Wallabies coach Eddie Jones has reacted to the 0-4 start to his reign by blowing up the squad and starting again for the World Cup next month, ending the Test careers of Quade Cooper and Michael Hooper in the process.
French-based lock Will Skelton was named captain for the tournament with a demotion for James Slipper, while Australia’s longest-serving skipper Hooper was left out of the 33-man squad altogether. Tate McDermott will serve as Skelton’s deputy in the seven-week tournament starting September 8.
The team, with an average age of 26, an average Test caps of 20 and 25 players at their first RWC, is Australia’s least experienced since the 1991 World Cup, as Jones decided to go all in on youth. He has selected Carter Gordon and Ben Donaldson as his flyhalf options – they have six Tests between them with five losses.
“It’s a young squad, it’s an exciting squad and it will be a successful squad. We are making good progress. Our challenge is to continue to improve,” Jones said.
“I’ve backed the young blokes because they earned it. Simple as that. I haven’t handed it to them. They grabbed it. It’s exciting for me to go to work each day with these guys who are just busting to improve, to learn and to get better. They want to succeed, and they will succeed and that excitement is rubbing off on everyone. We’re in a good place.
“The experts have written us off. No one believes we can do it, but we believe. The coaches believe, the players believe and that’s all that matters.
“To get a little bit better every day in everything we do on and off the field. As I’ve said since I took over, in Australian rugby we have the talent, but we don’t yet have the team. That’s still the case. But we are getting there and I’m backing that we will surprise a few people.
“Being part of a team that gets the opportunity to compete at a World Cup is a rare privilege. Look at the fun the Matildas are having and the joy they are creating. Look at the way the country is rallying around them. This is what we want to do. We want to build that same type of excitement. That same kind of expectation and the way we will do it is by everyone in the squad giving their best effort every day. We can’t wait.”
Slipper and Hooper were named as co-captains in June ahead of The Rugby Championship but Skelton has been consistently one of Australia’s best players in a losing team, and in May Jones called the La Rochelle giant “the best right-hand-side lock in the world.”
Skelton, one of four overseas based players selected, was aware he needed to improve on a sketchy international career previously.
“I probably have had a lot of opportunity in the jersey and not taken the best step forward in my personal opinion, performance-wise,” the 31-year-old said recently.
“It’s a different opportunity to come over here and inject a bit of experience, a bit of wisdom.
“I’m older now and I see what I can add to this team going forward.”
There were shocks aplenty in the squad and none more seismic than Jones’ decision to leave out Cooper after a disappointing return to the No.10 jersey in 2023 after recovering from an Achilles rupture. The decision confirmed The Roar’s earlier report, which had signalled Cooper’s axing as well as several other shocks.
The 35-year-old had his Test career resurrected under Dave Rennie last year and won all six games under that coach but has looked rusty under Jones. A dropped pass as the Wallabies pushed for a win over the All Blacks last weekend appears to be a grim full stop to his time back in gold.
Instead, four-Test Carter Gordon will carry the Wallabies’ hopes in the key position, with back up from two-Test Ben Donaldson as Jones clearly has one eye on the 2027 World Cup. The absence of Cooper also leaves the Wallabies without a proven top class goal kicker.
Jones has ignored the claims of Bernard Foley this year despite the Japan-based No.10 being part of the early camps – but has given a flicker of hope to James O’Connor, who will attend the pre-tournament training camps as one of three added players and is seemingly next in line if Gordon or Donaldson are injured. Tom Lambert and Folau Fainga’a will also head to the camp.
It is almost inconceivable that the Wallabies will go into the tournament with two flyhalves with a combined six Test caps – the All Blacks’ three options of Richie Mo’unga, Beauden Barrett and Damian McKenzie have played more than 200 Tests combined. Between them Gordon and Donaldson have been on the winning side just once – and that was against Wales when Noah Lolesio brought the Wallabies home.
Donaldson far from excelled during Super Rugby, and the Waratahs considered him surplus to requirements, allowing him to join Western Force in 2024.
Cooper is likely to be rocked by the decision and this week he said he wanted more, after playing his final Test against the All Blacks in New Zealand.
“These are the moments I’ll miss the most: taking a shot to tie the game with a full house booing, running out with your teammates against the best, knowing the challenge that awaits is just moments away,” he posted.
“It just doesn’t get much better than competing at the highest level. The preparation, the physical toll, and the emotional journey can be brutal, but we continue to get up and want more.”
There is also place in the squad for Max Jorgensen – one of three uncapped players in the 33 along with Brumbies prop Blake Schoupp and Issak Fines-Leleiwasa – who has taken the third halfback spot ahead of Ryan Lonergan and Jake Gordon. Lonergan has been with the squad for most of the year, has captained Australia A and is a goal kicking option but Fines-Leleiwasa is a better runner off the ruck and that’s what Jones favours.
Jorgensen, who turns 19 a week before the Wallabies’ first game – suffered a serious knee injury in the penultimate Super Rugby match of the season against the Crusaders and Jones has opted to choose him despite his long recovery period and the risks involved in rushing him back.
