and pronounced the transition was there, or for that matter, how the transformation in the French national team took place (no doubt over longer than a few months!) from high to low possession (I suppose there were always happy scoring from unstructured play)
I also saw some stats from pre 2022 about how even though NZ don't play with much possession comparative to other nations, when they do have high position games, they score more points than any other team. Not sure if that still stands. Could be a punishing result in the Bledisloe in light of this, unless as Eddie is hoping there is a catalysing moment leading to coalescence--but this very notion seems to fly in the face of the coherence doctrine, which is about time spent learning through subconscious and predictive modes of perception, not banking on serendipity...

Tim 332 days ago

G’day and I hope that you and the family are doing well Sir Nick.
This is the one and only Mad Kiwi, but I have had a name change.
When a coach does not understand what game plan he wants then the players have no chance to believe in the system.
The ABs showed in the first 20 minutes against the Boks that possession is just as important now as it has always been.
Eddie is getting the Wallabies to play an England style of game which does not suit them, they been coached to play a more open style of game with good structures.

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