PARIS – What was Eddie Jones holding back against France? Despite suffering their fifth straight loss to start 2023 by going down to France 41-17 in Paris on Monday, prop Taniela Tupou said the Wallabies had rolled out a completely different game-plan against Les Bleus and had eyes only for next month’s World Cup.
“We came into this game against France with a different game plan, just for this game,” Tupou told reporters at the Stade de France.
“We didn’t want to show too much before the World Cup.
“I thought the boys did well to try and follow that game plan. We only had a week to look at that.
“At training, we’ve been working on our game plan for the World Cup. It’ll be interesting coming out against Georgia with a different game plan.”
A master planner who has twice knocked the All Blacks out at the semi-final stages, including with England in 2019 and back in 2003 with the Wallabies months after being hammered by their trans-Tasman neighbours, Jones, if we are to take Tupou’s word for it, is trying to play rugby’s great bluff.
“I guess we didn’t want to show too much before the World Cup started,” Tupou added.
Jones, too, has been adamant the Wallabies are on the right track and insisted they have “longer-term plans”.
“Within the camp, we’ve got a fair bit of confidence,” Jones told reporters following the Wallabies’ heavy loss to the World Cup host nation, who are one of the tournament favourites.
“Obviously we’d like to have a better win/loss record but we’ve re-established the team. We’ve taken away all the leadership that was there previously. We’ve got a new leadership team in place. We’re trying to play a different way.
“The results haven’t been good. It hasn’t been good enough. I’m not hiding away from that but we do have a longer-term plan in terms of the World Cup and that’s what we’re here for.”
He added: “We’re not a bad team but we’re not a good team yet. We’re going through the process of becoming a good team. We’ve got to keep believing and working hard and it’ll come. It might be in two weeks’ time against Georgia. It might be three weeks against Fiji. It might be four weeks against Wales. It might be five weeks against Portugal. We don’t know when it’s going to come.”
What that game plan is remains to be seen, but Jones has drastically overhauled the Wallabies’ team over the past two months by backing youth, speed and explosiveness.
Vice-captain Tate McDermott, who was sprightly and threatening against France, said ahead of the match he was confident they would “shock” the world at the tournament after ripping up their game plan.
“The way we want to play suits me perfectly,” he told reporters at the Wallabies’ captain’s run.
“It’s kind of moving away from the structured nature of what we had the past three years, and it brings my strengths into the Test arena, which selflessly is perfect but it’s also suiting a lot of the other boys as well.
“We’ve got some brilliant ball-carriers and we’re testing teams now in an unfamiliar nature that we haven’t done before.”
In this high-stakes game of rugby poker, the Wallabies are blessed to have a favourable draw.
Unlike Scotland who have Ireland and South Africa to contend with, the Wallabies won’t face a side in the top six on the World Rugby rankings.
Fiji, who shocked England on Saturday by claiming a stunning 30-22 win at Twickenham, are their highest ranked opponents at seventh.
Wales, a traditional World Cup rival, are 10th after another horror year to start Warren Gatland’s second tenure in charge of the British nation.
Georgia, who the Wallabies will play first in less than a fortnight in Saint Etienne, are 11th.
Tupou said the Wallabies were embracing their underdog tags.
“We’re definitely the underdog,” he said.
“Coming into the World Cup we’ve got five losses. It’s nothing but the underdog. We like it.
“We’re going to keep working hard. We won’t say much. We’ll let our actions do the talking.”
And work the Wallabies are doing, with Jones treating the past two months as an unofficial pre-season.
Last Wednesday, players were speaking privately of the session being one of the hardest under Jones since he was parachuted into the role in January.
“Training was hard this week but then again, for us to be able to play the game plan that he [Jones] wants us to play for the other teams in the World Cup, we need to be fit,” Tupou said.
“That’s why we’ve been working really hard. It’s been hot, man. I think he’s making us get used to working under fatigue. Whatever it takes. We want to win. Whatever it takes. There’s no complaining.”
Jones, too, said the Wallabies were hanging on after saying he didn’t expect any changes to his 33-man World Cup despite injury clouds hanging over James Slipper (foot) and Andrew Kellaway (arm), who came off late in the defeat against France.
“We’ve been going through a tough training period as the boys know, so everyone’s right on the edge at the moment,” Jones said.
“And we’ll have one more week of hard training in Saint Etienne and then we’ll ease off a bit for the Georgia game.”
Tupou, who said he was still finding his lungs after playing just his second Test of the year and first start, added that the Wallabies were as close as ever and confident ahead of their World Cup opener.
“We’re a pretty tight group,” he said.
“Not winning games is hard but I feel like we’re all helping each other and there’s good vibes. What can we do. It’s done now. We’ve got to keep working hard. We’ve got tough games coming up in Georgia, Fiji and Wales.”
While the Wallabies will head in favourites against Georgia, Tupou said they knew what was coming and had to ensure they were close to their best to start the tournament well.
“They’re good at their scrum and they’re known for their set-piece,” he said.
“We know what we can do when we bring our A-game. We’ve been close.
“We’ve got two weeks to get it right before Georgia. We can’t bring our B game because we need our A game to beat Georgia.
“I got interviewed before the game [in 2019] and my focus was scrums and set-piece. They are similar to Argentina. They are big bodies, carry hard, work hard around the corner. We’re going to be working hard to try and defend that.”