Return of the prodigal son: can Eddie Jones unleash Wallabies’ missing X factor? | Angus Fontaine

Eight months out from the World Cup, Rugby Australia has taken a risk on bringing the coach back. Will it pay off?

If Wallabies players can find a way to be as ruthless as their Rugby Australia bosses and as cunning as their new coach, exciting days lie ahead. The announcement by RA that Eddie Jones is returning as coach of the men’s side, overseer of the women’s program and chief of chiefs for the five years leading into the 2027 World Cup in Australia, is monumental.

By showing Dave Rennie the door and throwing Jones the keys to the kingdom, RA has again turned to an Australian coach and backed his vision to return to the “Wallabies way”: uptempo running rugby played hard but fair. They have also sent a bold warning shot to the world ahead of the World Cup in September.

Jones has a remarkable win-loss record of 82% at the four World Cups he has contested. In the first year of his initial reign as Wallabies coach in 2001 it was only a last-gasp Jonny Wilkinson field goal that stood between Jones and the game’s ultimate prize. In 2007, as South Africa’s key technical adviser, he won it. And in 2019, he took England to the final.

Although RA hailed him on Monday as “the best coach in the world”, the caveat to all that World Cup success is that Jones has never led a team to the trophy outright as head coach. How sweet it would be to do so in 2023, some 18 years after first the first job as Wallabies coach and less than 12 months after being unceremoniously sacked by England.

When the RFU pulled the trigger on Jones, they gifted him to Hamish McLennan. The ambitious RA chairman had already sounded out Jones on a return as director of rugby if his seven years at England came to an end. And when Rennie’s Wallabies won just five of 14 Tests in 2022 – blowing victories against New Zealand, France and Ireland, and crumbling to humiliating losses against Argentina and Italy – the chase for Jones hit warp speed.

When Jones last week told the Guardian, “I’m not an assistant coach, mate”, Rennie smelled his blood in the water but dug in. “We’ve had no discussions around that,” he told reporters. “There’s no plan to make alterations … My assumption is we’re going to push on.” Yet this month Rennie was forced to deny he’d been approached to coach Kobe in Japan.

Eddie Jones in 2003
Jones in 2003, during his first stint as Wallabies supremo. Photograph: David Davies/PA

As Jones and McLennan hammered out a five-year deal, Rennie spent December doing player reviews and World Cup planning. Last week he took a 44-man squad into camp for the last time. On Monday morning, the players reconvened on Zoom where RA’s CEO, Andy Marinos, told them Rennie was fading to black and Jones was back in the golden circle.

Although Australia’s players loved Rennie and his gentle quest to unearth their mana (the power of the elemental forces of nature embodied within them), Jones’s appointment will excite them. He will tap into their mongrel selves and unleash the team’s missing X factor: the confidence to play fearless, inspiring rugby and the calculation to close out tight games.

Under Jones, a renowned taskmaster, the hardest workers and heaviest hitters will prosper. Cross-code raids on junior and senior NRL ranks will recommence and deadwood will be jettisoned (Jones churned through 112 players and 80 coaching staff at England).

It’s bad news for overpaid loafers like Taniela Tupou and dormant dynamo Suliasi Vunivalu, but good news for the 2019 Junior Wallabies who will form the core of the 2027 World Cup charge – Angus Bell, Noah Lolesio and Mark Nawaqanitawase (all 22), Fraser McReight, Nick Frost and Ben Donaldson (23). Jones starts sorting diamonds from the coal on 29 January.

Beyond players, RA has given Jones scope to upgrade Australia’s programs and pathways. The Wallaroos, still amateurs unlike their English and New Zealand rivals, will go pro under Jones’s reign and build on the work of their gold-winning sevens team to challenge the Matildas and Diamonds as Australia’s first women of sport in time for their own World Cup in 2027.

But there is risk in Jones as boss too. He is 62 and closer to the end than the beginning. Although he boasted a 73% career record (the greatest of all England’s coaches) he had a 5-6 win-loss record in 2022 (Rennie’s 38% win rate was the Wallabies’ worst in 30 years). Depending on the source, Jones is also a maverick, a megalomaniac and a madman.

But he is Australia’s madman now. And after 24 years without a World Cup and too many seasons of underperformance, Wallabies fans are, as another Australian madman once said, “mad as hell and not going to take it any more”. Eight months out from rugby’s greatest prize and at long odds of winning it, RA has rolled the dice. Things just got interesting.

• This article was amended on 18 January 2023 to remove some incorrect details about Eddie Jones’ role in the early career of the former Wallaby George Smith.


Angus Fontaine

The GuardianTramp

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