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ANALYSIS: Why Eddie will bring back essence of Aussie sport to Wallabies - and the four tight-five forwards he needs

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17th January, 2023
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Forget Eddie Jones for a moment. Let’s talk about Subbuteo. If you were a young sporting fan, it was the game for you back in the 1970’s and 1980’s. The game looked beautiful, with its lush green felt pitches, plentiful accessories, and detailed crowd models all the way down to one man and his dog. You could even buy the picket fences and deckchairs. It looked good and it was eminently collectible.

The problem, at least with Subbuteo Cricket, is that it was almost impossible to play. However tenderly you flicked the slingshot bowler over, he could never land ball on pitch, and the little pendulum batsman could never hit it. More often than not, the ball flew straight into the model spectators on the full.

None of it mattered at the age of nine or ten years old. I was Australia, opening the batting with Keith Stackpole and Ian Redpath.

“Stackpole hits the first ball for four!” I’d yell, because that is what Stackpole did. The first ball always went straight to the boundary, via the hook shot or more likely, Stackpole’s trademark square cut.

No circumspection, no sizing up the bowler, it was his way of imposing himself on the opposition. It was typical of the way Australia approached professional sports. They never sat back and defended, biding their time. They attacked right from the start and went for the throat.

Who can forget Shane Warne’s first-ever delivery at the home of cricket?

No understated, ease-yourself-into-it for ‘Warney’. No. Turn the ball a yard from outside leg to off stump, and announce yourself on the international stage like the trumpets of Jericho.

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That is how it will be for Australia’s newly-installed head coach Eddie Jones now.

He will be bristling to attack, right from the beginning of his tenure.

He will want to thumb his nose at the RFU establishment for their ill-conceived sacking of the Randwick man before Christmas.

He will attack in the media off the field and with his players on it.

There is a chance for Australian rugby to return to its roots, both literally and figuratively.

As Rugby Australia chairman Hamish McLennan commented upon Jones’ appointment, “Eddie instinctively understands the Australian way of playing Rugby – this represents an opportunity to secure a coach of immense expertise and experience at the biggest competitions, and we did not want to miss it.”

At the same time, the dismissal of ex-Chiefs man Dave Rennie only eight short months before the start of the biggest competition in the world has a distinct Subbuteo Cricket flavour. Both Rugby Australia and the 2022 Wallabies have been as likely to fire the ball straight into the crowd as they have been to bowl an unplayable ‘jaffa’.

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Rennie is now the third major coach to have come and gone in the space of six months, and Wallaby performances have been hugely up-and-down throughout.

Politically and tactically, the spray has been as unpredictable as Steve Harmison’s first delivery in the 2006 Ashes.

Rennie is following Scott Wisemantel and Matt Taylor out of the door, and the writing has been on the wall for months.

In this piece back in November, I suggested that ‘Dave Rennie has diluted his coaching principles, or allowed them to become diluted by external pressures, in his time as head coach of Australia … The Wallabies are barely recognisable as a Dave Rennie team at all.’

The Wallabies’ coaching structure has been ripped up after Dave Rennie (R) was sacked shortly after Scott Wisemantel resigned. Photo: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

Not judged by the template and the standards he produced at the Chiefs and at Glasgow. It wasn’t a Rennie team and it certainly wasn’t a Wisemantel attack, so exactly whose team were the Wallabies in 2022?

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The return of Australia’s prodigal son changes everything.

With Jones in charge there will be no philosophical power-struggles over the style of play and nobody will be in any doubt about who is the real ringmaster.

The single biggest positive is that the appointment gives Australia the chance to return to its roots and attack the game of rugby without fear or favour once more.

That has always been the keystone of the Australian sporting psyche. As British & Irish Lions coach Carwyn James once said, quoting the celebrated English cricket writer Neville Cardus in How we beat the All Blacks: the 1971 Lions Speak:

“When Peter May or Colin Cowdrey came to the wicket, there wasn’t anything which savoured of ill-breeding or bad manners. There was a suggestion of modesty about everything that happened. There was grace and there was charm”.

But with Australian batsman Victor Trumper, the will-to-attack was a naked flame: “Trumper plays an elegant shot, but it was meant to kill.”

Can Jones mould his Wallabies into a team of elegant killers in time for the World Cup in France?

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PERTH, AUSTRALIA - JULY 02: England coach Eddie Jones shakes hands with Nic White of the Wallabies during the warm-up before game one of the international test match series between the Australian Wallabies and England at Optus Stadium on July 02, 2022 in Perth, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Eddie Jones shakes hands with Nic White after of England’s 2-1 series victory over the Wallabies in Australia. Photo: Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

They won’t do it by trying to become a poor man’s version of South Africa – by scrumming, mauling and kicking their way upfield. They don’t have time to reproduce Ireland’s attacking sophistication and multi-phase intensity before the tournament begins.

But the nation which gave us the ‘Galloping Greens’, the Ella brothers and David Campese, has an obligation to attack, because that is what Aussies do best.

The Wallabies don’t need to morph into South Africa or Ireland or anybody else, they just need to take a glance back at their forebears, face the future and be themselves.

If they can get everyone fit and firing at the same time for those critical seven weeks between mid-September and the end of October, Jones’ Wallabies can go all the way.

