COMMENT: Eddie Jones has done what needed to be done almost four years ago. He has ushered through the next wave of Wallabies.
Not in drips and drabs, but at once.
He has followed the lead of French coach Fabien Galthie, who together with Jaques Brunel dropped their own bombshell ahead of the Japan tournament in 2019, by backing youth.
At once, young men in the infancy of their Test careers like Gregory Alldritt, Demba Bamba, Antoine Dupont, Romain Ntamack and Damian Penaud, who had led France’s revival at under-20s level following years of disappointment, were included so that they would be primed for their home World Cup four years’ later.
They didn’t wave the white flag but took a leap of faith. It saw their imprévisibilité return.
Having shocked the globe to push the All Blacks through until the final whistle at the 2011 World Cup final, they almost toppled Wales in the 2019 quarters.
Had Sebastien Vahaamahina not lost his head in the first half, Les Bleus might well have made another surprising run.
Now, having invested in the future, they are primed for their World Cup run and are one of the favourites for the Webb Ellis Cup after taking out last year’s Six Nations, snapping their Twickenham hoodoo in emphatic style earlier this year and having dominated European club rugby in recent years.
A nation that went from a 39 per cent win record pre-2019 turned the corner, lifting it to 58 per cent in 2019 to 78 per cent since 2020 – a run that included 14 Test victories in a row.
Jones, it would seem, is following the same path ahead of the World Cup.
It’s understood he has the support of the Rugby Australia board, who believed they needed to work backward from 2027 to stand a chance in their home tournament.
Indeed, for more than a year the RA board has encouraged its head coach to back the nation’s youth.
Jones, having curiously given most of his veterans the first crack to stake their claim, hasn’t shied away from following through. He’s been bold and ripped the bandaid off the Wallabies.
And why not? After all, this is a Wallabies side that have slipped away from the face of the Earth like a melting iceberg.
The players who have been constants in those sides are Michael Hooper and Quade Cooper.
Would they have led the Wallabies to World Cup glory?
History suggests, no.
On the field, both have struggled this year.
Despite claiming his eighth Matthew Burke Cup on Monday, Hooper had his least effective year in Super Rugby since debuting way back in 2010.
While a calf injury saw him miss the Test against Argentina, Jones could surely have carried him and backed him to have a positive influence like Ian Foster has done with Brodie Retallick or Jacques Nienaber has with Siya Kolisi.
While Cooper has kicked with remarkable accuracy since his incredible return against the Springboks in 2021, the past month exposed his inability to stop the physical onslaught in defence.
His decision-making was also exposed in Dunedin, as he ran the ball back into the defence and was turned over in one of his first involvements.
His second, a shocking drop with an overlap out wide in the final few minutes, was perhaps the final nail in the coffin.
Neither are the future and Jones has sped up their departures. It’s a brutal decision, but Jones has done so by recognising what is on the horizon for Australian rugby with the British and Irish Lions less than two years away too.
Only five players are over 30 in Jones’ squad, while 16 of the players are under the age of 25.
Max Jorgensen is one of three uncapped players included, with the 18-year-old being included despite not playing since injuring his knee against the Crusaders.
But a brace of tries on debut against the Brumbies in Sydney on debut, where he slipped out of two tackles including Allan Alaalatoa, showed he has the composure to succeed on the big stage.
Blake Schoupp has made every post a winner since his low-key move to the Brumbies.
The sight of him locking down the Brumbies’ scrum against the Hurricanes and revving up the crowd to help get the home side across the line showed a young man who embraced the challenge and took enjoyment squaring up under the big lights.
Issak Fines-Leleiwasa is the final uncapped player in the squad.
At 27, he is no kid. But he’s only recently been given an opportunity to play regular minutes at halfback after returning to the Force from the Brumbies.
In the nation’s capital, Dan McKellar used him at halfback and on the wing. Might Jones do the same?
It could allow Jones to be crafty with reserves, allowing him to experiment with a forwards heavy bench if necessary.
But there’s no doubt the pace Fines-Leleiwasa provides is something that would have caught Jones’ eye.
When the Wallabies needed pace and tempo off the bench in the Bledisloe Tests, they got the reverse with Nic White.
That doesn’t mean White won’t be used as a starter, but Fines-Leleiwasa shapes as a “finisher” to inject life into the Wallabies in the same way he did for Australia A against Tonga and the Force over the past two years.
Pete Samu can consider himself unfortunate to not make the squad, but once again he’s not the future.
The back-rower is heading to France to continue his career.
As such, Jones has turned to Tom Hooper, Fraser McReight and Langi Gleeson. All three are young men with bright futures.
Will Skelton is an inspired choice as captain.
He’s not only one of the few players who command a starting spot, but he’s a winner. He’s also brought back with him from France some “edge” that helped Saracens and La Rochelle to multiple European Champions Cup titles.
Some might disagree that a foreign-based player is captaining the Wallabies, but let’s not forget that he was a big kid from Sydney’s west who can inspire a generation of players to pick up a rugby ball.
While goal-kicking could prove an issue throughout the tournament, the only genuine head-scratcher remains Jones’ love affair with Suliasi Vunivalu.
But the Wallabies coach isn’t the only person who saw something in him (whatever it is).
Indeed, three years ago Scott Johnson lured him across on the best part of $750,000.
It was a perplexing decision and one that has yet to bear fruit.
Yet, overall, this is a squad that has life in it and, as the French would say, imprévisibilité.
Life and unpredictability are things Australian rugby need going forward. Jones has just breathed more into the game ahead of schedule.