“I don’t think you can take him,” Morgan Turinui said of Jorgensen in June. “Nope. Let him get it right. What is it? June, July, August, it’s the 1st of September, you’re on the plane, you’re not playing the French warm-up game in August, you maybe get picked sight unseen.
“His career is going to be long if we take care of him.”
Similar lenience wasn’t granted to Len Ikitau (shoulder injury) or Hooper (calf injury), who would have been in major doubt for the early matches and were overlooked. Jed Holloway was another notable omission.
Tom Wright, who started the season in the No.15 jersey, has missed out with Andrew Kellaway grabbing the fullback role during the Bledisloe Cup. Jones has ignored Wright’s ability to play on the wing as well – and his decision to choose Suliasi Vunivalu will predictably fire up supporters.
Vuinvalu is clearly a project player for the NRL-loving Jones.
“Eddie has been messaging after every couple of games, telling me what to do, what to work on, and what I need to do better, which has been really helpful,” said the Reds winger when he signed a two-year extension in May.
“Suli has the potential to be a Test matchwinner,” Jones said.
“I’m really pleased with how he’s been progressing through Super Rugby and even happier that he’s committed his future to Queensland and the Wallabies.”
Jones described the divisive former Melbourne Storm flyer as having “the potential to be a Test matchwinner.”
The coach has a contract through to the end of the next tournament, and with a good draw in France he appears to be having one eye on the future, and one on the present.
“Rugby World Cup is a tournament, and tournament rugby is different to competition rugby. Look at the Women’s Football World Cup,” said Jones.
“Favourites get beaten. Upsets happen. It’s all part of the challenge. All the teams start from the same place. We all get the same opportunity. The team that improves the most is generally the team that will win it and that’s the task we have set ourselves. We have been improving and we will continue to improve.”
2023 Rugby World Cup Squad (age, professional club, junior club, Tests)
Angus Bell (22, NSW Waratahs, Hunters Hill Rugby Club, 23 Tests)*
Pone Fa’amausili (26, Melbourne Rebels, Moorabbin Rams, 5 Tests) *
Zane Nonggorr (22, Queensland Reds, Gold Coast Eagles, 2 Tests)*
Blake Schoupp (23, ACT Brumbies, Woonona Shamrocks, uncapped)*
James Slipper (34, ACT Brumbies, Bond Pirates, 131 Tests)
Taniela Tupou (27, Queensland Reds, Brothers Rugby Club, 48 Tests)
Matt Faessler (24, Queensland Reds, USQ Saints, 1 Test)*
David Porecki (30, NSW Waratahs, Seaforth Raiders, 14 Tests)*
Jordan Uelese (26, Melbourne Rebels, Eltham Rugby Club, 18 Tests)
Richie Arnold (33, Stade Toulousain, Gentlemen of Murwillumbah, 4 Tests)*
Nick Frost (23, ACT Brumbies, Hornsby Lions, 12 Tests) *
Matt Philip (29, Melbourne Rebels, Newport Juniors, 28 Tests)*
Will Skelton (c) (31, La Rochelle, Wentworth Magpies, 28 Tests)
Back Row (5)
Langi Gleeson (22, NSW Waratahs, Harbord Harlequins, 3 Tests)*
Tom Hooper (22, ACT Brumbies, Bathurst Bulldogs, 3 Tests)*
Rob Leota (26, Melbourne Rebels, Northern Panthers, 16 Tests)*
Fraser McReight (24, Queensland Reds, Albany Creek Brumbies, 12 Tests)*
Rob Valetini (24, ACT Brumbies, Melbourne Harlequins, 34 Tests)*
Issak Fines-Leleiwasa (27, Western Force, Port Douglas Reef Raiders, uncapped)*
Tate McDermott (vc) (24, Queensland Reds, Flinders Rugby Club, 25 Tests)*
Nic White (33, ACT Brumbies, Muswellbrook Healers, 63 Tests)
Carter Gordon (22, Melbourne Rebels, Sunshine Coast Grammar School, 4 Tests)*
Lalakai Foketi (28, NSW Waratahs, Manly Roos, 5 Tests)*
Samu Kerevi (29, Urayasu D-Rocks, Souths Magpies, 45 Tests)
Izaia Perese (26, NSW Waratahs, Easts Tigers, 5 Tests)*
Jordan Petaia (23, Queensland Reds, Wests Rugby Club, 27 Tests)
Outside Backs (5)
Max Jorgensen (18, NSW Waratahs, Balmain Wolves, uncapped)*
Andrew Kellaway (27, Melbourne Rebels, Hunters Hill Rugby Club, 23 Tests)*
Marika Koroibete (31, Saitama Wild Knights, Nasinu Secondary School, 55 Tests)
Mark Nawaqanitawase (22, NSW Waratahs, Wests Juniors, 6 Tests)*
Suliasi Vunivalu (27, Queensland Reds, Saint Kentigern College, 2 Tests)*
Ben Donaldson (23, NSW Waratahs, Clovelly Eagles, 2 Tests)*
Josh Kemeny (24, Melbourne Rebels, Easts Rugby Club, 1 Test)*
*denotes first Rugby World Cup
Tom Lambert, James O’Connor and Folau Fainga’a added as “extra training members”.