The first wave of final auditions for the Wallabies 2023 World Cup squad is about to begin, as Super Rugby Pacific kicks off on Friday with the ACT Brumbies v NSW Waratahs. With Australia seventh in the world rugby rankings, there’s plenty to do and not much time to do it - there is little more than six months until the first pool game in France on 8 September.
Already, new Wallabies coach Eddie Jones has likened the task to “a smash-and-grab job”. Luckily, Rugby Australia has hired the wiliest thief in the game: a man with an 82% win-rate at four World Cups, and a general who will stop at nothing to win the Webb Ellis Cup.
But Jones cannot do it alone. Every great heist needs a great crew to plan it out then pull it off. Alas, with the resignation of assistant coach Scott Wisemantel in January, the departure of skills coach Laurie Fischer last week and the shock defection of 2IC Dan McKellar to Leicester on Wednesday, Jones has a phoenix to raise and no wingmen to help him.
So, yes, Jones will be scouting 33 players for a squad with experience, mongrel and X-factor. But in a World Cup year, the coaches of Australia’s five Super Rugby provinces are as much on notice as the players. “We’ve got to get four or five coaches that can work together to get in there, steal the trophy and get out without getting caught,” Jones says.
With Jones home, Rugby Australia has flagged the return of ‘The Wallaby Way’ - the brave, uptempo, attacking style of rugby he helped pioneer in his playing days at Randwick. Yet Jones, whose reign as England coach oversaw the churn of 112 players and 80 staff, allayed fears by saying he’d consult rather than dictate when it came to style, selection and strategy.
“We don’t tell the Super teams how to play,” Jones has vowed. “We’re not New Zealand or Ireland – we’re Australia. We have a relationship with the Super Rugby coaches but I want them to play the style they want to play. What I want to see is that the players play with that toughness that want to get better, they want to help their teammates in difficult situations.”
So the dawn of this Super Rugby season is hugely exciting for coaches, players and fans: a fresh start under a new leader with no favourites and a gauntlet down from bosses to rip in. In an injury-riven and mistake-riddled 2022, the Wallabies showed brilliant flashes despite a 5-9 win-loss record. But with a new era, a new wave of Super men can vie for gold jerseys.
No Australian team has won the Super Rugby title since Michael Cheika’s Waratahs in 2014, but the Tahs (6th in 2022), Brumbies (4th) and Reds (7th) have the best chance in 2023. The Wallabies have struggled to build combinations and win tough games so Jones will like that Australia’s sides are experimenting early with ‘starters’ and ‘finishers’ to find alchemy.
The Brumbies have lost Tom Banks to Japan, Folau Fainga’a to the Western Force and Irae Simone and Scott Sio to Europe, but boast Wallabies aplenty in the pack and an electric new wing in Sevens star Corey Toole. Coach Steve Larkham will trial two 9-10 duos: starting with Ryan Lonergan and Jack Debreczeni, and finishing with Wallabies Nic White and Noah Lolesio.
Winless in 2021, the ‘Tahs were resurgent under maverick coach Darren Coleman. Full-back Kurtley Beale is facing criminal charges, but they have cult figures Jones will watch closely. Spring Tour tornado Mark Nawaqanitawase will partner 18-year-old Max Jorgensen (son of Wallaby #700 Peter) on the wings, while in the back row Michael Hooper is mentoring an exciting crop of young savages in Charlie Gamble, Langi Gleeson and Lachie Swinton.
Jones is plotting for the 2027 Cup, too, and he will love that Tom Lynagh, the 19-year-old son of 72-Test great Michael, is named to start for the Reds against the Hurricanes on Saturday. With James O’Connor injured, coach Brad Thorn is giving the English college boy a shot at leading a backline of Hunter Paisami and Jordan Petaia but not yet Jock Campbell and Suliasi Vunivalu (injured).
Melbourne (10th in 2022) announced this week that star prop Taniela Tupou will join in 2024, but they’ve had marquee stars before (ex-NRL Wallaby Marika Koroibete, UK pin-up Danny Cipriani) and do again in 2023 with the signing of Monty Ioane, the tattooed flyer from Italy. Under coach Kevin Foote, they’re a young side with nothing to lose and everything to prove.
The Force, the Rebels’ opponents on Saturday, are similarly youthful but hungrier and angrier – hungry to disprove 100-1 odds to take the 2023 title, angry at losing five games by less than a converted try in 2022 to finish ninth. Under wily new coach Simon Cron, they will boast Wallabies hooker Folau Fainga’a but not their injured star lock Izack Rodda.
With cricket season still going, the NRL starting next weekend and the AFL bouncing on 16 March, it’s time for Australian rugby – coaches, players, fans – to show Jones what he’s working with. The Rugby Championship and Bledisloe Cup start in July, so the Eddie era has a dirty dozen games to scout a crew and pick 33 Super Wallabies to smash and grab rugby’s greatest prize.