Ahead of the first Bledisloe Cup clash of 2023, Planet Rugby picks out five things Eddie Jones needs to fix in the Wallabies game as they build to the Rugby World Cup and possibly upset the All Blacks this weekend.
With two losses, one in the dying moments, in the Rugby Championship, Jones’ return to his native Australia has been more funfair than fanfare, with the usual throwaway lines in press conferences.
Jones analogised Aussie rugby union to running his old Nissan 1200; “One day you fix the handbrake and the next day the windscreen wipers are bust,” he quipped.
But with the Rugby World Cup approaching and a distinct lack of performances to back up the consistently bullish Jones rhetoric, what needs to change to ensure a robust and worthy performance to justify Eddie’s faith in his charges?
Get the stars fit and firing
The Wallabies have always made the most of a relatively small playing pool based upon three professional teams. They have a similar resource to that of Scotland or Italy, yet punch way above their weight.
When Australia produces a world-class player, they tend to be right at the top of the game. In the current mix are the likes of Will Skelton, Taniela Tupou, Samu Kerevi, and Michael Hooper, all proven Test match stars when fit and firing.
In the case of Skelton, it’s getting him to transfer his Top 14 form with La Rochelle into Test rugby. Bluntly he’s looked tired, struggled with altitude in Pretoria and performed well below his boisterous best.
When fully on his game, he dominates and intimidates, and Jones needs to get the massive lock back into his healthy space mentally and physically.
For others, it’s a case of match fitness; Tupou transforms the Wallabies scrum when starting, whilst both Hooper and Kerevi are absolutely world-class, despite their age.
If Jones can get these four world-class players in top condition, their skills alone will aid a much better result return for the gold and green.
Sort out 10
Jones’ choices in the crucial fly-half berth are somewhat limited. The laborious kicking game of Bernard Foley or the unpredictable skills of an ageing Quade Cooper?
Outside of the squad lurks Noah Lolesio, but as yet, he’s not been used. Stephen Larkham, who is Lolesio’s club coach at the Brumbies, was shocked the 23-year-old did not feature in Wallabies coach Jones’ training camp squad after an impressive start to the Super Rugby campaign. There still might be time for a man with age and skill on his side to join the team later on this campaign.
35-year-old Cooper has looked well off the pace thus far in the campaign, partly due to lacking the big 12 running lines off his shoulder, but also perhaps starting to feel the sands of time in his legs. This weekend, the starting 10 will be Carter Gordon, but that’s a hell of a gamble with only a handful of games under his belt for the Rebels, and it will be interesting to see how he goes.
However, another slightly more leftfield option emerges with the word on the street that Tate McDermott might become one of Australia’s leaders from the scrum-half berth. In the Rugby Championship this season, the work of Nic White has been quite remarkable as he’s played almost like a French nine, moving between half-back and fly-half as the situation demands.
White is a consummate footballer, quick and intelligent, and it might just be he offers the best all-round solution, one back from the pack at 10 should the Gordon experiment fail.
White is benched this weekend, but given Jones’ propensity to move players into new positions, this is far from a ridiculous idea, and it might just well be a masterstroke, given the lack of options elsewhere.
Gainline and discipline
In both of the matches they’ve played this season, Australia have been beaten up on the gainline and, crucially, have become undisciplined.
They have an average of 14 penalties per match against New Zealand’s 8.5 transgression average, but most concerningly, they have only one man – full-back Tom Wright – that has hit double figures of carries in both their Tests thus far.
With an average of 1.5 yellow cards per game, Australia are by some distance the least disciplined side in the tournament, and a large part of that is down to their poor competition and uncertain technique at the breakdown and in gain line carry.
With only Wright hitting double figures of carry against Argentina and with the clearing work of their forwards somewhat questionable, they were turned over 11 times in that Test match; combine the penalties with the turnover count, and you have 25 self-inflicted examples of the Wallabies losing possession during an 80-minute Test, a quite remarkable statistic and one known in analytical circles as ‘a coach killer’.
It’s no coincidence that the Wallaby ruck speed is the slowest in the Rugby Championship (3.61secs) compared to the All Blacks, who lead the stats with a lightening 2.9 seconds- marginal stuff but telling at this level.
Unsurprisingly, given the amount of ball they cough up, Australia have made the fewest entries (10) into the opposition 22m zone of any team in the 2023 edition of the Rugby Championship; however, they have scored four points per attacking 22m entry this tournament which is more than any other team.
This tells us that legality and breakdown clearing, together with support for their carriers, is the key to changing things up. Better protection of the ball, faster ruck speed and greater legality are the order of the day, and that must start on Saturday if Australia are to change things around.
Whilst the Wallabies recorded 100% scrum success in the second round versus Argentina, against South Africa in their opening clash, they were absolutely obliterated by both iterations of the Springbok front-row.
Much of that was due to the work of Allan Alaalatoa on the tighthead side, who really seems to struggle against power props, precisely like the man he will face on Saturday, Ethan de Groot. Nevertheless, Alaalatoa has been retained and rewarded with the captaincy, much to the surprise of many.
With Tupou in the squad, surely it’s a matter of time before Jones looks to start the better scrummager and trust that he can get through 50 minutes of graft before unleashing Alaalatoa’s mobility and clearing work?
The gamble on Alaalatoa against De Groot is a big one and something that might backfire.
Whilst the scrum is fixable, the lineout has really bombed, something that many onlookers thought might be a Wallaby superpower coming into the series. An 83% success rate overall isn’t close to elite Test standard, and Jones has decided it’s time to sacrifice one of the bulk of Richie Arnold for the more agile and aerially dominant Nick Frost, a man who is also a force of nature in the rolling maul.
As with all these things, balance is key, and at the moment, it looks like Jones may have to sacrifice a little power for a consistent supply of line out ball if the Wallabies are to move forward in terms of their set piece.
Whilst we’ve painted a fairly dismal picture of Australian Rugby at this moment in time, one of the critical points for Jones to consider is a need not to panic.
This is a turnaround job, and it’s about getting the best 23 playing the game plan most suited to their skillsets come September and the Rugby World Cup.
Jones has three more Tests with which to explore his plans and combinations. That might seem a short period, but he’ll take as much as he can from those games, all against formidable opposition (New Zealand twice and France) before facing Georgia on September 9.
The issues and fixes are both easy to identify and for Eddie, it’s a case of sorting through the right combination to ensure group qualification is achieved.
With Wales, Fiji and Georgia offering a few banana skins on the way, the Wallabies still have one of the easiest draws in the competition, and their task is now simple: use the next three games to form and storm before the norming process takes place in the Rugby World Cup itself.