The joy of Rugby World Cup celebrations only ruined by Eddie Jones’ final act
This week’s column is not going to start the way I wanted it to. A wonderful Rugby World Cup Final on Sunday morning Australian time led to a day of reflection of some fabulous moments through this tournament, and with that, the seeds of a column were taking hold.
Then the latest – and hopefully last – episode in the whole sad saga that Eddie Jones’ second coming as Wallabies coach played out on Sunday night.
When the reports came through on Friday that the Jones camp had informed Rugby Australia they’d be open to a mutual parting of the ways, there was only even going to be one ending. The point had probably been reached already, in fact.
Selfishly, I didn’t want the new to break for a few more days. Because the whole Eddie Jones saga has become so wearying, so draining, so disappointing, that I just didn’t want it to happen on the weekend of the final.
But here we are. Jones has now resigned, and the Wallabies recovery can begin. Who will oversee that recovery is anyone’s guess, and I actually hope RA don’t just default into making another kneejerk reaction to solve the problem caused by the last kneejerk reaction.
But the slate will be wiped clean again and individual ambitions of playing for the Wallabies will be reset.
I’ve mentioned it a few times on the podcast in recent weeks that I feel most sorry for the ten or so players who have been in Jones’ squads and even in his Wallabies teams this year but suddenly found themselves on the outer – some of them only a matter of days before the squad headed for France in August.
The youngest of that group is Harry Wilson, who is 23. Jed Holloway is the oldest at 30. Most are younger than 26, and all of them are about to enter the prime of their professional rugby careers. All will come back into the 2024 selection frame in they should never have been out of in 2023.
To the very end, Jones maintains he has no regrets and but also maintains a disappointment at his portrayal by the rugby media, and particularly the questioning of his commitment to Australian rugby.
Regrets aside – because which professional coach still wanting future employment would admit to any? – his media portrayal is completely self-inflicted.
All the good work and positive publicity he’d brought Australian rugby’s way in 2023 was brought undone over the course of six lost Tests in July and August. Jones chopped and changed, and switched tack midstream, and never explained anything. Just expected the Australian rugby public to keep swallowing it up.
But the ridiculous press conference banter masked a broader issue of Jones either not knowing how he was going to achieve his stated ambitions, or a realisation that he’s grossly overstating them from the outset.
In the end, he was committed to Australian Rugby until he wasn’t. His denials of the Japanese approaches were flimsy at best, and only invited further investigation. Which in turn produced more reporting, more denials, and more questions from Wallabies fans as to just how committed to Australian Rugby the bloke with the five year contract really was.
Now, at least, we have an answer. Jones says things that needed to be delivered in order for him to do his job weren’t likely to happen, so he didn’t see a lot of point hanging around trying to make a bad situation better.
That is, he was fully committed to Australian Rugby, but not the hard work that might be involved in getting the Wallabies back to where he said he’d get them.
At least the book can now be closed. Au revoir, indeed, Eddie.
And the great shame in all this is that it really has been a seriously enjoyable Rugby World Cup.
Not even the ungodly hours and minimal sleep involved, or all the work that was done in those ungodly hours, and not even the disappointing Australian results will dampen these last two months.
The aftermath of the final and all day Sunday to reflect, and all I could think about was the joy of it all.
Cheslin Kolbe had a roller-coaster last ten minutes of the final, for one very obvious example, and his relief as the celebrations began was instantly visible.
Earlier, after copping a yellow card for a deliberate knock-down in the 73rd minute, he spent much of his time in the naughty chair with his head buried in his jersey, not willing to watch a result get away from his team that he would have felt responsible for. The pain was real, and you couldn’t help but feel for him in that moment.
So when Wayne Barnes blew the final whistle and the Springboks’ historic fourth RWC crown was confirmed, it was actually beautiful to see the sight of skipper Siya Kolisi running not to the far side of the field where the game had just ended, but to Kolbe swamped in his own relief just a few metres from where he’d been seated for the seven incredibly anxious minutes before.
It speaks for Kolisi the leader, certainly. In that moment, he could have gone to any teammate, any coach, any fan even, for the first emotional embrace. Instead, he went to the guy whose relief was flooding all over the Stade de France right there and then. Genuinely heart-warming.
Cue the big moment on stage, the Springboks were there ready for Kolisi to bring the William Webb Ellis trophy to the centre of the stage, and Kolbe had secured a prime position right near where his skipper would stand and hold the fabled trophy aloft.
Kolisi arrived, regripped the Cup, the team built it up, Kolbe is there ready, the little gold trophy is trust into the Paris sky and… the flag Kolbe’s carrying completely covers his head!
In all the trophy money shots, Kolbe will forever be the one in the front row under the colours of the Rainbow Nation.
This tournament has been so good for so many reasons.
The rise and arrival of Fiji has been wonderful and there just can’t be any excuses left for the addition to The Rugby Championship. Simon Raiwalui was a completely deserving inclusion among the four nominees for the World Rugby Coach of the Year ultimately won by Andy Farrell on Sunday night, and what he has been able to achieve with a committed squad and luxury of time has been nothing short of extraordinary.
What they achieved was outstanding, but what come next is crucial. The revamped Pacific Nations Cup starting next year, again comprising the three island nations and Japan, and with Canada and the USA coming in is one thing, but World Rugby needs to be actively scheduling and ensuring Fiji and all these nations get more than quadrennial exposure to the top teams.
We saw Chile, who knocked the USA off to qualify for their first ever Rugby World Cup, more than prove their worthiness in this environment, and outgoing Argentina coach Michael Cheika is bang on when he says the South American countries need the same sort of support. They definitely do.
So does Georgia. So does Romania. So does Namibia. So does Portugal.
Apart from having one of the very best playing strips for the tournament, Portugal provided one of the great moments of the pool stage when they beat Fiji in their final game. The Stadium de Toulouse had its roof lifted when veteran scrumhalf Samuel Marques kicked the match-winning conversion barely a minute from time, and it hopped up and down for hours afterwards once the win was confirmed. It was wonderful.
The joy of the little things. Like Romania scoring the first try against Ireland and celebrating like they’d won a semi-final. It didn’t matter that they conceded eighty points thereafter; they paid out on the first try-scorer against the best team in the world.
It’s just been a wonderful tournament, and some high-ranking people within Rugby Australia – maybe the highest – need to reflect on what these last two months have given the rugby world. They should start by asking themselves if what they have been doing in recent years is what will get the Wallabies back in amongst this joy of rugby.
And if it’s not, then they should follow the coach out the door.
Australian rugby has been through too much in 2023, and on the biggest weekend of international rugby in the last four years we learn it’s all been a complete and utter waste of time.
It has been exhausting and it has been infuriating, and I for one am looking very much to just not thinking about rugby at all for a few months.
Have a good off-season, Roarers, and all the best for the holiday season. Your support of the columns and especially of the podcast this year has been so, so appreciated.
I’m off to watch some cricket and play some golf. See you in 2024.