The first wave of final auditions for the Wallabies 2023 World Cup squad is set to begin as Super Rugby Pacific kicks off on Friday with 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 – with just over six months to go until the first pool game in France on September 8.
Already, new Wallabies coach Eddie Jones has likened the task to “a smash and grab job”. Fortunately, Rugby Australia has hired the most vicious thief in the game: a man with an 82% win rate across four World Cups and a quarterback who will stop at nothing to win the Webb Ellis Cup.
But Jones can’t do it alone. Every big heist needs a big crew to plan it and 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 departure of 2IC Dan McKellar to Leicester on Wednesday, Jones has a palm to grow and no wingmen to help him.
So, yes, Jones will be looking for 33 players for a squad with experience, mix and X-factor. But in a World Cup year, the coaches of Australia’s five Super Rugby provinces are paying as much attention as the players. “We have to get four or five coaches who can work together to get in there, steal the trophy and get out without getting caught,” Jones says.
With Jones at home, Rugby Australia signaled the return of “The Wallaby Way” – the gritty, high, attacking style of rugby he helped pioneer in his playing days at Randwick. But Jones, whose reign as England manager oversaw a build-up of 112 players and 80 executives, allayed fears by saying he would 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. What I want to see is that the players play with that toughness that they 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 alike: a fresh start under a new leader with no favourites, and a gauntlet from the bosses to throw down. In a 2022 riddled with injuries and mistakes, the Wallabies have shown flashes of brilliance despite a 5-9 win-loss record. But with a new era, a new wave of Super Men can compete for golden 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 chances in 2023. The Wallabies have struggled to create combinations and win tough games, so Jones will like Australia’s teams experimenting early on with ‘starters’ and ‘finishers’ to find the 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 have plenty of Wallabies in the pack and an electric new wing in Sevens star Corey Toole. Coach Steve Larkham will try two 9-10 duos: starting with Ryan Lonergan and Jack Debreczeni and ending with Wallabies Nic White and Noah Lolesio.
Winless in 2021, the ‘Tahs have been re-ignited under coach Darren Coleman. Fullback Kirtley Beale is facing criminal charges, but they have cult figures Jones will be keeping a close eye on. Hurricane Mark Nawaqanitawase will partner 18-year-old Max Jorgensen (son of Wallaby #700 Peter) on the wings, while in the back row Michael Hooper guides an exciting group of young savages in Charlie Gamble, Langi Gleeson and Lachie Swinton. .
Jones is also planning for the 2027 Cup, and will love that Tom Linnagh, the 19-year-old son of 72-Test great Michael, will start for the Reds against the Hurricanes on Saturday. With James O’Connor out injured, manager Brad Thorn is giving the England international a chance to lead a line of Hunter Paisami, Jordan Petaya, Jock Campbell and Souliasi Vunivalu.
Melbourne (10th in 2022) announced this week that star prop Taniela Tupou will join in 2024, but they have starred before (former NRL Wallaby Marika Koroibete, British pin-up Danny Cipriani) and are doing so again in 2023 with the signing by Monty Ioane, the tattooed flyer from Italy. Under coach Kevin Foote, they are a young team with nothing to lose and everything to prove.
The Force, the Rebels’ opponents on Saturday, are just as young, but hungrier and angrier – hungry to defy 100-1 odds to win the 2023 title, angry to have lost five games with less than a try in 2022 to to finish ninth. Under wily new coach Simon Crone, they will boast Wallabies winger Folau Fainga’a but not their injured star Izack Rodda.
With the cricket season underway, the NRL kicking off next weekend and the AFL kicking off on March 16, it’s time for Australian rugby – coaches, players, fans – to show Jones what he’s made of. The Rugby Championship and Bledisloe Cup kick off in July, so Eddie’s season has dirty games to track down a crew and pick 33 Super Wallabies to crush and grab rugby’s biggest prize.