Eddie is not the knight in shining armour for Australian Rugby

25 Sep 2023

The emotional outpouring from players and Australian fans following the 40-6 loss to Wales has left many without much hope for the future for the national side.

Australia Rugby - Figure 1
Photo RugbyPass

Such was the magnitude of the game and demoralising manner of the defeat to Wales, it has been categorised as a death knell for Australian rugby.

Jones cut a dejected but defiant figure in the aftermath, still claiming that he is the ‘one’ to save Australian rugby.

Like a prophet sent down with divine powers, Jones professes to know the antidote to fix these ills. The grandiose delusion.

His fly-by-night approach is compounding against him, six captains in nine months, flip-flopping around selections, new support staff, new game strategies, all trying to come together at the 11th hour.

Jones is acting out of desperation because he cares for Australian rugby, but this isn’t the formula for long-term success.

The good news though is this result isn’t the death of Australian rugby. The Wallabies are one part of a system, the most visible cherry on top, but by no means one-and-all of Australian rugby.

The struggle for power and autonomy between the state unions and the national body has been at the heart of problems for the game over decades. Interests aren’t aligned in a way that makes Australian rugby, and the Wallabies, stronger.

The talent identification and player development programmes at state level are too often dogged by politics, one man’s opinion, and often downright negligence. Doors shut on talented players with uninformed stigmas.

Injured Wallabies centre Len Ikitau is now one of the best defensive 13s in the world. He transforms the Wallaby backline when available.

He was a standout 1st XV schoolboy player in Brisbane with explosive athleticism and was clearly a blue chip prospect. He revealed that the Queensland Reds “didn’t know who he was” when his agent shopped him around in 2016, the response was “Len who?”.

If that is quip in Jim Tucker’s story is verbatim, it is indicative of how serious the malaise is. The GPS 1st XV competition is the only game in town. There is only one place to put your eyes if you are looking for rugby talent.

It is astounding how this could happen to a player who dominated that competition. It’s not that they weren’t interested, it’s that they didn’t even know who he was.

If it weren’t for the Brumbies picking him up, the Wallabies would not have one of the best centres in the game. Ikitau now has 28 Test caps and is a guaranteed starter when healthy.

It is no surprise that the best performing Super Rugby side in Australia is the Brumbies. With a smaller playing base locally, they need to be good recruiters and even better at development. They seem to have a clue.

Then there are the players that are brought through the pathway to professionalism. The case of Wallaby captain Will Skelton highlights shortcomings.

At the Waratahs he was a big body not fulfilling his potential at 148kgs. After diet and lifestyle changes at Saracens, at the time the best club in the Premiership and one of the top in Europe, he dropped nearly 15kgs. His 6 ft 8 frame became a lot more effective.

Skelton returned to the Wallabies as a force to be reckoned with, and his injury has hurt Jones’ plans at this World Cup. But the takeaway here is Australia’s system didn’t develop Skelton into a world-class player. Europe did. He always was going to be a world-class player if he was in the right environment.

Emmanuel Meafou is the next polished gem that France will benefit from this time. They have scalped one of Australia’s undeveloped big men and invested in his transformation into a potential Test player.

The poster child of the Australian systemic issues is Irish winger Mack Hansen. Hansen would not get a look-in for the Wallabies because there are better athletes available and he does not fit their type. If he was wearing green and gold, he wouldn’t be scoring Test tries.

His success with Ireland is a testament to the system they have, both on and off the field. In the right place, he can flourish.

If Australia wants to see the Wallabies reach their potential they need to take inspiration from the new guard.

Ireland have become a rugby powerhouse over the last decade under the watch of Australian David Nucifora as their high performance director. Typically not renown for producing powerful athletes, Ireland built a pack that just tore down South Africa.

Irish rugby has carved its own way of playing, combining smarts and scheme. Now their development programmes are churning out players who are machines with power. Their sports science must be at the pinnacle of the game.

France was a sleeping giant that in the late-2010s was still seen as a laughing stock by the rest of Europe. They have always been strong, but inconsistent, with a club game run by billionaires with a somewhat amateur approach.

Then the FFR tightened up the eligibility rules. They wanted more French-eligible players in the Top 14, not retiring All Blacks, Wallabies and Springboks.

The clubs were forced to start spending elsewhere, like in academies, and start recruiting offshore younger and younger. Now they plunder the world globally for emerging players and invest heavily into building pros who are eligible for France.

France and Ireland are now dominating at U20 level year-in, year-out in the Six Nations. France captured their third consecutive World U20 Championship title, beating Ireland handsomely in the final.

The two systems are very different, one is a centralised model and the other has a private club model. But they both figured out how to maximise what they have and align with the national interests. It started bottom up as they bolstered their systems.

The ultimate reward will be reaped at the top level soon enough. Over the last three years France and Ireland have dominated Test rugby with winning rates that are elite and have been sustained.

In pool play at this year’s Rugby World Cup they have both knocked off the two leading old powers, New Zealand and South Africa. One of them is highly likely to win their first ever Rugby World Cup.

Based on the results at U20 level, both will be leading contenders again in four years time in 2027.

It is a long road ahead for the Wallabies to get back to the top but the first step is to address the system. Rugby Australia needs to take back control of how the playing talent is developed.

They cannot afford to leave player ID and development under the watch of the lazy states, New South Wales and Queensland, who happen to preside over the two largest playing pools.

There are no shortage of players coming through in Australia. It is the system that can’t develop them to reach their full potential.

If a Wallaby like Angus Bell, a starting international prop at 22-years-old with immense potential, spent the next three years at Leinster in the Irish system, there is little doubt that he would end up a much better player than he would if he stayed home. And that is what has to change.

Just how they do that is unknown, but maybe the guy they need to bring back before they sack Eddie Jones is Nucifora.

But what is true is that the Wallabies can, without a doubt, rise again but it won’t happen overnight and short-term fixes won’t do it.

Read more
Similar news
This week's most popular news