“I can’t say the word, but it’s the ‘C word.”
With that choice description of what he meant by “edge”, Will Skelton revealed what’s needed to win tournaments. Importantly, too, the French-based Wallabies lock believes Eddie Jones’ squad can find it.
While the announcement of Michael Hooper and James Slipper as the Wallabies’ co-captains for The Rugby Championship swept the headlines on Sunday, Skelton’s inclusion was one of the selections that somewhat went under the radar.
Understandable given the eight uncapped players also included, as well as two or three figures lucky to be called up after modest campaigns, but Skelton’s inclusion can’t be understated.
Indeed, since the 2014 Super Rugby-winner left Australian rugby at the end of 2017, Australian rugby has continually been reminded about the one that got away.
Three European Championship Cups later, including one for Saracens before winning a second straight title with La Rochelle earlier this year, has seen him becomes one of Europe’s best and Leinster’s kryptonite.
Extraordinarily, veteran Times correspondent Stephen Jones even included the lock in his greatest rugby side after 40 years of covering rugby.
Yet, that selection has been taken with a grain of salt because despite his deeds at club level the giant lock has never quite been able to transfer his feats into the Test arena.
“I probably have had a lot of opportunity in the jersey,” Skelton told reporters on Tuesday. “Probably not taken the best step forward, I think in my personal opinion, performance-wise.
“But it’s obviously a different opportunity now for me to come over here and inject a bit of experience now, a bit of wisdom, I’m a bit older now as well and see what I can add to this team going forward.”
Skelton’s not been helped by being parachuted into the side in recent years, where Dave Rennie regularly used him off the bench after joining the Wallabies on their past two Spring Tours.
But after joining the Wallabies for the first time in Australia since 2016, Skelton at long last has the chance to be there from the start rather than having to play catch-up.
“I think just in terms of detail, knowing my role, learning the plays, I’ve got a lot more time now,” he said.
“It’s a lot easier because we’re all learning, it’s all new to us.
“We’ve got to fast-track everything he wants us to take in, in this four-day camp. We’ve had guys working hard for the last two, three weeks in the satellite camps and we’ve come in now to try and raise that standard as well.
“It’s always nice to be together and building those connections for what’s going to be a tough four-five Tests before the World Cup.”
Skelton knows what it takes to go deep in a World Cup campaign.
He slogged it out alongside Drew Mitchell in Cheika’s pre-World Cup “Fat Camp” at Notre Dame in Chicago, before coming off the bench against Fiji and then starting against Uruguay.
But a pec injury meant he was forced to return to Australia early, as the Wallabies progressed through to the final.
“Gutted to not finish how we wanted to but reflecting on that, the World Cup is a special experience as a rugby player,” Skelton said. “It’s the pinnacle of our sport. It’s where you want to be.”
After watching Skelton 2.0 carve up Europe after his departure from the Waratahs, Cheika and Rugby Australia director of rugby Scott Johnson tried to lure him home to play in a bid to feature at the 2019 World Cup.
They couldn’t match his hefty fee to come back, but ever since missing that campaign there’s been a sense of unfinished business for Skelton.
It’s why he didn’t hesitate joining Rennie in recent years and returned immediately home last week after his side’s heartbreaking defeat at the State de France in the French Top 14 final against Richie Arnold’s Toulouse.
“I feel good. I’m feeling quite fresh,” Skelton said.
“We had a week off, almost like a travel week back to Sydney from France. Top 14’s long, Europe’s long but you get little breaks in between and I’m well looked after there at La Rochelle. The body’s feeling good. The training is intense here, so hopefully I last and I’m ready to play next week.
“I think just the intensity, I think being in this environment, you’ve got to be ready from the start. First unit session yesterday we went live, so you’ve got to get your head around that. At club level you can ease into training. You’ve got 20-odd games of the season whereas here it’s short, sharp get in, get out. So, we’ve got to make sure that our detail is on point and we’re training to be the best we can.”
Having become accustomed to winning wherever he’s gone since moving abroad, Skelton said he liked what he saw from Jones’ squad.
“Eddie’s selected a squad with youth, experience, edge. I think that’s what’s needed to win the big games, in my experience,” he said.
“I think we’ve got the cattle. It’s about putting it out on the training paddock and then executing on Saturday night.
“It’s exciting times now for us, as a group we’re building our connections, building relationships, because we know that’s what’s going to take us to that next level.”
Probed what he meant by “edge”, Skelton didn’t leave much to the imagination.
“I can’t say the word, but it’s the ‘C word,” he said.
“Edge is being tough, at training not letting guys go through contact, it’s competing every set, every maul, every scrum, and that starts at training and that will transfer to the field on a Saturday night or a Sunday arvo that we play.”
Nor is the only player in the Wallabies squad who looks to have those characteristics in spades.
Arnold, the twin brother of 2019 World Cup squad member Rory, showed his quality by leading Toulouse’s lineout during their triumph earlier this month in front of 80,000 in Paris.
“Richie’s a pest,” Skelton said of Arnold.
“On the rugby field, he’s a nuisance. In the lineout, particularly, he’s a menace. Also, he’s physical, he has that edge. His knowledge of the game is up there as well with the best of them. B
“But he’s a great guy. I’ve played a lot against Richie, I think I’m bloody 0-9 against Richie and his brother at Toulouse. That’s not nice to hear every time the boys mention it at camp.
“I’m happy that Richie’s here because he deserves it. He’s been playing world-class rugby over at Toulouse and hopefully he brings that experience and that form into the gold jersey.”