Once Cortnee Vine’s remarkable 20th penalty shootout attempt hit the back of the net on Saturday night, more than three hours after the Matildas’ do-or-die quarter-final against France began, memories of any other sport across the weekend were dashed.
Club rugby semi-finals, my practice putting session on Saturday afternoon, all long forgotten. My daughter’s basketball result is just clinging on.
Come Sunday morning’s walk with the Jack Russell, the Matildas was literally all anyone wanted to talk about. “Did you watch the Matildas?”, “How about the Matildas?”, and “How exhausting are penalty shootouts?”
All those conversations, and all the reactions online and the socials and all across every media outlet, and the record TV ratings tell us all one thing: there aren’t too many more unifying moments than Australia doing well in a World Cup.
Go deep, and the country is right behind the team of the day, regardless of the sport.
By my rudimentary research, the current FIFA tournament in Australia and New Zealand is the fourth of seven World Cups to be played around the globe in 2023.
Australia was beaten by eventual champions Germany in a semi-final of the Men’s Hockey World Cup in January, the Australian women beat hosts South Africa in the Final of the Twenty20 Cricket World Cup in February, and the Diamonds beat England comfortably to claim the Netball World Cup in South Africa earlier this month.
There’s a men’s basketball World Cup played across three Asian countries in September to come, the men’s Rugby World Cup in France, obviously, and a men’s ODI Cricket World Cup in India in November to round them out.
The Wallabies will know that a strong showing in their World Cup in September and October can do no end of good getting the Australian public on board, and Eddie Jones knows this as well.
The common denominator in all these Australian performances at World Cups this year?
Belief from the teams and coaching staff that they can go deep, belief from supporters who have followed them religiously, and belief from a broader sporting public who got swept up along the way through the tournament.
And it’s this latter group waiting to be swept up, because they’re the ones now raving about the Matildas around the photocopier, on the morning coffee run, and taking the dog for a walk. They’ve seen the results, they’ve started following along and watching, and now they’re ready to celebrate the success.
Does it matter that they’re late to the party? Of course not. Bandwagons were made for the Johnny-come-latelies.
That’s the job in front of Jones now.
Make the squad believe they can go deep in France, and just as importantly, convince everyone preparing to watch on from near and far, and everyone who could get swept up in a run that the Wallabies can go deep, too.
The first step in doing that might be to build and start delivering a really solid narrative around this new squad full of shock selections for France.
There’s way too much confusion among Australian rugby fans right now after Thursday night’s announcement, and right now they just want to know two key things: what’s the plan now? And why the sudden late change of tack?
You’ve picked a young squad to try and change the culture in the squad and move on from the habit of losing, but will you now adopt a game plan that suits the new squad or is low possession rugby still in your plans?
(And a reminder, you’ve already abandoned this plan once during The Rugby Championship and Bledisloe Cup.)
Why is there too much risk in taking Michael Hooper and Len Ikitau to France with the expectation that they’d be ready for the first game or two, but there’s no risk in calling in a couple of extra guys to train while covering for other guys in the squad right now who currently can’t train?
In naming a new captain who might have enjoyed plenty of success in Europe, and France specifically, but is very much a ‘leader by actions, not words’ type of player, who are your key voices out on the field now?
If you want fans and supporters to embrace this team, then bring them onboard. Share the thinking, tell them why things have changed, outline the way forward for this team.
Yet again I find myself in the enviable situation of following Geoff Parkes, who summed things up beautifully in yesterday’s edition of The Wrap:
“Perhaps what Australian fans want to be as Australians is to support a side with a winning chance at this World Cup, not be sold the promise of a more competitive showing in 2027?”
And he’s spot on. With brownie points banked with families, spare rooms made up and 1:45am and 5am alarms set throughout the month of September, Wallabies fans had made their plans. They were onboard.
It’s not comfort, as I discovered last week, but the 0-4 record hasn’t exactly brought any panic with it either. There was always realisation the required shifts would need time.
But four years? That’s essentially what Eddie Jones is saying with this new squad, except that he’s not actually saying it.
This is why the narrative from right now is so important. What is the plan? And not the plan for 2025 or 2027, what the plan for 2023 and this Rugby World Cup now only a matter of weeks away?
Just as Australia has climbed aboard the Matildas, sports fans stand ready to believe in the Wallabies, too. But they need to know why, and they need to know why in the next month, not in four years’ time.
If the needle really has moved to 2027, then say that. But immediately follow that up with how the Wallabies are going to go as deep as they can next month.
Give fans the reasons to believe. It’s as simple as that.
FOOTNOTE: A reminder that should any RWC knockout match remain deadlocked after 10 minutes each way of extra time and another 10 minutes of sudden death golden point, we’re heading for a place kick shootout scenario. Sadly, there’s no role for Mackenzie Arnold-type shot-stoppers.
See Toulouse beating Munster in a Champions Cup quarter-final in May 2022 for the most recent example.
And yes, it looks just as exhausting as the Matildas on Saturday night.