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Opinion

The two-week observation: The Wallabies can play low possession rugby OR find the Australian way – but not both

17th July, 2023
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17th July, 2023
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Two weeks into his second-coming as Australian coach, Eddie Jones must surely now realise that his two major themes around how he wanted to shape the Wallabies are mutually exclusive.

“We need to work a bit harder to create a style of rugby that is quintessentially Australian,” he said in an interview in England in May, when back over there coaching the Barbarians.

“We have been copying other teams and that is not the Australian way.”

I’ve kid of lost track of what else isn’t the Australian way over the years, but we can now add copying to the list.

“It is more about intent. Australians, in whichever sport they play, are much better when they are aggressive, when they are positive, when they are in the face of the opposition,” he went on to say in the same interview.

“When we are doing it our way, we are at the opposition with numbers at the line in attack and defence like mongrel dogs running around, and that is where we are at our best. So, it is more about intent.”

But then, he’s also been caught up in the way the game is going at international level, perhaps now heeding lessons that he took a while to grasp while England coach.

Wallabies coach, Eddie Jones looks on during an Australia Wallabies Captain’s Run at CommBank Stadium on July 14, 2023 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

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“Possession rugby is dead,” he’s said on several occasions back in Australia. “It’s dead for the moment and it’s probably going to be dead for a long period of time.

“The game’s about being fast now. You’ve got 75 per cent of tries being scored in three phases – 75 per cent.

“So why would you keep the ball for 10 phases? That’s just stupid to even think like that anymore, and unfortunately there’s that thinking still in rugby.”

So, on one hand he wants the Wallabies playing with intent and in the face of opposition, but on the other hand there’s no point holding the ball anymore.

The contradiction of those two positions is now playing out confusingly in gold jerseys and it has become very clear that Jones can utilise one of those methods or the other one, but not both.

In Pretoria last week, the Wallabies with 37 per cent possession carried only 60 times and launched 32 kicks in play. They didn’t kick well, chased worse than poorly, and barely laid a glove on the Springboks in attack.

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In Sydney on the weekend just gone with possession only a fraction better, the Wallabies managed 79 carries but only kicked 13 times. They kicked and chased better and more strategically and posed considerably more attacking threat on Los Pumas than the week before.

The worry in both games is that the Wallabies made 139 tackles at Loftus, and had tallied 115 by half-time on Saturday night, finishing the night with an even 200 tackles. Ten players had double-digit tackle numbers.

So, the low possession game has certainly been nailed. There aren’t many better ways of playing low possession rugby than either kicking the cover off the ball or tackling yourself to a standstill.

The scoreboard also shows it hasn’t been particularly successful.

But at some point, the realisation will come. 150-plus tackles a game just is not sustainable.

And it should be being realised now that players are making the poor decision with the ball because they are so buggered from all the defence, that they literally can’t think straight in attack.

Guys making so many tackles are seeing scoreboards get away from them, and so on the rare occasion when they do have the ball, they think the best option is to push a poor pass, or the low percentage offload.

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Fifteen turnovers conceded is indicative of this as well.

The Wallabies passed or offloaded the ball 113 times for the match in Sydney, but could only produce seven clean breaks. The Argentineans missed 19 tackles in 99 attempts – essentially one in every five – but the Wallabies could only open them up seven times.

“At the moment, we’re a bit like here and there, and we do some things well and then we give them the ball back and it’s just not there,” Jones said post-match on Saturday night.

“It’s just not happening at the moment, but it will.”

Maybe it will, but one thing is for sure, it won’t happen with 30 per cent possession rates. If the Wallabies want to play unpredictable rugby in attack, then they need the ball to do that.

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If the Australian way is playing smart rugby that really tests opposition defences, then they need the ball to do that.

But that’s not to say stop kicking cold turkey, because that’s equally unsustainable.

ddie Jones (coach) Australia during the Rugby Championship match between South Africa and Australia at Loftus Versfeld Stadium on July 08, 2023 in Pretoria, South Africa. (Photo by Sydney Seshibedi/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

Wallabies coach Eddie Jones. (Photo by Sydney Seshibedi/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

Yes, it’s true that most tries in Test rugby are scored in the first three phases, but rather than slave to that one stat, why not take a few more carries to set up their plays, and pull the ripcord on third-fourth-fifth phase?

When your new standout winger is crying out for the team to hold on to the ball more, then maybe that’s a reflection of what suits this group of players who clearly do want to play.

Still kick, but kick within your means, and kick for specific strategy or for a specific place on the field in the opposition half or 22, rather than just kicking for the sake for keeping up with broad game trends.

If Eddie Jones wants the Wallabies to play unpredictable rugby that can win them a World Cup – and not just copy other teams like he’s said – then why on earth does he want them kicking after three phases like everyone else?

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What else is for sure is that he’s running out of time.

Jones wants the Wallabies to find the Australian way of playing – whatever that is – but he’s now got three games before the first Rugby World Cup pool game.

I don’t know how he proposes to do it, but there are still an awful lot of pieces struggling to fall into their right place. His mongrel dogs are looking rather more like lost strays.

And I don’t want to speak for you guys, but I know I’d like a bit more than just pure hope when the Wallabies land in France less than two months’ time.

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