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FEATURE Why the Wallabies were always destined to fail

Why the Wallabies were always destined to fail
7 months ago

Eddie Jones has finally fallen on his sword and resigned as the head coach of the Wallabies. It would be a stretch to call it the honourable way out for a man posting only two wins in nine attempts in a World Cup year, but the notion of honourable action in Australian rugby packed its bags and headed for the hills a long, long time ago.

Jones’ background refrain had been an acceptance of ‘full responsibility for performances on the field’, but increasingly it has sounded like a siren-song, pulling the genuine, but unwary supporter of Aussie rugby into shore, only to be dashed on the rocks of a subtle shifting of the blame.

At the Coogee homecoming presser after Australia’s inglorious World Cup exit, it was very much the system to blame:

“You’ve got a team that was struggling for a period of time, you’ve got underneath it a system that’s not supporting it and at some stage you bottom out.”

Two days before Jones resigned, he was still selling the same story:

“Look, I take responsibility for the bad results. But I don’t take responsibility for 20 years of decline of Australian rugby. And that’s what’s trying to be pinned on me: 20 years of decline.”

Eddie Jones, Head Coach of Australia, speaks to the media prior to the Rugby World Cup France 2023 match between Australia and Portugal at Stade Geoffroy-Guichard on October 01, 2023 in Saint-Etienne, France. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

It had all been so different at the beginning of 2023. RA chairman Hamish McLennan could scarcely contain his glee at scoring the ‘coup of the year’ by hiring Jones just after he had been sacked by the RFU. There was nothing to restrict his employment back home:

“When we heard there was a non-compete [clause], we said: ‘Really?’

“There is no way I wanted someone like Eddie to go to one of my big competitors.

“His global knowledge of the game and our opposing sides is second to none. We didn’t want a rampaging Eddie on the loose.”

Eddie was going to give the All Blacks a bit of hurry-up in the Bledisloe and Australia stood a great chance of winning the World Cup. Only three weeks before the World Cup in France began, with Australia having failed to chalk up a single ‘W’ in the first four matches of the new Eddie Jones era, McLennan was still doubling down on his big gamble:

“He’s an excellent coach, he’s one of the world’s best coaches. He’s got three teams into the final of the World Cup, a 73 per cent win-rate with England, anyone who goes against Eddie is foolish.”

What was the underlying issue behind Australia’s dismal performance at the 2023 World Cup? In a phrase, ‘lack of experience’.

By the time the Wallabies had been routed by Wales in their key Pool C game, 40 points to 6, both men had been proven as wrong as it is possible to be in their rugby judgements. It mattered not one whit. McLennan again, upon return to Australian shores:

“I think we are better than we were three years ago, even though the World Cup performance was terrible… We inherited a bit of a burning mess.

“Whether Eddie was the right call or not, I think that’s almost irrelevant now – because the system’s broken, and we need to fix it.”

As an exercise in passing the buck or burying your head in the sand, that was as masterful as it gets.

What was the underlying issue behind Australia’s dismal performance at the 2023 World Cup? In a phrase, ‘lack of experience’. Although he has been three years in the job as RA chairman, Hamish McLennan has no previous rugby experience – his background is in digital advertising and the media, and he was an executive vice-president at Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation.

Eddie Jones is perhaps the most experienced elite-level head coach in the world, but much more attention needed to be paid to the group of assistant coaches he would be able to recruit to work with him before he was hired. One of the main reasons for Jones losing his job with England was the deterioration of his support staff after the tournament in Japan. After the high watermark of reaching the 2019 World Cup final, all of John Mitchell, Scott Wisemantel and Steve Borthwick fell by the wayside, one by one, and their replacements were never of the same calibre.

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Former Wallabies coach Dave Rennie and assistant Dan McKellar at Wallabies training. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Dave Rennie’s excellent support group scattered like alarmed seagulls on an MCG cricketing outfield after Jones’ arrival: Wisemantel withdrew into the shadows of casual consultancy, Laurie Fisher bounced back to the Brumbies, and Dan McKellar took up a plum role as the head coach of Leicester Tigers in England.

