As the cream of Australia’s playing stocks returned for a rare training block ahead of the festive season, Wallabies stars Angus Bell and Lalakai Foketi admit it would “hurt” if Eddie Jones was appointed as Japan’s next coach.
The lingering pain from the Wallabies’ dreaded World Cup is still raw.
Much has changed since the Wallabies were last together in Saint Etienne praying that Portugal would miraculously knock over their Pool C rivals in Early October. They did, but not by the required margin to allow the Wallabies to sneak into the World Cup knockout stages.
Instead, the Wallabies crashed out at the pool stages for the first time and the collateral damage has been severe.
Jones, if he wasn’t already planning to pull the parachute on Australian rugby, walked. Others, like Rugby Australia chairman Hamish McLennan, were forced to walk the plank.
Now the players remain to pick up the mess, with the Wallabies coaching group blown up while a new head coach is weeks, if not months, away from being appointed.
“It [the disappointment] lingered around for a while and you see people you haven’t seen for a while and they want to hear about it and talk about it,” Foketi told reporters on Wednesday.
“It was hard because not by fault or not by effort that we didn’t go as well as we wanted, and it was poor World Cup from us.
“So, yeah, it lingers. It’s probably still lingering a little bit, but it’s good we get out there today and we get to run around with the boys.”
With no meaningful games for another 10 weeks, all Australia’s players can do is work hard in the background.
That’s OK for many, but most are itching for a chance of redemption.
“We’d love to and obviously we’ll do everything in our power to do so, but we have a job with the Waratahs first and the good thing is there are opportunities there for Australian rugby to redeem a little bit of that respect back that we lost at the World Cup,” Bell said.
“In professional sport, you can’t hang on to things for too long.”
Naturally those who were sensationally dropped from the Wallabies are pleased to see Jones depart.
But for most of the Wallabies group who featured in France, Jones’ departure wasn’t met with the same fanfare that the wider Australian rugby landscape rejoiced in.
“I was personally disappointed, I really liked Eddie,” Bell said.
“He got the best out of me as an individual and a player and I really enjoyed being under him and coached by him and the rest of the stuff with ‘Hats’ (Neal Hatley) as the scrum and forwards coach.
“It is disappointing seeing them go because they are quality coaches and we can see in parts there we are a great team but we weren’t able to put it together for 80 minutes at all.
“But you can’t change the future so we just have to deal with what is now and as rugby players that’s putting our best forward for the Waratahs.”
The Wallabies’ car crash of a tournament came amid reports Jones had met and interviewed for the soon-to-be-vacant Japanese head coaching job – a role the veteran rugby figure previously held, where he took the Brave Blossoms to the 2015 World Cup.
Jones distanced himself from the reports throughout the World Cup.
While he has maintained he never interviewed for the role, Jones has since said he would be interested in taking over from Jamie Joseph who left the job after two World Cup cycles.
It’s likely the Japan Rugby Football Union will make an announcement on their next head coach by the end of the month.
Foketi admitted players and coaches were in the business world, but said it would “hurt” if he left so soon after making promises about trying to turn around Australian rugby and the need to take a young squad to the 2023 World Cup to ensure the team is primed to go deep into the tournament when the nation hosts the showpiece event in four years’ time.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen. If it does, it does. I think it would hurt a little bit just because of all the chat around [it] before [the Wales game],” Foketi said.
Foketi, however, said you couldn’t question Jones’ work-ethic.
“What he did for us at the World Cup and leading up to that, you can’t fault his effort and his drive and to want to make Australian rugby better,” he said.
“We really respected him and respect him. If that happens, good on him.”
Who replaces Jones remains to be seen, with a decision to be made after the new director of high-performance is announced in the next fortnight.
Rugby Australia chief executive Phil Waugh admitted on Tuesday he was open to a foreigner coaching the Wallabies less than a year after Dave Rennie was brutally axed.
“I genuinely believe our competitive advantage in sport is being Australian, so we need to ensure there’s a really strong Australian flavour within the coaching structure,” Waugh said on the Big Sports Breakfast radio show.
“Whether that includes the head coach or not is less relevant, it’s around the culture installed across the broader coaching group.
“We’re really open minded around whether the coach is an Australian or a foreigner, as long as the broader coaching environment is very Australian.”
Foketi said he enjoyed playing under both Rennie and Jones and seemed open to either option.
“If it’s a foreigner or an Australian (coach), then I’m sure they’re coming here to do the right thing and that’s to put Australian Rugby where it belongs,” he said.
With RA likely to tighten up their eligibility laws in the lead up to the British and Irish Lions series and home World Cup, a new captain will need to be found with Will Skelton unlikely to return for the July Tests against Wales and Fiji.
There’s no shortage of candidates after Jones selected six different skippers throughout the 2023 campaign, with Michael Hooper, James Slipper, Allan Alaalatoa, Tate McDermott and Dave Porecki also leading the Wallabies throughout the year. Bell, who is one of the Wallabies’ first picks, said he held leadership ambitions.
“Yeah definitely [I’d like to do it]. I’ve always aspired to be a leader,” Bell said.
“That’s completely up to the new head coach. I’ve got to make the Wallabies first and make the Waratahs first.”
Meanwhile, Foketi said it was vital Australia’s five franchises pull their weight and be more competitive on the field in Super Rugby to lift the overall standing of the game, with the nation’s last success coming in 2014 when the Waratahs won the title.
“It’s massive, it speaks for itself the results and then you lead into TRCs and Bledisloes and we haven’t got over the Kiwis for a long time,” Foketi said.
“We need that to change and I think for Australian rugby and the Wallabies to do well, we have to do well here at Super Rugby, not just at the Waratahs but all the franchises and it will give us a lot of confidence in whoever puts on that jersey that you and they know they can mix it with the Kiwis, who are amongst the best in the world.
“It needs to change and it has to change pretty quickly because if you keep this trend and the way we’re going in Super Rugby where we’re almost there but we don’t quite get there against the Kiwis, it’ll keep going probably for a long time until something clicks and changes, so we need to make them.”