A dreadful year for the Wallabies, riddled by injuries and poor results, and the desire not to see Eddie Jones gainfully employed elsewhere, has given way to yet another stunning decision by Rugby Australia — an organisation that has earned a reputation for doing just that.
Nearly two decades after he was dismissed as Wallabies coach, Jones will soon be back in the green-and-gold tracksuit he donned proudly in Australia’s run to the 2003 World Cup Final. Coming within a Jonny Wilkinson drop goal of lifting the Webb Ellis Trophy at Sydney’s Olympic Stadium, for Jones and RA that ultimate goal remains, yet there is much to address in the immediacy.
And that will make the decision to sack Dave Rennie, even considering his 5-9 return from 2022, particularly troubling for many. RA’s bold, if somewhat bewildering, decision does however appear to be borne out of the urgency to square Jones away for that “golden decade” runway for which the 2027 World Cup is the pinnacle.
But spare a thought for Rennie. For not only did the Kiwi have to come in and take charge as Wallabies coach amid the COVID pandemic, and all its associated challenges such as border closures – both state and international – but the New Zealander also had to harmonise a playing group broken by the Israel Folau saga and the messy end to Michael Cheika’s tenure.
When you throw in the early exit of the chief executive who signed him, cuts to player salaries and programs, a fractured trans-Tasman board relationship, the growing threat of Japanese rugby and issues with the Giteau Law, and then an unprecedented run with injury in 2022, it’s clear Rennie had more than his fair share of speedbumps along the way.
He had also gone within a whisker of ending the Wallabies’ long losing run in New Zealand, thrice beaten world champions South Africa, and, most recently, pushed the No. 1 and No. 2 ranked nations in Ireland and France to the wire, away from home to boot, his team showing it could mix style with substance along the way.
But they were also plagued by moments of inexcusable stupidity, the Wallabies’ four neck roll penalties in one half in Dublin in November a recent example, which were almost always linked to their ongoing problem of indiscipline — one Rennie did not appear to have a solution to.
So when Jones was suddenly on the open market following his dismissal by the England’s Rugby Football Union, Rennie was always going to be on shaky ground. Australia’s first ever loss to Italy a few weeks earlier, when Rennie had selected a virtual second-string side, had only heightened the nervousness at RA HQ.
Jones had already been linked with a multi-year deal to oversee USA Rugby to the 2031 World Cup which will be held Stateside, a return to Japan and multiple other short-term consultancy projects the kind of which he already oversees at Suntory Sungoliath.
So if RA wanted its man for 2027, they had little time to sit on their collective hands.
Jones, knowing that he once again had admirers back at Rugby Australia HQ, will have understood his position of power.
Despite an awful 2022 season in England, where the national team had been booed at Twickenham during its Autumn internationals having already fuddled their way through another lacklustre Six Nations, Jones’ 73% winning record with England sits well above any Wallabies coach – including himself – since the lofty days of Rod Macqueen.
There is also the fact that he has repeatedly proven himself at rugby’s biggest event, having taken Australia and England to the final, serving on Jake White’s Springboks staff for their 2007 victory, and also masterminding the “Miracle of Brighton”, the game’s biggest upset, when Japan tipped over South Africa in 2015.
While they were soundly beaten by the Springboks in the 2019 final, England had produced one of the most comprehensive defeats of the All Blacks only a week earlier – a result Jones recently described to the BBC as the most cherished of his time at Twickenham.
There is no doubt Jones knows how to prepare a team for the World Cup and pilot it through to its pointy end – but he has so far twice fallen at the final hurdle as head coach.
Rugby Australia has now given him two cracks at the title, with a virtual freebie — one that sees the Wallabies have the added advantage of a soft draw — to start. The governing body has banked on his ability to flip the script from 2003 and finish the job, on home soil, come 2027.
Whether Rennie was capable of flipping his own script from 2022 to turn the Wallabies around is now little more than speculation, something that will only ramp up among fans, pundits and the media if Australia are a complete flop in France under Jones later this year.
There will be anger in some quarters of the Australian rugby community and across some corners of the Wallabies playing group, particularly given Rennie had always conducted himself with dignity and grace.
But when RA saw an opportunity to secure their man for 2027, and Jones held such a strong position of power, Rennie was always at risk of becoming a byproduct of any contract plan.
Heckled as a “traitor” by Wallabies fans at the SCG, “proud Australian” Jones and RA have served those same supporters a slice of humble pie.
Whether this decision will serve Australian rugby in its immediacy and, at its most important hour in 2027, will be fascinating to follow.