THE AUSTRALIAN WAY... WHATEVER THE HELL THAT IS
By Chips Blanch
Love him or hate him you can't deny that Eddie Jones is good for the game in Australia. When was the last time the Wallabies were the biggest news story in January? Karl Stefanovic interviewing the new Wallaby coach a day after he was announced? Unheard of.
The profile he brings to the sport has been sorely missed. I've had friends message me about his appointment that I haven't talked footy with in years. The only sour note has been the drum beating from Hamish McLennan at Dave Rennie’s expense, but the sad reality is that the Wallabies weren't a news story with Rennie in the chair, and unfortunately that counts for something these days.
I won't go into all the comments from McLennan that bothered me, but there was one with respect to Eddie that I think needs to be qualified. McLennan has told all and sundry that we've just secured the best coach in the world and he's the best option to take us all the way through to the 2027 World Cup.
Let's leave the second statement for another time and focus on the first. There is no doubt that Eddie has been one of the best coaches in the world for a long time now but there are two types of head coach. Those that are consistently good regardless of the assistant group around them, and those whose tide ebbs and flows depending on who is along for the ride.
You could argue that someone like Scott Robertson is the former but it became painfully obvious for English rugby that Jones is the latter. When Jones had Steve Borthwick and Scott Wisemantel around him he was a genius, without them the wheels fell off.
So as good as it is to see rugby unseasonably in the news cycle, the real story is the potentially more important Wallaby appointments in attack and defence?
Defence is a little simpler as there are plenty of good NRL tinted options to chase, but to seriously be a chance at this year's World Cup we need one of the better attacking minds alongside Jones.
Unfortunately there are no obvious options in Australia right now. If we take the resignation of Wisemantel at face value there is no way he'll come back, and hamstrung or not, Jim McKay hasn't done anything with the Reds worth discussing. It would be too disruptive for viable options at Super level like Mark Ozich to come on board, so it seems likely that it will be someone currently offshore.
For all McLennan's comments about the "Australian Way" to play the game, it has been a long time since we were considered a production line of coaches with good attacking instincts. I'm not necessarily advocating for someone from across the ditch, as the best innovation we've seen in attack lately has come from the Northern Hemisphere.
New Zealand rugby relies on dominating the collision in a way the "best" Australian rugby hasn't. The modern game doesn't allow you to be successful without some capacity to bully your way over the gain line, but the Irish are a great example of using clever lines and misdirection to unlock defences.
I'm not saying we should be trying to replicate exactly what works for them either, but elements of their game are what I associated with Wallaby rugby in the 90's and early 00's. When Australian rugby combined the carrying of the likes of Finegan and Kefu with the cleverness and speed of Larkham, Horan, Roff and Walker, you had a brand of rugby that was difficult to beat.
Defences have improved a lot since the early 00’s, as players across all positions have become faster and fitter. There isn’t as much space as there used to be so the ability to carry strongly in traffic is highly valuable, but an attack that solely relies on that is never going to suit Australia.
Eddie has come out and stated that his Australian Way is predicated on good set piece, an aggressive attacking mindset, and wanting the ball when we don't have it. That vision will appeal to the punters but ignores the reality of the modern game.
I'm all for getting us excited about free-flowing rugby, but fans need to reel their expectations in if they think we will start playing with complete abandon and return to winning ways.
I don't for a second believe that Eddie will be a slave to that vision. Much like how Rennie identified that giving the South Africans the ball when they don't want it as a recipe for success, Eddie will play horses for courses because the most important thing is always winning.
We've got the cattle in Bell, Tupou, Skelton, Salakaia-Loto, T Hooper, Valetini and Kerevi to be effective in tight, and plenty of speed/evasiveness in Wright, McReight, Petaia, Nawaqanitawase and Koroibete. All that's missing is a pivot outside of Cooper that can properly utilise them, so securing an attack coach that can blend the right balance of power and speed, that doesn't always rely on someone with the experience of Cooper, is crucial to our initial success.
Eddie is uniquely qualified to make comments about the Australian Way, as he was front and centre during our golden era. The game has moved on since then of course, and just as important as the Jones appointment is finding the attack coach that can ground the grand vision in the realities of the modern game. If we can do that, anything is possible.