Eddie was left trying to fit square pegs into round holes: Dan Palmer (a scrum coach) overseeing the lineout, Brad Davis (a defence coach) directing the attack; a French defensive expert (Pierre-Henri Broncan) coaching the maul. There was a league specialist (Brett Hodgson) doing defence against the background of a short tenure as kicking coach at the Sale Sharks in the north of England. Davis then left the group unexpectedly, only a fortnight before the tournament was due to start. You did not need to look further than that to observe a burning mess, a volcano primed to explode.

If there was one item that Eddie Jones needed on his World Cup selection menu, it was some wise old heads in the playing group. In early Wallabies training sessions, the likes of Allan Ala’alatoa, James Slipper, Jed Holloway and Michael Hooper were identified as forward leaders, along with Nic White and Andrew Kellaway in the backline. Quade Cooper may have been missing from the snapshots taken at the time, but he had been earmarked as a part of that group.

By the end of the World Cup, Jones had burned his way through six skippers – Hooper, Slipper, Ala’alatoa, Tate McDermott, Will Skelton and Dave Porecki – and all of the leadership group had dropped from sight. Ala’alatoa was injured, Slipper and White were relegated to bench duty, while Hooper, Cooper and Holloway were all left out of the World Cup squad entirely. Despite a succession of top-quality performances, Kellaway was reduced to playing musical chairs with Ben Donaldson for possession of the No 15 jersey.

The host of young Wallabies Jones had assembled had no shoulder to lean on, and no words of sage advice to trust.

Australia were never going to be good enough to establish a clear ascendancy over either Wales or Fiji in Pool C, and they badly needed that veteran leadership to push them through the sticky moments that would undoubtedly occur in those key games. But when they arrived, the host of young Wallabies Jones had assembled had no shoulder to lean on, and no words of sage advice to trust.

Some picks were never explained or justified by performances out on the paddock. Five-cap Pone Fa’amausili was selected as one of three tightheads for the tournament, despite spending the entire Super Rugby Pacific season for his club the Melbourne Rebels sitting behind Sam Talakai on the bench. The Rebels’ coaching staff clearly understood Fa’amausili was not ready for SRP scrums, let alone Test-matches, but Eddie knew better.

Jones’ chickens came home to roost versus Wales in the crucial Pool C decider. The shift of 131-cap James Slipper across to the starting tighthead berth was well-founded, and Australia won two of the three scrum penalties awarded with him on the field in the first period:

 

 

It is basically a case of ‘rinse-and-repeat’ at both set-pieces. As soon as his opponent Gareth Thomas tries to move up the side of the scrum, Slipper feels it and drills straight through the seam between the loosehead and his hooker. Penalty Australia.

But when Slipper was replaced by Fa’amausili in the second half, all the advantage at scrum-time that Slipper had carefully nurtured was casually thrown away. Before the game, the Wallabies scrum coach Neal Hatley had attempted to justify Fa’aumasili’s selection: “He is our most improved player. For a guy who didn’t start regularly for the Rebels, to be doing what he’s doing at the moment – it’s phenomenal.” Like so many media utterances of the comeback era, it fell on stony ground when it mattered. Against Fa’amausili, Gareth Thomas suddenly started to look like a world-beater:

 

 

On both occasions, the Melbourne giant is too high to be able to deliver the same kind of impact as Slipper, and Thomas burrows underneath his right shoulder to drive the scrum forward and draw the penalty. Australia lost the scrum penalty count 4-0 (including one free-kick) with Fa’amausili on for Slipper, and we know just how important scrum penalties were in the critical games of the World Cup 2023.

Likewise, Eddie Jones’ faith in Rory Arnold’s twin brother Richie was never explained or justified by performances out on the field. It may be impossible tell them apart on the paddock by looks alone, but their output is chalk-and cheese: Rory is one of the premier lineout players and maul-stoppers in the world, but his brother never provided the necessary starch in lineout defence:

 

 

The most basic tenet of maul defence is that you begin by positioning your best maul-stopper opposite the receiver, so that he can infiltrate through the middle of the blocking front. That is where Rory – and others like Jed Holloway – excel, but Richie was lost out on the edge – a peripheral rather than an influential figure. In both cases, the Wallabies No 5 and Australia’s biggest man, is nowhere near the thick of the action, but taking a ride along the side of the drive.

