As Darren Coleman declared the No.10 jersey wide open for 2024, the Waratahs coach defended their playing roster strategy after the incumbent Wallabies playmaker was squeezed out of the franchise.
Donaldson, 24, was one of the World Cup bolters in 2023 as Eddie Jones selected the Western Force-bound as one of two playmakers in the Wallabies’ squad.
His selection came despite the developing playmaker ultimately leaving the Waratahs after not justifying the price tag others were prepared to offer following an indifferent season.
Indeed, in the absence of fellow playmakers Tane Edmed and Will Harrison, the Waratahs struggled for consistency with Donaldson driving the team around the park.
The local playmaker rarely probed the line, was wobbly from the boot and struggled defensively.
It left many scratching their head as to why Jones had selected Donaldson alongside Test rookie Carter Gordon in the squad.
“That he comes from Randwick, mate,” Jones, a former player at the famous Sydney club, said sarcastically following the Wallabies’ first-up World Cup win over Georgia where Donaldson scored 25 points at fullback.
“He’s got a head start. I’m trying to pick other Randwick players but I can’t find them at the moment.”
Asked what he saw that the Waratahs didn’t, or weren’t able to get out of him, Jones, as he from the moment he was announced as Wallabies coach, talked up Donaldson’s ability.
“I’m not sure what the Waratahs didn’t see in him. That’s their business, not mine,” Jones said.
“I think he’s a really, really good rugby player.”
In the end, Jones’ side failed to make the knockout stages of the World Cup for the first time as injuries and inexperience came back to hurt the Wallabies.
Donaldson, who started the tournament well at fullback, struggled at fly-half after being shifted to the No.10 jersey following Gordon’s own form issues.
His struggles once again left many long-time observers asking where Donaldson’s best position was?
That now, however, isn’t a problem for Coleman despite the coach admitting they wanted to keep the local product.
“It’s important for people to know we made Ben an offer. We never forced Ben out,” Coleman told The Roar.
“As you said, we’ve got three decent options there. We’ve got a developing Jack Bowen; Tane, who at the peak of his powers, proved he could do; and Will Harrison, and if you look back to when he was fit was showing signs of being a high-level 10.
“We just couldn’t meet the financial restraints of keeping Ben based on what he had done at the Wallabies. He was a really positive guy in our team.”
Edmed, who featured prominently for Australia A in 2022 after a breakout season, is the favourite to wear the No.10 jersey next season but is bound to come under pressure from the emerging Jack Bowen, whose combination with halfback Teddy Wilson is one to watch.
“Who is going to take that 10 jersey is a really interesting battle,” Coleman said.
“Jack’s the up-and-comer, Tane’s shown he can do it and, although Will’s given up a bit of distance because of his rehab, his determination is second to none, so if can find the form of ’20 and ’21 it’s a really even battle.”
Meanwhile, Max Jorgensen, who broke his leg ahead of the Wallabies’ final Pool C World Cup fixture against Portugal in training, is making strong progress and shapes as a round-one starter.
“He’s going good,” Coleman said.
“He’s out of the boot, walking, limp-free. As of today, he’s had a seamless rehab. He’s in every morning working hard on it.
“At some stage, we’ve got to give him a bit of a break to mentally freshen up because he’s gone from being a school leaver to a Waratah to injured to rehab to straight into the Wallabies and rehab again.
“I’m really conscious that we get him to round one not only fit physically, but he’s healthy and mentally fresh and sharp because he’s had a long consistent period without a break. But he’ll be better for the experience. It’s all on track for him to be ready for round one.”