Dim the lights and prepare the popcorn, the Eddie Show is here.
One of the more extraordinary twists in Australian rugby — in a code not unfamiliar with such drama — shocked both the global rugby community and wider Australian sporting scene as veteran coach Eddie Jones was on Monday confirmed as the Wallabies coach for the next five years.
Just a few short months after Dave Rennie had been backed to coach through to this year’s World Cup in France, and under a week since he had held a Wallabies training camp on the Gold Coast, the Kiwi packed his bags and headed home to New Zealand after he was dismissed via a reported 6am Zoom call.
With Super Rugby Pacific not due to start until February 25, thus commencing Australia’s rugby season, Jones’ appointment was a shot in the arm for a code that can struggle for media cut-through when the action is in full swing — let alone in mid-January while many are still sunning themselves on the beach.
Currently tidying up loose ends in London, Jones will soon head Down Under. But there is no time for the 62-year-old former Randwick hooker to sun himself on Coogee Beach — Jones is already, according to Rugby Australia chairman Hamish McLennan, well into his planning for 2023 and beyond.
Still, we figure he could use a little help with that to-do list! Here’s what should be top of Eddie’s agenda when he returns home at the end of the month.
Get around the Super Rugby franchises
It seems like an obvious starting point because of the disruption that Jones’ appointment will have caused, and for the simple fact there were 40 potential Wallabies on the Gold Coast last week who were taking instructions from Rennie. As Samu Kerevi explained in an emotional Instagram post on Wednesday, the Kiwi had created a harmonious culture at the Wallabies, particularly repairing the cracks created by the Israel Folau saga.
“Thank you coach, brought this team closer through culture & hard work,” Kerevi wrote.
By travelling to the Brumbies, Force, Rebels, Reds and Waratahs over the coming weeks, Jones can outline his plan for the year, how he wants to work with each of the individual coaches, and exactly what he wants to see from the players in their pursuit of Test selection. While many 2022 Wallabies will be disappointed with Rennie’s departure, those on the fringes of international duty — and others who have fallen from, or never been part of the previous regime’s blueprint — will be buoyed by the coaching change.
Secure his assistant staff
Even before Rennie’s dismissal, it had been a tumultuous period within the Wallabies coaching ranks. First Matt Taylor departed as defence coach in August, before, just after Christmas, attack guru and long-time Jones colleague Scott Wisemantel also stepped away. Asked about whether Wisemantel might be tempted into a return, Jones told the Sydney Morning Herald “at the right time I will have a chat with him and see where his head’s at.”
Losing such an esteemed attacking operator is a huge blow for the Wallabies, and so close to a World Cup the list Jones might have to choose from to be his replacement won’t exactly be long. But perhaps the answer first lies in whom Jones sees as his fly-half? Rennie had a clear pecking order of Quade Cooper, Bernard Foley and then Noah Lolesio, although Ben Donaldson even started at No. 10 ahead of the Brumbies youngster in Cardiff. If Cooper is Jones’ man, finding the right man to work with the veteran Queenslander will be pivotal.
Settle on a Wallabies captain
It’s not the most urgent of tasks on Jones’ list, but it will be among the most important calls he makes this year. Does he go back to Michael Hooper? Does Hooper really want that responsibility again? Should James Slipper continue; will he be Australia’s first picked loosehead prop come the middle of the year?
These are all valid questions. But Jones may wish to sidestep them all and look to someone new: Samu Kerevi perhaps? There are many in Australian rugby who believe Kerevi is the right man for the job, despite his current contract with Suntory. If Kerevi is fit, he is arguably the world’s premier No. 12 and therefore a walk-up start in the Wallabies run-on XV. He also has leadership experience from his time as Reds skipper. And perhaps most importantly, he is one of the few Wallabies to have already worked with Jones during his time at Suntory. If Eddie is to make a change, Kerevi seemingly ticks all the boxes.
Identify his overseas players/Giteau Law parameters
This was proving a difficult debate for Rennie and the RA board. The Kiwi told media during the spring tour that he was going to push for an extension of the Overseas Player Selection Policy — affectionately known as the Giteau Law — ahead of the World Cup. Currently legislated at three overseas players per series or tournament, Rennie selected Quade Cooper, Samu Kerevi and Marika Koroibete for the three-Test series against England, before the midfielder went down during the Commonwealth Games, which allowed him the coach to bring in Rory Arnold for the Rugby Championship. When Cooper was then injured against the Pumas himself, Bernard Foley was brought into the fold. Lastly, Foley and Will Skelton were then selected as part of the spring tour squad.
Given Jones has already had the RA board sack Rennie to bring him in, it’s hard to see how he wouldn’t get something simple as a mere policy extension — even just for the World Cup — should he desire it. If he is comfortable with the Giteau Law as it stands, then Jones must have a fair idea of whom his picks are – at least until injury potentially strikes. Whatever the case, RA has already flagged its intention to rein in or potentially drop the policy altogether in the coming years, McLennan making no secret of his wish to repatriate more players from overseas.
Meet with interested NRL players
This won’t have a bearing on Jones’ quest to this year lift the Webb Ellis Trophy as a head coach for the first time, but it will still be near the top of his agenda over the coming months. RA chairman McLennan has made no secret of his desire to lure some big-name recruits ahead of the British & Irish Lions series in 2025 and then the World Cup on home soil, and earlier this week told the Rugby Report Card podcast that NRL players were “actually calling us at the moment.”
Jones has already flagged his own interest in signing some NRL players, at least those with rugby pedigree, of which there are several who would seemingly add to the current Wallabies cohort. At the top of that list is the 19-year-old Joseph Sua’ali’i, who has already been heavily linked with a switch back to the 15-player game. Sua’ali’i’s ascent to the fullback jersey at the Sydney Roosters — and the riches that go with it — is blocked by skipper James Tedesco, with Kiwi Joey Manu also thought to sit above him in the pecking order. There’s no doubt Sua’ali’i will attract huge interest from rival NRL clubs; but none can offer him the absolute poster boy status RA can over the next few years.
With the Wallabies light on at fullback — or at least struggling to find that standout candidate — Jones may well throw all his passes at the Sua’ali’i breadbasket.
Plot a plan to win the Rugby World Cup
As of the 19th January, there are 235 days until the Wallabies’ opening World Cup fixture against Georgia in Paris on September 9. For a man who had repeatedly stated he was “working towards the World Cup” as coach of England, Jones doesn’t have a second to waste on the road to France with the Wallabies.
He has already spoken about his excitement at returning to the role he last held in 2005, saying he’d risen at 4.30am one morning for “pushups and situps” to ensure he is in the best physical shape for the task ahead.
On the field, Jones has five Tests before that Cup opener against Georgia: South Africa [A], Argentina [H], New Zealand [H], New Zealand [A] and France [A]. That’s not a lot of time to bed in patterns of play, combinations and communication, but the 62-year-old turned England from 2015 World Cup flops into Six Nations Grand Slam champions in a shorter time frame. He also flipped the script on the All Blacks in the 2003 World Cup semifinal in Sydney after earlier being smashed 50-22 at the same venue.
Regardless, it will take one of the more remarkable coaching performances of any sport in recent times — a deed that would be truly worth of McLennan’s “greatest comeback story of all time” tag.