If Quade Cooper and Samu Kerevi stay injury-free, and if Eddie can get the balance right in the tight forwards, there is no reason Australia cannot progress to the semi-final stage, maybe even to the giddy heights beyond it.

For most of 2022, the big ball-carriers in the front five have been absent.

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Prop Angus Bell played only the last 40 minutes of the Rugby Championship and missed the end-of-year tour entirely; Taniela Tupou looked out of sorts and limped out before the fourth-round defeat to the Springboks ever kicked off; Matt Philip was lost before the Wallabies travelled to Europe and Will Skelton was only available for the middle three tour matches.

If Jones can get those four back in harness, he can improve the forward attack and lay a platform for width thereafter.

He will also look to upgrade the red zone efficiency, which was running at 2.17 points per visit to the opposition 22 on the end-of-year tour.

That is not a bad figure in itself, but it was much better against the two weakest opponents on Australia’s schedule than it was versus the three strongest. It averaged a healthy three points per visit against Wales and Italy, but the output was slashed in half versus Ireland, France and Scotland.

In the games against those three nations, Australia scored four tries and won four penalties from their visits to the opposition 22, but that was outweighed by 18 negative outcomes (typically turnovers or turnover penalties) written in the other side of the ledger.

The abiding memory is a two-and-a-half minute, 21-phase sequence in the first half at the Aviva stadium in Dublin which culminated with a turnover penalty to the men in green. 17 of those phases were either one-pass plays, or directed inside first receiver rather than outside. The Wallabies never achieved any penetration on their forward carries, and therefore never found any width when they looked further out:

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The Ireland defence always has events well in hand, and when Nic White finally tries to force the issue with a long speculator out to Len Ikitau, the result is a turnover on the very next phase of play.

Skelton proved his worth on tour, topping the ball-carrying stats in the tight five despite only playing for 111 minutes in total. The likes of Bell, Philip and Tupou showed their wares back in 2021, most especially against South Africa, where forward carriers traditionally have the toughest task.

Philip is often under-estimated but he was essential as a workhorse forward ball-carrier, the glue between key attacking phases:

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The initial bust by Kerevi has to be reinforced by more momentum on second phase, and Philip is on hand to boulder the two Springbok centres backwards near the 22. Two phases later he is carrying again, and setting a midfield platform for Quade Cooper and his cronies to finish off on the following play. It is not ‘flash’ work but it is totally necessary as the phases tick by.

Bell is another tight forward who has the handling and ball-running skills to link backs and forwards attacks together:

In the first example, Bell is on hand to make an all-in-one transfer to Cooper, then fan the flames with another deep drive to the South African 5m line.

In the second he is drawing one Springbok back (Damian De Allende), then his partner-in-crime Taniela Tupou is ready to beat another (Sbu Nkosi) with a no-look pass to put Marika Koroibete in. If you really don’t have a 10 you trust to pass the ball consistently, then forwards like Bell and Tupou are the next best thing. They can do a passable impersonation at first receiver.

Tupou was key to Australia’s red zone domination early in the return match versus South Africa:

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The first run drew a penalty and a yellow card on Faf De Klerk when he spoiled White at the base, and Australia scored another try immediately after Tupou’s second red zone break.

When you have a core of tight forwards who are prepared to run and handle without second-guessing themselves, bravery becomes infectious:

The ball goes out from a hooker (Feleti Kaitu’u) through two second rows (Darcy Swain and Philip) and a centre (Kerevi) before the break is made by Pete Samu in the build-up to Koroibete’s second try of the match. That is what happens when you play without fear, and attack at every opportunity.

Summary

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Another week passes, another major rugby coach has come and gone. The merry-go-round only gathers pace as time passes. But Australian sport has always thrived by attacking. Overturning the odds, flipping reputations without regard for scene or setting. It is Keith Stackpole staring down the fast bowler snarling at the other end and square-cutting that first delivery for four.

It is Shane Warne, an unfashionable colonial leg-spinner bowling his first ball in England; turning it a full yard to take the off stump of the best player of spin bowling in England and stake out his claim. ‘Warnie’ proved in the space of one delivery that fast bowling was not the only way to be aggressive, win cricket matches, and find a seam of pure sporting gold.

Eddie Jones will relish the chance to thumb his nose at the RFU’s ham-fisted decision to sack him, and by World Cup time the self-proclaimed ‘home of rugby’ could find itself writhing as uncomfortably as the home of cricket after Warne’s first delivery at Old Trafford.

He will do what he has always done with new charges: scrap and scavenge for everything going and attack, attack, attack. Every performance in the media and on the field will be executed with bristling aggression, and on the front foot. He will look to recall the ball-carrying tight forwards who have been mostly absent from the Wallabies’ 2022 campaign: Angus Bell and Taniela Tupou in the front row, Matt Philip and Will Skelton behind them.

Seed two or three of those into the front five, and it will provide a platform to puncture opposing defences in the red zone and move the ball profitably outside it come the World Cup. Embrace risk, take up the challenge and attack at the point where the opposition least wants to defend.

You don’t play attacking rugby as a preference for style over substance, to look good in the box like Subbuteo Cricket. You don’t play it to honour the beautiful game or even to rehearse notions of ‘the Australian Way’. You play it to win games, lift trophies and stay true to your roots. “Trumper plays an elegant shot, but it was meant to kill.” When the shouting stops and the noise dies away, that is the essence of Australian sport: the killer instinct, elegantly expressed.

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