When Eddie Jones first asked Will Skelton to be the Wallabies’ captain at this year’s World Cup, the giant second-rower initially said “no”.
Hitherto, Skelton had said he was “reluctant” to accept the responsibilities and needed some time to think about it.
“Yeah, very shocked, nervous; just a few emotions I had when Eddie gave me the call,” Skelton told Stan Sport following the World Cup squad announcement.
“I was very reluctant at first, but when the big man calls you, you tend to follow his lead, and I trust his guidance too.
But Skelton told The Roar on Thursday that he initially knocked back Jones, before coming around to the idea.
It led to tears running down the face of his parents when he informed his family of the news at his in-laws’ home.
Jones, meanwhile, was a relieved man. But it only crystalised his mind that Skelton was the right person for the role.
“I asked him to have a think about it because sometimes, particularly for the humble players, captaincy is not something they want,” Jones said at World Cup squad unveiling. “You have to encourage them to take it. I’ve had similar situations with other good men like Will.”
One of the things Skelton grappled with was what leader he would be or, indeed, whether he saw himself as a leader who could deliver Churchillian speeches.
After saying he wouldn’t lead in a manner similar to that of the England captain Owen Farrell, who skippered Skelton previously at Saracens, Skelton said he wouldn’t try to lean into any one person’s leadership style.
“I don’t know, mate. I’m just trying to be me,” he told reporters on Wednesday at the Wallabies’ ‘Au Revoir’ World Cup send-off in Sydney.
“I think that was one of the problems when Eddie first called me. The only thing I could lean back on was my experience and the leaders that I had.
“I knew those guys weren’t my style of leadership. I’m not a guy who will stand in front of a team [and deliver] off the cuff [talks] and inspire the whole team.
“Speaking off the cuff is not my forte, so I’ll just try and grow into this role and embrace it.”
Instead, Skelton said his strengths lay in other areas and believes he can add to building a successful environment off the field.
“I always just try and be myself. When I got this role, I never wanted to change and I believe in this first week I haven’t done that. I’ve tried to be who I am and stick to that,” he said.
“I love those small conversations, I love having banter with the boys, having a joke.
“A thing I’ve always done is ask how your family is, how you’re doing at home. Just the normal things.
“I’ve been trying to do that around this group and just getting to know my players because I know if you’re better connected off the field, you’ll always perform better on the field.
“That’s just who I am.”
Wallabies openside flanker Fraser McReight, who led the Junior Wallabies to the under-20s world championship final in 2019, said Skelton had very much stayed true to himself.
“I don’t think much has changed,” he said. “Will’s really good around the group, he gets people together and that’s what he’s done.”
While Jones controversially left out Michael Hooper and Quade Cooper from his 33-man World Cup squad, Skelton doesn’t have to search too hard for other leaders.
The 145kg, 202cm forward said he would continue to call upon the advice of James Slipper, Nic White and Andrew Kellaway. Tate McDermott is also the vice-captain.
Skelton said he wouldn’t lead with an iron fist and that he would be consultative in his decision-making on the field.
“We’re pretty open and transparent in this group. I’m not going to have all the answers as well,” he said.
“It will be the preparation during the week for me. Getting to know the refs and then also speaking to the other boys, Eddie as well, about what the game plan is that week, how we want to approach it.
“If we’re looking for points early.
“But also on the field, I’ll be looking to the other leaders out there to help me make those decisions and they’re not always going to be perfect.
“I haven’t done this before so I’ll be leaning on them a lot.”
If it sounds like Skelton will be learning on the run, he will. And it’s just what Jones wants, believing the Wallabies must do things differently if they are to stand a chance in France of claiming their third Webb Ellis Cup.
But Jones also knows that Skelton is a winner, having lifted back-to-back European Championship Cup trophies for La Rochelle and previously Saracens when the Wallabies coach was leading England.
“We want to change the team, my job is to come here and change the team, and part of that was changing the leadership and the way the team’s led, and Will’s a good man, a good team, he’s played in a lot of winning teams in Europe and he brings that almost common touch to the team to bring that together,” Jones said.
“He’s going to be well supported by Tate as vice-captain, and we’ve got senior guys like Slips and Nic White and Andrew Kellaway to support him, Samu Kerevi [as well].”
Skelton, meanwhile, believes the Wallabies have “all the ingredients” to be successful in France, but isn’t so sure his experience at club level necessarily means he will succeed on the international stage.
“Hopefully. In the last few years, I’ve been lucky enough to be part of some winning teams, winning cultures,” he said.
“It’s hard when you transfer that club to international level though, because the stakes are a lot higher. But we’ve got all the ingredients, we’ve got all the players, we’ve got a young group who’s hungry to win and to make our fans.”
Should Skelton’s Wallabies go deep at next month’s World Cup, the leadership change will be one of the catalysts behind their success.
But even if they don’t, the fact Skelton, a big man from Sydney’s west, grew up to lead the Wallabies on the world’s biggest stage shows that rugby very much remains a game for all shapes and sizes.