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Enjoy the opportunity, debutants – I’m not sure how many more there will be as Wallabies enter must-win mode

28th August, 2023
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28th August, 2023
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And with the 41-17 loss to France, the Wallabies are now officially in Rugby World Cup mode.

But there are no more games in which to experiment or give blokes enough rope; the next time the Wallabies run out onto grass in Paris and line up for Advance Australia Fair, they’ll be playing for points in Pool C.

With that in mind, it perhaps wasn’t that surprising that Eddie Jones used five new players for the warm-up game in Paris, and the debutants in Brumbies loosehead Blake Schoupp and Western Force scrumhalf Issak Fines-Leleiwasa now have international rugby memories for life.

And it wasn’t surprising, because this might be the last chance he gets to play these guys – simply because everything is must-win for the Wallabies from here.

Jones told Harry Jones and myself on the podcast back in June that he picks squads by initially naming the first XV, then working out the last five players – because the last five will be the blokes that drive standards and keep spirits in the squad high during a tournament.

These guys are crucial in these roles, because they really don’t know how many minutes – if any – they’ll get. And considering the guys that would seemingly occupy those spots in the Wallabies squad in France, there should be no certainty they’ll see minutes during the World Cup.

Now of course, I don’t know who the last five players in the squad are. But some of Schoupp and Fines-Leleiwasa, along with the other new players, Langi Gleeson, Lalakai Foketi, and Ben Donaldson certainly would be. In fact, throw Josh Kemeny and Max Jorgensen into the mix, and Suliasi Vunivalu as well, despite him quite probably producing his best-ever game at international level, and I’m confident the last five are somewhere in that grouping.

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Five games into 2023, and Jones has already used 41 players. That number’s not especially unusual; Dave Rennie used 42 in the first five games on his way to using 51 players in total in 2022.

But those 41 players are also part of 39 positional and personnel changes Jones has made since the first Test of the year in South Africa. It’s unsustainable for team balance and cohesion that he could keep making so many changes through the World Cup.

Fans of the hit US political sitcom Veep will fondly remember Selina Meyer’s election campaign slogan, “Continuity with Change”. The meaningless slogan didn’t help Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ character hold onto the US Presidency (she lost it quite farcically, in fact), and I’m not sure it’s a great plan to win a Rugby World Cup, either.

Too many changes from one game to the next played a major role in Michael Cheika’s diminishing grip on the Wallabies job in 2019. Cheika made 18 changes for the Samoa warm-up game in Sydney, and then had to change them straight back for the first game against Fiji, on the way to making a still unbelievable 77 changes over the course of five games through the tournament.

(Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

It was no wonder they often looked like they’d not played together much that year; they hadn’t.

The France game on Monday morning saw the fourth different front row go pretty well in the scrums, and another iteration of the three-way lock rotation (with Nick Frost) go okay around the park and in the mauls, but with the lineout still misfiring.

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The Tom Hooper-Fraser McReight-Rob Valetini backrow was better again than in Dunedin a fortnight ago, and the three of them are definitely growing as a unit.

The halves were unchanged for a second straight game, and I remain adamant that we need to see Nic White starting with Carter Gordon. And the fourth different centre pairing in 2023 remains as disconnected from the halves as ever.

About the best thing I can offer about the halves and midfield is that their intent was actually quite good, even if their harmony and flow was lacking.

And the back three were quite good again. I still don’t understand why the Wallabies defensive setup has the openside winger stationed so far infield in defence – and I’ll welcome any explanation – but the Andrew Kellaway-Mark Nawaqanitawase combination gets better every game, and that’s more impressive when you consider Nawaqanitawase was playing the hybrid role from the left edge this week.

But the worry now is that there really isn’t any time for mass changes from one game to the next. The Wallabies combinations are still nowhere near strong enough to miss more game time chances together.

With the Wallabies now essentially in knockout mode from the first game of the tournament until wherever they finish, any losses from here will only open the door for Wales possibly and definitely Fiji to go past Australia in the Pool C standings.

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Put simply, the Wallabies no longer have the luxury of playing anything less than their best XV from now on. Whatever that best XV is.

France, Ireland, South Africa, New Zealand know their best sides and combinations – and that’s despite the All Blacks now needing to get over a record thumping that will naturally put them on the back foot. All of them have the time and experience together to manage workloads and get game time into other options.

Even Fiji now look ominous and ready to take a scalp after their outstanding win at Twickenham. With roughly half the squad graduating from the Drua in Super Rugby Pacific straight into the national side, they too have a really good handle on combinations. Not to mention growing confidence after the last few weeks in Europe.

Vinaya Habosi of Fiji celebrates with teammates after scoring the team’s second try during the Summer International match between England and Fiji at Twickenham Stadium on August 26, 2023 in London, England. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)

They’ve won four of their last five, and now will focus everything they have on taking down Wales on September 11. On this weekend’s showing, there’s no reason why they can’t – and when they do, they’ll be ready to take down the Wallabies the weekend after. After that, they can manage workloads en route to the knockout games.

That’s what confidence allows of a team. Of all the teams in Pool C, Fiji arguably have the most control of their own destiny. They’re certainly playing with the most assurance across the park.

Australia certainly does not. It’s already do or die for the Wallabies now.

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Five losses from five games in 2023 means they can forget about quarter-finals and the knockout stage for the moment. The Wallabies’ sole focus now has to and can only be beating Georgia in Paris on September 9.

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The France scoreline still feels rough in terms of a reflection of the contest on the night, and the Wallabies will have taken confidence out of certain areas of that performance. But not many of those areas are connected yet, and there’s still far too much room for error.

So it’s now all on the line. No more excuses, no more deflection, no more blowing up at journalists and turning press conferences into farce. And no one believes the ‘we’ve been foxing’ line, either.

Pure and simple, the time for Eddie Jones and the Wallabies to deliver is right now. So let’s see it.

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