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'I want to be a Wallaby great': The World Cup heartache driving one of Eddie's bolters forward

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16th February, 2024
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Off the back of last year’s World Cup disappointment, you could forgive Ben Donaldson for wanting to retreat into his shell.

At one point last year, as he read countless negative headlines about his performances and, indeed, the Waratahs, he almost did.

But the second-year Test back, who was a controversial selection for last year’s World Cup, says he doesn’t just want to be a Wallaby but a “Wallaby great”.

“I grew up watching the Wallabies back in the day when they were so successful, and that’s what you dream of, and you kind of expect when you’re a Wallaby,” Donaldson told The Roar.

“It does hurt when we don’t win and when we’re not a successful team.

“My first goal was to make my Wallabies debut, which I’m super proud that I have. Now, I want to be a Wallaby great, to play 100 games and win games, win a World Cup, win against the British and Irish Lions, and just be super successful to make our fans proud again.”

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Will Skelton embraces Ben Donaldson following the Wallabies’ World Cup pool match loss to Wales at Parc Olympique on September 24, 2023 in Lyon. (Photo by Adam Pretty – World Rugby via Getty Images)

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Donaldson knows better than most that to achieve that will require quite a turnaround.

As Wallabies supporters abandoned ship and left their seats in Lyon during the Wales bloodbath, it was Donaldson’s tears that were left in the eastern French city.

For the 24-year-old, the Wales disappointment continued a whirlwind season for the versatile back after being thrown into the No.10 jersey in much the same hastily way he had for the Waratahs.

“It’s pretty tough sometimes with the media and the odd punter out there,” he said.

“Last year was a pretty ordinary year all in all. I didn’t have the year I wanted to with the Tahs, obviously changing clubs and then the World Cup with how it ended up.

“As much as there were a lot of highs throughout the year, it was a very tough year, I’m not going to lie.

“There are those moments where as a person, you go home after a loss or after a training day and you feel quite dismal and down, but at the end of the day, you’ve got your family, your friends, and you’re playing rugby for a job, so it’s pretty special.

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“To go to a World Cup gave me the perspective that that’s why you play and to represent your country and was a very special moment.”

Donaldson isn’t looking for sympathy.

He knows he’s one of the lucky ones that was selected for the World Cup campaign, with Eddie Jones taking a liking to Donaldson from the moment he returned to Australia early last year.

“Obviously he [Jones] backed me from the get-go where a lot of people didn’t,” Donaldson said.

The painful lessons are easy to highlight from the forgetful campaign.

“In that Fiji game, there was a few moments where you potentially could put a kick in to put your team on the front foot and you don’t,” he said.

“In the Wales game, I made a linebreak and I looked inside when there was the option to go outside and we could have scored seven points under the sticks. Then we go to the corner and we overthrow it and they end up down the other end of the field and score a try.

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“In international games, tiny little moments like that, which might not seem a lot, they change the game in an instant.

“In that Wales game, those two moments probably lost us the game at that moment – that’s a 14 point swing. It was pretty hard to claw the momentum back.”

Ben Donaldson says the lessons out of the Wallabies’ loss to Wales at Parc Olympique were obvious. (Photo by Craig Mercer/MB Media/Getty Images)

Donaldson, who started at fullback against Fiji before being moved to fly-half when Test rookie Carter Gordon was pulled, says what stood out about the campaign was how quickly pressure comes on.

After a comfortable 35-15 win over Georgia, where he scored 25 points including two tries, the Wallabies were left battered and bruised and shocked by the Fijian onslaught they received in Saint Etienne.

“Taking nothing away from Fiji, they were awesome, but that’s probably the moment where you realise that in a big tournament like that if you lose one game you can almost be out,” he said.

Indeed, a week later the Wallabies’ World Cup hopes were up in smoke.

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If there was one silver lining to come out of the dreaded tournament, it’s that Jones’ Wallabies squad wasn’t just the youngest in France, it was the nation’s most youthful since their successful 1991 campaign.

It means the youth that struggled in France have time to find their feet, with Joe Schmidt now the figurehead tasked with nurturing the Wallabies.

In the same way Richie Mo’unga looked at home on the World Cup stage in France four years after he and Beauden Barrett’s partnership struggled to click too, Donaldson, as well as his 23-year-old teammate Carter Gordon, have the chance to build on the campaign.

“A lot of people say your best rugby is not in your until you’re probably 26-27,” Donaldson said.

“Going to a Rugby World Cup in France, which is a pretty hostile environment, at 23-24 years of age just gives you a lot of confidence and a lot of experience moving forward.

“As much as the results were very disappointing, and I obviously haven’t had a lot of success in the international jersey yet, there’s still a lot of confidence moving forward. The group we’ve got here at the Western Force, and in Australia, where a lot of us around that 24 to 26 age brackets, a lot of our best footy is ahead of us, which is exciting.

“It’s just about staying consistent now, working hard and taking those lessons from the past to hopefully help us in the future.”

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Former Wallabies coach Eddie Jones in conversation with Ben Donaldson ahead of their final World Cup fixture against Portugal at Stade Geoffroy-Guichard on October 01, 2023 in Saint-Etienne. (Photo: Julian Finney – World Rugby via Getty Images)

Donaldson, too, looks like he will have the chance to hone his skills at fly-half.

After debate has raged as to whether the Randwick utility back is a fly-half or fullback, Force coach Simon Cron looks likely to hand Donaldson the No.10 jersey over Max Burey and Reesjan Pasitoa.

It’s music to the ears of Donaldson who knows time in the saddle is essential for him if he’s to deliver on his promise.

“They’re relatively similar 10 and fullback, which does help, but at Super Rugby level and international level, as at number No.10, you need to be playing every week in that position, getting good minutes.

“The only way to improve is to be playing out there, that’s where you get all your learning. It was quite difficult last year moving from both.

“It probably helped me, to be honest, in my selection for the World Cup. But I feel myself as a 10 and I feel like I’m going quite well at the moment with the Force.”

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Helping his transition to Perth has been moving in with former Waratahs teammates Will Harris and newly appointed captain Jeremy Williams.

While all three players moved for greater opportunities, Williams’ rise from fringe Super Rugby player to Force captain at 23 following a breakout season is another sign of the changing culture at Perth-based franchise.

“I knew him through the Tahs and he definitely showed some leadership traits through his actions, but I didn’t really pick him to be a captain at 23 years of age back then,” Donaldson said.

“He’s definitely made huge strides ever since he started here at the Force and he’s developed really well moving away from home and at a new club. I’m just stoked for him, and I think he’ll be awesome. He’s the right man for the job.”

Donaldson is hopeful the move west will bring out his best like his housemate.

“I’ve been in Sydney my whole life, at home my whole life, essentially with the Tahs ever since I left school, so it’s been a massive shift for me,” he said.

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“But, honestly, it’s probably one of the best things I’ve ever done moving over here.”

Helping his transition too is knowing that even though he might not have delivered his best rugby, consecutive Wallabies coaches have seen something in him that others might not have.

“There’s been a lot of media and noise saying I, and other players as well, shouldn’t have been there, or they haven’t done this, they haven’t done that, but at the end of the day, I believe in myself,” Donaldson said.

“Even the year before being backed in by Dave Rennie and now by Eddie, who are two great coaches, well-known coaches, who’ve done a lot of great things in the past, to have both of them backing me in an international team shows that they’ve seen something in me that they believe, and that gives me a lot of belief and a lot of confidence that they believe in me.

“To have backing from them gives me a lot of confidence, and hopefully I can take that into the season ahead.”

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