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The ghost game that gives Wallabies coaches the biggest challenge of their careers

2nd October, 2023
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2nd October, 2023
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Unsurprisingly, after gaining the bonus point win over Portugal they needed to keep the slimmest of Rugby World Cup hopes alive, the Australian players and coaches and support staff are taking a three-day mini break.

The original plan after the draw was confirmed would have involved the Australians doing the standard debrief after the Portugal game, and then having secured quarter-final qualification already, going off in separate directions to find a piece of coastline somewhere, anywhere. They’d then return to the Saint Étienne base later this week to reconvene, re-establish goals and standards, take in the final weekend of pool games, and get to work preparing for the knockout stage.

In an ideal world, senior players might even have gotten an early mark before the Portugal game, and everyone would have come back for the knockout preps refreshed, well-rested, and ready to lift for the next part of the journey.

Wallabies head coach Eddie Jones with his coaching team. (Photo by Daniel Pockett/Getty Images)

Instead, the journey now is like the worst kind of travel plan, completely dependent on crossed fingers and standby tickets.

Officially, Australia sits second in the Pool C standings, three points behind the already qualified Wales, and one point ahead of the story of the tournament, the Flying Fijians.

Given the bye this coming weekend, they realistically sit in the RWC equivalent of purgatory. Not definitely out of the running, but not really in it in any meaningful way either.

And it means the staff face what might be one of the biggest challenges of their collective coaching careers.

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The equation is simple: Australia will only go through to the knockout stage of the tournament if Fiji fail to take a point of any description from next weekend’s clash with Portugal in Toulouse.

If you’re clinging to the mathematical hopes of the Wallabies going through, you need the Portugal to win by at least 8 points AND keep the Fijians to fewer than four tries. Any point that Fiji earns next weekend will draw the curtain on what history will remember as Australia’s worst-ever RWC campaign.

So that means after their break, the Wallabies will come back into camp and train for three days into next weekend to begin initial preparations for a game they almost certainly won’t get to play.

I can’t adequately describe not just how big a mental challenge this next week will be for the players, but how big a challenge it will be for the coaching and support staff to get the players ‘up’ for a task they’re highly unlikely to be able to even begin.

The former will be huge for the players. The latter will be stratospheric for the coaches.

Portugal’s chances of beating Fiji are small.

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They’ve averaged less than two converted tries per game in attack across their three pool games played, while conceding more than 26 points per game in defence. Five tries scored, but 11 tries conceded.

No bonus points of any variety, and a points differential of -40. So again, Portugal’s chances of beating Fiji are small.

But what if they do?

Therein lies the Wallabies’ conundrum.

The coaching staff are going to have to take the lead role and it becomes a bit of a psychology exercise.

If the players see that the coaches are going through the motions when they all return to the Saint-Étienne base this week, they won’t buy in. But if they can see that the coaches are ready to begin preparations for a quarter-final, then they’ll see for themselves that their tournament is far from over.

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Whether they think Portugal can win or not is almost immaterial. They just have to accept the possibility.

“We don’t have to worry about whether it’s a chance or not,” Wallabies coach Eddie Jones said after the Portugal win, asked whether he was ready to go all-in on the chance of an Os Lobos win.

“We’ve got a program in place, where we were going to have three days off regardless, and then we’ll have three days good training, and we’ll look to get better. We want to finish next week better than we are now, that’s the aim.

“If we get an opportunity to do that on the field, fantastic.”

But, if that opportunity does come, he’ll have no more than 30 fit bodies to pick from. With Max Jorgensen still not replaced after his lower leg fracture before the Wales game, Jones confirmed on Sunday that Carter Gordon’s knee injury suffered in training last week, and Nick Frost’s knee injury suffered during the Portugal game were serious enough that neither player will feature again in whatever is left of the tournament.

Nick Frost during a Wallabies training session ahead of the Rugby World Cup France 2023, at Stade Roger Baudras on September 14, 2023 in Saint-Etienne, France. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

Nick Frost during a Wallabies training session ahead of the Rugby World Cup France 2023, at Stade Roger Baudras on September 14, 2023 in Saint-Etienne, France. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

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Jones also indicated that there’s no real point thinking about possible replacements until they’re actually needed.

There’s a conundrum for Wallabies fans this weekend coming, too. On one hand, we’ve all loved what Fiji have shown so far and would love to see what they could do in the knockout stage. On the other hand, maybe the level of Portuguese support in the stands will be enough to suck Australian supporters in too?

But Jones was pretty happy to be the buzzkill here, too.

“It’s not a matter of supporting Portugal,” he said. “We’ve done all we can, the game will take its course, we don’t control the result.”

“I’m not going to spend too much time worrying about the result. We’ve had our go at the World Cup, we’re sitting where we are.

“We accept our position, and if it happens that we get another chance, so be it.

“If it doesn’t, we’ve only got to look at ourselves.”

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And that much is certainly true.

Still, the ‘what if they do?’ conundrum is just enticing enough for me to set the alarm for Monday morning.

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