From the first day he landed back in Australia and we started to get our heads back around the concept of ‘Eddie Jones, Wallabies coach’, the new holder of the Australian rugby clipboard has waxed lyrical about the need for combinations and cohesion.
Even when he was England coach, he would name drop former 2003 Wallabies RWC prop-turned data analyst Ben Darwin, and in the in-depth body of work he has created with his company, Gain Line Analytics, at regular opportunities.
He knew the value of club combinations and often took advantage of the late season form of the Premiership team du jour, and it didn’t really matter who it was. Saracens, Leicester, Harlequins; whoever.
At his “I’m back” press conference in Sydney back in January, he was at it again – though he did it in the form of the awkward uncle backhanded compliment.
“…that cohesion part that Ben Darwin makes a living out of – he had to make a living out of something – he’s made a living out of cohesion. But it’s true what he says,” Jones said.
“You want cohesion, particularly in the spine of your team, so we’ll try to get to that as quickly as we can.”
So, he’s clearly a fan of the concept.
It’s curious then to see how little of it he’s likely to have in first match in an Australia tracksuit in nearly two decades this weekend.
Heading to South Africa to play the Springboks is rarely easy, and Loftus Versfeld up on the veldt in Pretoria is about as big challenge as they come in international rugby. Indeed, the Wallabies have never won a Test match there in seven attempts going back to 1963 (they beat Northern Transvaal there in a 1992 tour match).
It’s one of the few ‘last frontier’ international venues for the Wallabies. Rarified air, both literally and figuratively.
But the team Jones will name on Thursday sometime will have a very new feel to it.
The last Wallabies team of 2022, which beat Wales in Cardiff, started with an all-Brumbies tight five, two of three Waratahs backrowers, a Waratahs halves pairing plus Mark Nawaqanitawase on the left wing, and a back three that had degrees of combination from previous games.
The team Jones names on Thursday won’t have anything like that.
With James Slipper and Allan Alaalatoa almost certain to start, the best case scenario would have Dave Porecki starting with them, the three of them at least starting three Tests last season.
The Brumbies props obviously won’t have packed down with Queensland rake Matt Faessler before, while there may have been a few minutes on the field together with Jordan Uelese when he last played in 2021.
There is some established combination between Faessler and Zane Nonggorr, but the rookie Reds tighthead is unlikely to start, and it’s similarly hard to see Uelese and Rebels loosehead Matt Gibbon starting as well.
Both pairs could be bench options, and both will be in for a period of on-field adjustment if Taniela Tupou does make his return from his Achillies injury this week.
Jones only named four locks among his 34 for the trip the Republic, and all four – Richie Arnold, Nick Frost, Jed Holloway, and Will Skelton – play for different clubs.
Frost and Holloway may have had limited time on the field together in a couple of Tests last year, but all Arnold and Skelton have in common is their being Australians playing in France.
And then when you look at the selected locks and hookers for potential lineout combinations, Porecki throwing to Holloway are the lone regular teammates.
Similarly, while there are scatterings of Brumbies and Waratahs forwards as potential lineout lifters for Frost and Holloway, Arnold will obviously be starting from scratch.
Skelton won’t be much better off, both with limited experience with some of these forwards during his two-Test return last season, and being best described as a ‘sometimes’ line-out option.
In selecting three Brumbies backrowers, two Rebels, a Red and a Waratah, the backrow unit won’t be a whole lot better – though all bar young Tom Hooper have Wallabies experience from last year together. You can and probably should throw Holloway into that mix as well, having started ten of his twelve Tests on the blindside.
Nic White and Quade Cooper look the obvious halves pairing, and they have not played together since Cooper went down after 47 minutes in Mendoza last season.
Before that, it was the last three games of The Rugby Championship in 2021 and the Japan Test en route to Europe for the Spring Tour – all four matches resulting in strong wins.
White has never played with Ben Donaldson or Carter Gordon. Cooper has had limited game time in a couple of Tests with Tate McDermott. Ryan Lonergan hasn’t played with any of them.
Out wider, Cooper will be replying on muscle memory if Samu Kerevi can prove his fitness. He’s never played with Lalakai Foketi. Foketi has at least played with Donaldson, but the Waratah flyhalf’s inclusion in this Test would have to be considered a massive gamble. Gordon has spent plenty of time with Reece Hodge, but that feels unlikely as a 10-12 combination too.
On the other hand, Len Ikitau has played with so many different flyhalves over the last few seasons, including at the Brumbies this year, that it’s unlikely to affect his wonderful consistency. And he at least has played with pretty much every back three combination possible from the squad Jones selected.
So from a cohesion point of view, Jones is going to have to have worked wonders on the training paddock already.
He has spoken often in 2023 about the Wallabies slate being completely clean, and heading into this match it looks so clean it’s almost restaurant quality. In that regard, and with a bit of hindsight thrown in, it’s hard to clear the selection slate and keep that strong on-field cohesion that Jones admits to being a believer.
It might, therefore, be the biggest test of his coaching tenure in some time.
If he can – or has already been able to – build the strong on-field cohesion that he wants in his Wallabies side and will need this weekend at Loftus, then he will deserve all the plaudits that will flow his way if the Wallabies can produce their maiden win in Pretoria.