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The Wrap: Five lessons Australia must learn from the World Cup

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10th November, 2019
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No-one likes a wise guy after the event.

We all know the type who, when you ask them for their tip in the Melbourne Cup, mumble something vague about how hard it is to line up the form of the international horses then, as soon as the race is over, blast social media – in caps lock, never you mind – boasting about how much they cleaned up on Vow And Declare and why it was such an obvious pick.

A fair bit of that has been happening with respect to the Wallabies’ quarter-final exit at the World Cup, with a host of November quarterbacks, media and rugby personalities bouncing off each other in a tumble dryer of blame apportion, ‘I told you so’s and next messiah identification.

As a result we’ve been subjected to copious articles analysing candidates for the Wallabies coaching role, all of whom Rugby Australia must approach or else they’re even more incompetent than what everyone thinks they are already, before conceding – often in the very same article – that the majority of those coaches are unavailable or unwilling.

In the wake of England’s superb 19-7 semi-final win against the All Blacks, commentators rushed to insist that Rugby Australia CEO Raelene Castle immediately hammer down Eddie Jones’s door and ‘bring him home’, despite Eddie having other pressing matters at hand, like trying to win the World Cup, for example.

As it happened, Eddie and England came up short in the final, which led to a few quietly dropping off the bandwagon, although others who recognise that England’s second place puts it in a different league to Australia, or are in the ‘anyone but a Kiwi’ camp, are still insisting that Jones is the man to restore the Wallabies to the top of world rugby.

Now a week on from the final – still not enough but at least a few days along in which to apply some perspective – it is apparent that there are five ‘wise guy after the event’ lessons Australian rugby can take from Japan’s wonderful World Cup.

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1. Eddie isn’t the answer
Not for the reason you might think either, although it seems like many are quick to forgive and forget how and why he left the job last time and ignore how he came within a whisker of being sacked from the England head coach position last year after three successive losses in the Six Nations.

Jones’s achievements are noteworthy – two World Cup runner-up finishes and South Africa’s scalp in 2015 while coaching Japan. But the plusses and minuses aren’t the issue here; it’s a simple matter of what Americans call ‘doing the math’.

Jones is estimated to be on an annual salary of around $1.8 million. With two years to run on his contract, Rugby Australia would be required to pay that out as compensation to the RFU. Let’s say that was rounded down to $3 million between friends.

Jones would demand certainty of employment up until the completion of the next World Cup. At a similar salary level, even without a dollop of CPI mayonnaise, that’s another $7 million or so.

Nobody knows exactly what salary Dave Rennie or a similarly qualified candidate would command, but it’s almost certain to be less than half of that – let’s guess at $750,000 per annum.

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So it would be $10 million for Jones versus $3 million for Rennie or similar over the next four years. And that’s before accounting for any of the demands Jones would likely make with respect to assistant coaches and support staff.

That’s a stark reminder of how the financial benefits arising from the professionalism and growing commercialism in rugby overwhelmingly flow to players and coaches and not to the grassroots. And how England’s RFU, off a £27.8 million (A$51.7 million) loss to June 2018 and with predicted losses of a similar magnitude to follow, has yet to grasp how paying their head coach a heap less money and trimming half a dozen people from his World Cup support team of 24 might help provide an alternative to selling off the ownership of their competitions.

Nevertheless, numerous commentators implore Rugby Australia to pursue Jones “at any cost”. What does this mean exactly? That money doesn’t matter? Or, more succinctly, money that you don’t actually have doesn’t matter?

There is a cost to hiring Eddie Jones compared to hiring Dave Rennie, and that very substantial cost is the difference between the two – over four years, in the vicinity of $7 million.

Now might be a good time to remind those Jones proponents who have also been vociferous in their criticism of Rugby Australia being deficient in their financial support of grassroots rugby that they can’t have it both ways.

