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'Fall guy': Eddie doubles down on future, makes three changes as Wallabies sweat on RWC miracle

29th September, 2023
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29th September, 2023
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As Eddie Jones swung the axe ahead of the Wallabies’ final Rugby World Cup pool clash against Portugal on Sunday (Monday, 2:45am), the veteran coach said he’s resigned to being the “fall guy” if Rugby Australia officials deem it necessary to push the eject button.

Usually a team announcement is reserved for questions surrounding form and tactics, but with Jones’ future up in the air following reports he was talking to the Japan Rugby Football Union less than one season into a five-year deal, the Wallabies boss was asked to come clear about whether or not he interviewed for the soon-to-be vacant Brave Blossoms job.

“I’ve already answered that before. I’ve already said that before. I said no, previously. I am just worried about the Portuguese game,” Jones said.

“I am 100 per cent committed to the job and I’ve said that previously.”

David Porecki and Eddie Jones speak to the media during a press conference ahead of their final pool match against Portugal. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

Asked if he had considered resigning, Jones again insisted he was “only worried about the Portuguese game.”

Jones maintained that he got the selection for the World Cup campaign right and repeatedly said he took “full responsibility” for the results.

Asked what he meant by that, Jones said the buck stops with head coaches.

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“If people have got a problem with results they come to me, right,” he said. “And at the end of the tournament, I will stand by that. If there needs to be a fall guy for the World Cup, then it’s obviously me. When you become a head coach for a team, you take on that responsibility.”

While mathematically the Wallabies can still qualify for the quarter-finals, it will take a major capitulation from Fiji for Jones’ side to make the final eight.

Locked on six points with their Super Rugby friends, Fiji has a game in spare over the Wallabies and face the two lowest-ranked opponents in Pool C – Georgia and Portugal – over the next 10 days.

Should Fiji claim five out of a possible 10 points over the next two matches, the Wallabies will be knocked out even if they claim a bonus-point win over Portugal because they lost to their Pool C opponents in Saint Etienne in their second fixture.

With much at stake, Jones said his approach to World Cup selection hadn’t changed even though they were up against the world No.16 side.

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“I’ve always gone into every World Cup where you pick your best 23 for each game and this is the best 23,” said Jones, with world class forwards Taniela Tupou (hamstring) and captain Will Skelton (calf) still sidelined with injury.

James Slipper will become the Wallabies’ most-capped player at a World Cup when he runs out for his 21st Test against Portugal. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

Jones made three changes to his starting side from the one that suffered a humbling 40-6 loss to Wales.

The most glaring omission is Samu Kerevi, with the inside centre and his midfield partner Jordan Petaia left out.

As revealed on Thursday, their spots have been replaced by the NSW combination of Lalakai Foketi and Izaia Perese, who will make his World Cup debut as he starts in the No.13 jersey for the first time for the Wallabies.

“Just opportunity, Foketi has trained well the whole tournament,” Jones said.

“Samu has probably just been a little bit off. You know, he’s had a tough run-in to the World Cup, coming back from an ACL [anterior cruciate ligament injury], two hamstring injuries. Hasn’t been as sharp as we’d like him to be.

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“And Jordie Petaia had a bit of a calf issue. He is fit now but again with Izzie, he’s trained really well the whole World Cup and I feel like both those two guys can do a really good job for us against Portugal.”

Mark Nawaqanitawase, Ben Donaldson and Marika Koroibete will all start against Portugal. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

The other change sees Fraser McReight return to the back-row, with Rob Leota drop back to the bench.

In the absence of Tupou, James Slipper will play his 21st World Cup match – a Wallabies record, surpassing George Gregan – as he lines up at tight-head prop alongside Dave Porecki and Angus Bell in the front-row.

The second-row remains the same with Richie Arnold partnering Nick Frost, while it’s a young back-row with Tom Hooper, McReight and Rob Valetini returning.

Tate McDermott and maligned fly-half Ben Donaldson form the halves, with Issak Fines-Leleiwasa and Carter Gordon providing cover on the bench which is also sees back-rower Josh Kemeny in line to make his World Cup debut.

Jones, who was in the stands in Paris to watch Australia A beat Portugal 30-17 in August, said he felt the balance of the back-row would be crucial against a European side that likes to move the ball.

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“Against Portugal, it’s going to be a work-rate game. They play a side-to-side game and I feel that having two workers there will suit us best,” Jones said.

“Then Leota can come in the second-half. I thought he played well last week for us. We’ve got a young team that needs to be kept fresh.”

Wallabies coach Eddie Jones has once again denied he interviewed for the soon-to-be vacant role with the Brave Blossoms. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

Perese, 26, described the feeling of about to feature in the World Cup as a “pinch yourself” moment.

“I’m excited,” he said.

“It’s one of those things, that’s part of footy: if you don’t get to play, you don’t get to play. You’ve just got to rock up, week-in-and-week-out and do your very best to prepare the team for that week.

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“This week I finally get an opportunity, so I am just thinking about doing my job for the boys and putting a lot of pride into that jersey, for everyone back home as well.”

Perese will form a NSW-heavy backline alongside playmaker Donaldson, Foketi and winger Mark Nawaqanitawase.

“There is a lot of familiarity with Donno and La [Foketi], having the opportunity to play three years together. We trust each other, we’ve grown together over the three years,” he said.

Wallabies team to play Portugal at Stade Geoffroy-Guichard, Saint-Étienne on Sunday 1 October, 5:45pm CET/2:45am Monday AEST

1.  Angus Bell (27 Tests)

2.  David Porecki (c) (18 Tests)

3.  James Slipper (133 Tests)

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4.  Nick Frost (14 Tests)

5.  Richie Arnold (8 Tests)

6.  Tom Hooper (7 Tests)

7.  Fraser McReight (16 Tests)

8.  Rob Valetini (38 Tests)

9.  Tate McDermott (28 Tests)

10.  Ben Donaldson (6 Tests)

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11.  Marika Koroibete (58 Tests)

12.  Lalakai Foketi (8 Tests)

13.  Izaia Perese (5 Tests)

14.  Mark Nawaqanitawase (10 Tests)

15.  Andrew Kellaway (25 Tests)

Finishers

16.  Matt Faessler (4 Tests)

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17.  Blake Schoupp (4 Tests)

18.  Pone Fa’amausili (6 Tests)

19.  Rob Leota (20 Tests)

20.  Josh Kemeny (1 Test)

21.  Issak Fines-Leleiwasa (2 Tests)

22.  Carter Gordon (8 Tests)

23.  Suliasi Vunivalu (6 Tests)

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