It all ended with the Wallabies conceding a close-range try against one of the most moderate tight fives fielded during Warren Gatland’s dozen years in charge of Wales:

 

There is no Gethin Jenkins, no Adam Jones and Alun-Wyn Jones involved in this lineout surge, but Wales do not need them. You had to rub your eyes just to believe it was really happening.

Perhaps the most eloquent comment after the event came from the voice of Wallabies outside-half Bernard Foley on Twitter [now ‘X’]: “It didn’t have to be like this!” Indeed it did not. The most damning aspect of Australia’s entire 2023 World Cup was an abandonment of the value of experience and proven leadership which was well-nigh inexplicable.

Hamish McLennan had no ‘previous’, no prior rugby background, and Eddie Jones’ own extensive experience was fatally compromised by a glaring lack of the same quality in his raft of support coaches. Jones then compounded the problem by shearing away all the experienced leadership in the World Cup playing group. It was like cutting the head off Australia’s on-field IQ. The Wallabies were playing ‘blind’, and when Eddie finally swung around to debating the issue (indirectly) with Quade Cooper he lost the argument hands-down.

In reply to Eddie’s comment that the likes of Cooper and Michael Hooper “…were [not] the right role models for the team going forward. You need guys… who are obsessed with winning, obsessed with being good, and those three are past those stages”, Quade eloquently reminded Eddie of the priority of ‘process’ over ‘obsession’:

“The way I view winning and success is through preparation. No outcome is guaranteed, but what you can guarantee is the work and preparation you put in. You know that you have given yourself and your team the best possible opportunity to win…

“Confidence does not come from knowing the outcome; it comes from knowing that you’ve done the work, and you will have your own back regardless of the outcome.”

There could be more fitting epitaph for Eddie Jones’ second coming as coach of his homeland. The knee-jerk jump to grab him after he left England, the hastily-assembled, undercooked coaching panel chosen to support him, the stream of false media narratives that accompanied his 10 months in charge, all spoke to the same lack of thoroughness in preparation, and an absence of respect for Process. Nobody did the real work that was required. For the time being at least, that has cost the Wallabies the respect of the entire rugby world outside Australia.

Comments

147 Comments
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Lionel 217 days ago

More of the same narrative. No context and few facts required - we have our villans, lets destroy them.

Welcome to Australian rugby - this is our main game now, character assassination.

Wisemantle left Rennies sinking ship, not Jones. In fact he came back to help Eddie asap as a consultant, after he left Rennie.

Slipper replaced our (only) two injured tight heads. Clearly Pone, wasn't ready - but who do you recommend? And why was there zero depth. Why do we have no international standard hooker? For all his apparent wisdom and preparation, Quade literally dropped the ball and the game against the AB’S when it mattered in NZ - is that what we are looking for?

I'm no apologist for Eddie or anyone else - clearly mistakes were made, some serious - but pretending everything was somehow on track before he got there is just silly nonsense.

Do you really disagree with what Eddie has to say about Aus rugby?

Do you really disagree with Hamish and Phils Centralisation push? Or that the RWC27 and the financial rescue from insolvency are not achievements?

It doesn't matter does it? Because we have our villans and they must be destroyed.

Aus rugby is not at rock bottom at all. And every time this kind of vindictive storyline is perpetuated, the bottom gets deeper and deeper.

c
cs 218 days ago

Excellent analysis as ever Nick. The further we get away from it, the worse it all looks. Don't believe Hamish can survive given it was largely his handiwork. Drove the Oz game straight over the cliff on the basis of what now seems to have been little more than a p/r bee in his bonnet. It is not as if there were no critics at the time. Just have to pray we don’t lose Marky to boot.

Woe.

D
Derek Murray 220 days ago

Please, make it stop. SR was just kicking off a professional, coordinated social media blitz with squads (decent ones) announced together with matched formatting. And you remind us again of the dire state of our Wallabies.