Eddie Jones head coach of England

(Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

2. Don’t leave things in the hands of one person
Rugby Australia last week appointed a three-man independent review panel to examine the reason for Australia’s disappointing quarter-final exit. The outcome is likely to highlight two component deficiencies: one around Cheika’s selection and tactical prowess (lack of) and also the process whereby Cheika was provided with a five-year rails-run as head coach with almost unlimited autonomy and – until the wash-up of this World Cup – very little accountability.

A third related aspect, looking at the efficiency of pathways for coaches and players in generating enough elite talent, may not strictly fall under the remit of this review.

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There is legitimate criticism to be made of the Rugby Australia leadership who appointed Cheika, although after-match wise guys should also acknowledge that in the wake of Ewen McKenzie’s hurried exit there was widespread acceptance and few, if any, concerns raised about the terms of Cheika’s appointment.

Late last year Raelene Castle imposed a new reporting structure on Cheika, installing Scott Johnson as director of rugby and then during this season belatedly added Johnson and Michael O’Connor as co-selectors.

The benefits of employing a more collaborative approach will be seen in the future, but in Cheika’s case the horse had long bolted. Not many people react well to having a new boss installed over them ostensibly because you’re being told that you can’t be trusted to deliver yourself.

For their part, Johnson and O’Connor recognised that this World Cup cycle already belonged to Cheika and that while a start was made on broadening the selection outlook, given the short time available before the World Cup they were happy to let the coach own all of the success or failure of his campaign.

What commentators touting either for Jones or for a global search for the best candidate have missed is that the process already began months ago, when Johnson was appointed in his role. He has not suddenly been called into action with Cheika’s resignation but came to the job already with firm ideas about how to transform Australian rugby after the World Cup.

In that sense it is only natural that he brings a coach with him not only who he trusts as a highly performed technician but also who he knows will be a team player and will work collegially with all of the Super Rugby coaches and Rugby Australia.

Michael Cheika

(Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

3. Australia doesn’t need to copy South Africa and go back to their roots
Even if the Springboks had lost the World Cup final, coach Rassie Erasmus would already have been a winner, having achieved his stated goal of returning South African rugby to its core strength: uncompromising physicality, identity built around strong set-piece rugby, brutal defence and dash and elan to take advantage of opportunities from fractured play.

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In that respect, calls have been made for Australian rugby to return to its identity: for the Wallabies to play rugby that is uniquely and instantly recognisable as Australian.

But is there actually such a thing? The two most successful eras in Australian rugby history were during the 1980s and around the turn of the century under the coaching of Alan Jones and Rod Macqueen respectively.

Both of those eras featured distinct styles. Jones’s teams were built around an uncompromising set piece and flat alignment of the backline helmed by maestro Mark Ella, while Macqueen relied on rapid recycle of ruck ball providing halfback George Gregan with multiple forward and backline running options against defensive lines unable to be properly reset.

Two markedly different approaches, but who is to say which one is the definitive Australian style?

The term ‘running rugby’ was thrown around a lot during and after Australia’s World Cup, Cheika almost suggesting that if they were to lose, at least there was honour in going down in the ‘right way’, playing classic Australian running rugby.

If that’s a justification for throwing intercept passes to opponents expecting just that, then leave me out of that one.

It is fair to say that even today the Brumbies have elements of Macqueen in their DNA and a style of play that is distinctly recognisable as belonging to them. On the international scene we can now re-add South Africa to New Zealand and probably Japan and Fiji (although increasingly less so) as sides who have a truly distinctive method of play across all levels of their rugby.

But changes to laws and the variations in emphasis applied at the breakdown by referees, coupled with increases in size and strength of players, as well as the sharing of coaching intellectual property around the world, has led to rugby evolving in a way where the underlying method of play tends to look similar no matter the jersey.

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The World Cup can be won by any of the leading nations that have a strong, deep squad, employs a tactical approach suited to their personnel, stays relatively injury-free, executes key plays at key moments in attack and defence and enjoys a little bit of luck.

This World Cup proved that South Africa has rediscovered the method of play that is authentically theirs, but it doesn’t mean that this method is the only way or right for anybody else or that a particular style is required at all.

