It’s probably not right to say Rugby World Cup week has snuck up on us, given it’s been coming for four years, but it is still hard to believe we’re at the tournament eve stage of the quadrennial rugby cycle.
All the competing squads are now in France. Ceremonies have been had, teams have been welcomed and were adorned with caps. In a break of tradition in this modern day and age, participation medals have been awarded before the event began, rather than at the customary end.
But for this Wallabies squad heading into this Rugby World Cup, they are in the most unknown and uncharted of territories.
No Australian squad since the tournament was first conceived and competed for back in 1987 has gone into a RWC without an entry in the win column that year.
Back in the first few iterations of the tournament, there were only a few warm-up games and straight into the tournament. No June Internationals, no Rugby Championship, and certainly no month-long series of warm-up games.
In 1987, the Wallabies played Korea at Ballymore in mid-May just six days before their first Pool A game, against England at Concord Oval.
But in every World Cup year, the Wallabies won games, and most years in fact, they won most games.
You have to go back to 2003 to find the next-worst World Cup year record to that of the 2023 Wallabies, where they lost four of the seven games played before the tournament was played on home soil.
The Wallabies beat Ireland and Wales, but lost to England in Melbourne to round out the June Tests, then lost to South Africa in Cape Town to open the Tri-Nations, lost the first Bledisloe Cup Test in Sydney, beat the Springboks in Brisbane before losing obligatory Test at Eden Park to surrender the Bledisloe for the first time in six seasons.
Come the 2003 RWC, they went on a run that only ended with Jonny Wilkinson’s right bloody foot.
Six straight wins before the Final, and never conceding more than one try in any of the seven games, while also running in 33 tries themselves (25 of them coming in big wins over Romania and Namibia).
So, losing most of the lead-up games probably turned out OK in the end, one right bloody foot notwithstanding.
My initial thought when this theme came to me over the weekend was the 2015 and 2019 lead-ins weren’t great, but of course the Wallabies won the abbreviated Rugby Championship in 2015, with wins over the Boks, Los Pumas and All Blacks before obviously losing in Auckland. They also thumped the USA in Chicago en route to the UK.
And in 2019, a loss to the Springboks at Ellis Park was the only Rugby Championship blemish, before losing at Eden Park again. The Wallabies then beat Samoa in Sydney before heading to Japan.
2023, therefore, is coming from a place the Wallabies have never found themselves.
Every gauge on where they’re currently at is theoretical. Every thought of improvement in any particular aspect of their game from one match to the next is subjective. And every persisting opinion that they’re still somehow ‘guaranteed of a semi-final’ because the draw was seeded back in yesteryear remains highly presumptive.
To his credit, the coach maintains that everything is on track, and that she really will be right. Mate.
And in his defence, there has been improvement from game to game this year.
The Wallabies’ defence in Paris last weekend against France was certainly better than what we first saw in Pretoria, and it was quite probably the best backrow performance of the year as well. There are more signs of attacking intent now as well, even if that midfield disconnection is still apparent. The set piece has shown gradual improvement as well, though the ability for the attacking maul to go forward remains a concern.
Obviously, these are just my observations and the point about subjectivity made just above remains.
The challenge for Eddie Jones this week and for the rest of this month at least (hopefully, ideally) is to pull these gradual improvements together. It’s certainly not isolated to the 2023 squad, but it’s equally true that the Wallabies this season are yet to put anything near the full 80 minutes together.
This, perhaps, has been the major source of frustration for Wallabies fans this year, that good periods of play are followed by periods of craziness and even stupidity. And that’s not even to lay this all at the feet of poor discipline and conceding penalties; it’s everything.
Too often this season, what worked well in one match has gone horribly wrong the next. Periods of momentum and genuine pressure on the opposition has been undermined by playing one phase too many, or a poorly executed kick, or a pass that just was never on, or indeed, a penalty conceded out of terrible decision-making.
The 2023 Rugby World Cup could still be the crowning glory for Eddie Jones the coach, but it could also be the coup de grâce. His whole vision for his second coming as Wallabies coach was built on success at this year’s tournament, and however he wants to measure what that success looks like, he still has to achieve it.
If he needs to go back to his methods from 2003 to find the spark that re-ignited his team back then, then let’s see whatever that was. Get the 2023 Wallabies channelling the 2003 Wallabies, or indeed, get them channelling whatever they need to channel.
But for the sake of Wallabies fans over the next two months, just get them channelling something.
A nation of rugby fans are ready to get on board for this campaign, even the ones who’ve already lost hope, and plenty who have spent a lot of their hard-earned to share this experience in France. But they need to see something from the outset, starting this coming Sunday morning, Australian time, against Georgia in Paris.
Success at the 2023 RWC means this Wallabies squad will have to overcome a start to the year that no previous generation has experienced.
And if they can turn that around and start building something in this tournament, then negativity and the worst press conferences in rugby history is something they won’t need to worry about.