Of all the Rugby World Cup contenders, only the Wallabies could have visited Stade de France on Sunday and left fans satisfied that steady improvement was being made, yet equally disturbed by the 41-17 score-line; their fifth defeat on the bounce under Eddie Jones.
So far, the second coming of Jones has been a tour de force of contradiction. On one hand, there is a sense that Jones is the wily, experienced talisman Australian rugby needs; tapping into the psyche of a long-suffering fanbase, ready and willing to be swept along on a journey that will ultimately see the Wallabies restored as feared and respected opponents.
On the other hand, there is a reluctant acceptance that, whatever one’s view on the official World Rugby rankings, ninth position cannot be argued. Hence the scaling back in recent weeks of the ‘smash and grab’ language that accompanied Jones’ appointment, to the point where it is the word ‘ultimately’ that is doing the heavy lifting. ‘Re-set your watches folks, from 2023 to 2027 and we’ll deliver everything that was promised’.
No better were those contradictions exemplified than by man-mountain Taniela Tupou, implying after the Paris match that the Wallabies had played with the handbrake on, saying “we didn’t want to show too much.”
For a man not wanting to show his hand, Tupou showed plenty, shaking off fitness concerns in what was a strong personal performance – his best of the year – his own watch clearly set to this World Cup.
Make no mistake, the Wallabies are not running dead in 2023, with 2027 in their sights. It is quite possible for Jones to play the long game, and at the same time, take advantage of the rails run gifted him by World Rugby, to give this World Cup a red-hot crack.
But for that to happen, it will require more of the good they delivered against France, and less of the bad.
The good started at the scrum, with Tupou and the strapping Angus Bell as impressive as any starting pair of pillars that will be on display over the next eight weeks.
It is true that things fall away markedly from there, as they do in a number of other positions. The Wallabies’ best 1-15 is highly competitive, but their 16-33 less compelling, which highlights how important dodging injury and suspension will be for them, and for any side with designs on going all the way.
Winger Suli Vunivalu sharing with the world some of what Jones has known all along, was an unexpected bonus. Not that Vunivalu actually produced anything earth shattering; it was more that his willingness to work his way into the play and express a desire to get his hands on the ball, heralded a leap forward. File under ‘cautious optimism’.
With Mark Nawaqanitawase equally adept on the leap, two tries from kick regathers signalled the resurrection of the aerial attack option employed so effectively in the Israel Folau era; albeit the return of Marika Koroibete, not always as convincing in the air, may temper that approach.
Also positive was an overall sense that Australia belonged. The French were frequently harried into error in what was very much a true Test match, as opposed to a warm-up frolic.
Yes, there were lapses and concerns around execution but, once again, there was shape and balance to the attack, and precision too; Carter Gordon and Andrew Kellaway passing crisply and accurately for Nawaqanitawase to open the try-scoring.
🇦🇺 @wallabies hitting 🔙 through Mark Nawaqanitawase 👊
— Summer Nations Series (@autumnnations) August 27, 2023
Jones put it best after the match; “We’re not a bad team but we’re not a good team yet”. What he meant was that he doesn’t necessarily need to take his team to a higher plane, because he knows their best is up there with the best. They just need to produce that ‘best’ more consistently and for longer periods, and learn how to minimise the damage in the off periods.
The not so good
Some of the failings were disappointingly familiar. There isn’t a team in world rugby as deaf to the word of referees as the Wallabies are; this time pinged by Luke Pearce for failing to heed his repeated instruction to adjust at lineout.
Questions remain too about defensive positioning in the backline, with France, once the game opened up in the second half, finding space on the edges for their fast men to run and kick into.
Against New Zealand in Melbourne, Koroibete was positioned more centrally than usual, and here again, it was Vunivalu who was found defending in a narrower channel. The upshot was to load a lot onto Andrew Kellaway’s shoulders, and while his effort was admirable, asking a fullback to cover so much ground, so often, doesn’t feel like a sustainable strategy.
Much has been made of Gordon’s goal-kicking frailties, and the importance of kicking goals when the opportunity arises is obvious; not just for the accumulation of three points each time, but in terms of the opportunity cost of forgoing the opportunity to kick to the corner and rumble for five or seven.
Jones has made his selection bed and has little choice but to back his young playmaker in. There’s that fall-back position again, with Gordon, if he turns out not to be ready now, a sure thing to be potting the goals that count against the 2025 Lions and at the next World Cup.
What Gordon really needs is time in the saddle, having not been first-choice kicker for the Melbourne Rebels (ditto Ben Donaldson at the Waratahs). In that context, each kick missed under pressure in this match, as in Dunedin a few weeks ago, is a necessary building block, although time is running out fast.
Having played golf with Gordon I can attest to the young man – a languid, smooth swinging scratch marker – understanding all about swing planes, angles, and tempo. He’s also studious, a voracious and conscientious learner, and a hard worker.
A change in fortune isn’t far away, but should there be further stutters against Georgia on the opening weekend, consideration will be given to reinstating Nic White, an accomplished goalkicker, as starting halfback.
Importantly, despite this year’s 0-5 scorecard, Jones’ squad doesn’t lack confidence and self-belief. New skipper Will Skelton may share the same recent losing record with his Wallabies team-mates, but he is a proven winner at the top level in Europe.
And whatever the side loses in experience from moving past Michael Hooper, Quade Cooper, James O’Connor and others, the injection of confident, brash new talent means that it is just fans, not the team, who are carrying baggage forward.
More contrasts abound in the coaching group. With Jones entering his fourth World Cup, with two losing finals under his belt, no nation brings a head coach with the same level of experience than Australia does.
The wider coaching group, however, is a cobbled-together mish-mash of rugby league coaches, an ex-half-back coaching the maul and an ex-scrum coach running the lineout; a kind of ‘Village People’ for rugby.
Which side of the bed?
That’s really the Wallabies in a nutshell. Get up on one side of the bed and it’s not hard to imagine things clicking, pool C being swept, and an abject England being cast aside in a quarter-final. From there, anything is possible.
Get up on the other side of the bed and the whole thing collapsing in a heap and the spectre of losses to Wales and Fiji, and an early flight home, loom large.
For well over two years now, the story of this World Cup has been which two of Ireland, France, New Zealand and South Africa will survive the quarter-finals, and which one of them will win the Cup.
It is because nobody knows the answer, that the proposition is so compelling.
But it feels like there is an equally compelling story around Australia. One that nobody will know the answer to, until we all know. Are the Wallabies contenders or pretenders? Your guess is as good as mine.