And it certainly doesn’t prove that Australia must go away and find its own distinctive voice, particularly when nobody can accurately define just what that is supposed to be.

James Slipper

(Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

4. When it comes to tactics, respect history
Just as Australia’s tactical approach in Japan was wrong because it falsely identified with a style of play not as uniquely or inherently Australian as it purported to be, it was wrong because World Cup history shows it to be wrong.

Across the nine events there have been occasional blowouts in quarter-finals and semi-finals, but the nature of tournament rugby and the pressure of playing for such high stakes invariably means that matches tend to be tighter than other Test matches played.

The irony of the 2019 Wallabies campaign was that their lineout was the equal of any in the competition, their scrum not far behind and their lineout maul, courtesy of the Brumbies contingent, world-class. The basis for a solid, forwards-led assault was there.

Beyond that point, however, things turned wonky. The Wallabies never showed a liking for or understanding of the importance of dominating the contact area. Other issues sprung from selection – Cheika never really came to terms with his loose forward strategy and didn’t decide on Will Genia or Nic White as his starting halfback.

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Christian Lealiifano was preferred at No. 10, but due the enormous rigours his body has been subjected to and the hammering he took against Fiji, he never stood up to tournament play, leaving Cheika to juggle him with Matt To’omua and Bernard Foley, a confidence player who played as if he knew that he’d lost the confidence of the coach.

Suddenly incremental improvements the Wallabies had made during the year in terms of their exit plays were tossed out the window as tactical naivety took hold, and their lack of appreciation for and execution of a kicking strategy appropriate for a World Cup was exposed against both Wales and England.

Their ill-preparedness for World Cup rugby was encapsulated in two plays: Kurtley Beale’s bizarre chip kick from inside his 22 against England and the opening kick-off receipt against Wales where Michael Hooper was left to carry the ball up with not a single teammate offering himself as an effective, supporting clean-out player.

With mental fatigue not an excuse in the opening minute, it spoke to a lack of clarity and situational awareness within the team.

The fact that the Wallabies fought themselves into a potential matchwinning position in both of those games despite their obvious shortcomings is a torch for fans to carry forward into next year.

But it will be a major surprise and disappointment if the Wallabies arrive at the 2023 World Cup in France as determined to play rugby in such a haphazard manner that so misreads what is required to win a World Cup.

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5. Move heaven and earth to host the World Cup in 2027
As Japan so conclusively proved, the benefits of hosting a World Cup are many. Inbound tourism and the financial injection to the economy that provides, and the lift to the psyche of a nation that knows it is under the world’s microscope and so endeavours to leave a lasting good impression, are undeniable factors.

The sport itself finds itself on the front and back pages – mostly for the right reasons – and there is an opportunity for fans, ex-fans, casual observers, schoolchildren and people who have no clue at all about what rugby is to engage with the sport at multiple levels.

Australia failed to take advantage of the goodwill generated and the possibilities created from hosting the World Cup in 2003. But with those lessons having been painfully absorbed, now is the right time to ensure that it receives – and doesn’t waste – another opportunity.

The 2023 tournament will see the third successive iteration in the northern hemisphere. While there is a strong push to take the World Cup to another emerging rugby nation (the USA), this factor alone will likely ensure that their opportunity will come in 2031 and that 2027 will go to the south.

In the wake of this victory in Japan, in an environment of continuous transformation and with Siya Kolisi’s role as a figurehead for a new generation of black players, South Africa will mount a strong case to host in 2027.

But Australia too will be able to mount a compelling argument. And it already has an important ally on its side, with Bill Sweeney, the chief executive of England’s RFU, last week telling the BBC, “Australia is a really important rugby nation, who have had some financial challenges. Anything that World Rugby can do to support the game in Australia would be supported by all of us, I think”.

As the old saying goes, with enemies like that, who needs friends?

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Any time Raelene Castle spends on the phone pursuing Eddie Jones are precious minutes that can and will be far better spent harnessing support for a bid for the 2027 hosting rights.