“…that has cost the Wallabies the respect of the entire rugby world outside Australia.” What makes you think there is any respect inside Australia?

We’re toast and, like the gift that just keeps giving, we read today that the NRL club from whom we signed Joseph Sua’alii at a massively inflated price for clicks, is talking to Mark Nawaqanitawase.

Eddie, thanks for a job well done. Best of luck in your next role, whatever that might be. Wink wink nudge nudge

d
d 222 days ago

Hi Nick, thanks for the article. Hard not to be furious with the way this has been handled here in OZ. Any ideas on the next steps? Who should coach us? Who would actually be a possibility and how do you find a decent chairman?!

PS I only just found your articles here after reading your roar articles and wondering where you went

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paul 222 days ago

Mclennan needs to go as well as all the self supporting old and new private school boys. Go to the sports high schools for your talent.

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Chris 222 days ago

Rennie was slowly building a good team only for McLennan to stuff everything up. He needs to go!

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Guest 222 days ago

Yes, Nick, I feel humbled by the fact I was actually quite excited about Eddie coming on board earlier this yeah, my faith in him and denial may have overlapped for long stretches of his tenure. I understand the point that most top quality coaches were locked away with other projects leading up to a WC but if you’re going to bring in coaches who are available at least having them specialise in their area may have been a better idea, I reckon we would have done a lot better had even just Palmer been looking after the scrum and Broncan the D.

This “20 years of bad management” defence of his is amusing. We’re not in great shape of the field but many other unions are in either as bad or possible worse straits than we are, looking at your compatriots Mr. B with the contract freezes/threats of player strikes/talks of losing a region, yet we were still absolutely shellacked on field.

Just a very quick aside, I’ve seen on other Aussie rugby forums (the “other place” I have heard it referred to around here) people asking why McKellar would want to come back from his “cushy” job in the premiership, you also referred to it as “plum” I would have thought, granted as very much an outsider looking in, that a head coaching gig in the Premiership would bring extreme pressure with it? Especially Leicester who have been rather successful the past few years and McKellar having to fill Borthwick’s sizeable shoes.

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Sumkunn Tsadmiova 223 days ago

The most important factor is very simple. Rugby union is the 4th winter sport (by a fair distance) in Oz. Participation is broadly limited to private schools, some universities and a sprinkling of clubs in the Brisbane and Sydney environs. That they won 2 of the first 4 WC’s is an amazing anomaly, mainly due to a couple of successive generations of talent like Ella, Campese, Lynagh rapidly followed by Eales, Horan and many others. A phenomenal production line from a very small factory.

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Nickers 223 days ago

Australia were never going to win this world cup. They needed an experienced team who could beat Fiji to give them the best chance of getting to the QFs, knowing their opponent would be someone beatable, rather than one of the big 4. They had the players to sneak through to the semis the same way England did. Rennie and co were in a great position to orchestrate something like this, or at the very least get through to the QFs.

To start a complete rebuild 9 games out from a World Cup was the dumbest move in the history of dumb moves. I don’t know if this was some kind of moneyball stats driven squad but it was as close to sabotage as you could get. Distinct lack of quality across virtually every position, combined with lack of experience and cohesion. It was a recipe for exactly what happened.

England were not great to watch, but they had an experienced team with some quality players, and a simple game plan. Exactly what Australia could have taken in.

You cannot blame Eddie Jones for being Eddie Jones. McLennan and the whole board on the other hand should take their leave. They pointed the car at the edge of the cliff and drove off. They then believed Eddie on the way the down that the car could fly. You don’t need to be a an aeronautical engineer to know a car is not a plane. You only need a small amount of common sense and judgement. It’s not McLennan’s lack of rugby background that caused this disaster, it’s his lack of common sense and judgement.

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Ardy 223 days ago

Thanks Nick, I, like many I guess had this feeling of impending doom but many were excited about the promises and general enthusiasm. Leaving behind Cooper, Holloway and I thought Pete Samu would be a useful addition to the squad.
I suspect his early interview where he stated he was only here for the WC win or loose he’d be gone and I think that is the only truth the little bastard ever stated.
He’s always been all about Eddie and little else.

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