SAINT ETIENNE – Ben Donaldson is set to be thrust into the No.10 role for the Wallabies’ make-or-break World Cup match against Wales on Sunday (Monday, 5am AEST) in Lyon, with Carter Gordon to be dropped to the bench.
While Eddie Jones was toying with starting Mark Nawaqanitawase at fullback, it’s believed Jones has had a change of heart and will instead promote Andrew Kellaway to wear the No.15 jersey after he was brutally left out of the Wallabies’ opening two Tests of their campaign.
Donaldson had been the bombshell selection for the Wallabies’ opener against Georgia in Paris, but his 25-point bag in a 35-15 victory vindicated Jones’ decision to select the maligned utility back.
Kellaway was largely kept in the dark as to why he had been dropped other than to say Donaldson’s ability to slot goals had given him the inside running.
But Gordon’s struggles over the past fortnight, where he struggled to command the side against Georgia and then went battled against Fiji during their 22-15 loss in Saint Etienne, has seen Jones drop the 22-year-old to the bench.
It’s believed Gordon was told he needed to get his hands on the ball more ahead of their second World Cup fixture against Fiji, but the reverse occurred as the Wallabies continually played off halfback.
Gordon’s inability to take a Simione Kuruvoli box kick saw the Fijians grab hold of the momentum early in the second half, as their four-point half-time lead extended to 11 points when Josua Tuisova scored out wide.
It was shortly after that Gordon, who regularly was in the backfield despite generally defending in the front line throughout the Super Rugby season, was dragged.
After struggling throughout the Super Rugby season, so much so that the Waratahs didn’t fight to keep his services beyond the year, Donaldson has excelled in recent weeks on the game’s biggest stage.
The 24-year-old, whose one and only Test in the No.10 jersey came against Wales in 2022 when he was substituted midway through the second half when the Wallabies trailed by 21 points, looked comfortable when he moved into the fly-half role last Sunday in the 50th minute.
Elsewhere, the starting forward pack is set to be largely similar despite Rob Valetini’s training load being limited ahead of the Wales Test.
Tate McDermott, meanwhile, is primed to return against Wales 10 months after helping the Wallabies stage a comeback in comeback to finish 2022 with a win.
Whether he takes over the captaincy remains to be seen, with Jones undecided with who will lead the side.
“I’m not quite sure,” McDermott told reporters on Wednesday.
“We’ve got a strong leadership group, so anyone in that group is capable of taking that role. You saw Dave Porecki take over and I missed that game, so we’ll just have to see.”
McDermott stressed that Gordon wasn’t the only player who had struggled against Fiji, but backed his teammate to respond.
“He’s been good though, he’s really resilient,” McDermott said.
“I’m really close with them and he’s incredibly disappointed, of course, and the whole squad is because of that performance. But you’ve got to have a short memory, particularly given how important his preparation will be into this next game.”
While McDermott missed the loss against Fiji because of concussion, he said they had been given a harsh lesson about the importance of staying on the right side of the whistle and added that if they gave away anywhere near the 18 penalties they did last weekend, Welsh sharpshooter Dan Bigger would end their World Cup hopes.
“You look at the similarities between them, Fiji’s mentality at start the game to take those threes, Dan Biggar is going to do the exact same thing with Wales,” McDermott said.
“All that is, is we’ve got to win the physicality. If we don’t do that, we’re on the back foot, then we invite those opportunities for them to build that scoreboard pressure.
“So that started yesterday [Tuesday]. We addressed that. There’s more to that than just missing a few breakdowns or being late to that. We’ve got to make sure it’s up here that we’re there from the start of the game against Wales. Otherwise we’re chasing our tails.”
Although the Wallabies fell short against Fiji, their second-half issues came squarely down to their breakdown issues.
Forwards coach Neal Hatley said the entire coaching staff was responsible for overseeing the breakdown, but acknowledged it was an area they had to immediately address to have any chance against Wales.
He added that their struggles were also down to their lack of impetus at the gain-line, which came off the back of the Wallabies losing Taniela Tupou and captain Will Skelton ahead of the Test.
“To lose that many breakdown turnovers [was] disappointing,” Hatley said.
“Sometimes it’s not just the ruck, it’s the carry, it’s how we present the ball, so there’s a lot more to it than just one thing. We’ve been pretty good with that in the other games.
“We looked at one or two other areas that we thought were going to be really important against Fiji and you prioritise those in a week and we probably should have prioritised a bit more on the ruck because it’s always important, there’s 150, 160 of them in a game.
“But it’s not just one thing, it’s not late support…it’s sort of a combination of different things. But that’s our responsibility, how we set training up in the week to make sure we get those bits right.”
Given the Wallabies are level with Fiji on six points, four points behind table-topping Wales (10), Jones’ men likely need to win with a bonus point to ensure they control their own destiny ahead of their final Pool C Test against Portugal.
McDermott said the Wallabies were aware of the point scenario but added they couldn’t put the cart before the horse.
“There’s always context to that kind of stuff. We’re aware of the bonus point situation,” he said.
“But at the forefront of our mind is a performance that actually puts us in a position to be able to capitalise on those points.
“So we’ve done it every week, we’ve put ourselves in that position, we haven’t been good enough. Whether it’s the breakdown, whether it’s the last pass – so for us, we’ve got a game plan that gets us to the right spots.
“We’ve just got to make sure we’re clinical enough at the breakdown and we’re clear in our minds exactly what we want to do when we get down there.”
The Wallabies will officially name their team on Friday at 5:30pm AEST.