In sacking Eddie Jones as head coach eight months out from the World Cup, English rugby may have gift-wrapped an early Christmas present for the woebegone Wallabies in 2023. The fiercely-Australian Jones is suddenly a free agent with an axe to grind and a World Cup plan. That makes him a very dangerous adversary to his old masters, and a huge – if slightly volatile – weapon of mass destruction should the men in gold snap him up as a gun-for-hire.
Rugby Australia has backed coach Dave Rennie through to the 2023 World Cup in France. They have committed to his vision, acknowledged his popularity among the players and backed him to deliver when it matters most. To do so when Rennie has a 37% win record (lowest of any Australian coach in the professional era), and when the team is coming off its worst season of his three in charge, speaks of RA’s admirable loyalty, bold vision or foolhardiness.
Yet few would argue that after finishing the international season with only five victories (none of them back-to-back) from 14 Tests, Australian rugby needs more if it’s to truly challenge for the William Webb Ellis trophy this September. Is “Fast Eddie” – the mastermind who has defeated Australia in 10 of his last 11 outings – the turbo boost the Wallabies crave?
Those who remember Jones’s combustive reign as Australia’s coach two decades back would warn against letting the fox back in the henhouse. Appointed in 2001, Jones won the Tri Nations that year then upset the All Blacks in the semi-final before losing to England after Jonnie Wilkinson’s field goal. Although contracted until 2007, seven straight losses in 2005 spelled his end. From 57 Tests Jones won 33 – a 58% win-record.
But there’s the rub. That record rises to 82% at the four World Cups Jones has contested. After the heart-breaker in 2003, Jones was South Africa’s key technical advisor for their 2007 title. In 2015, as Japan’s coach, he delivered the RWC’s biggest upset, when the Brave Blossoms shocked the Springboks. And in 2019, Jones took England to the final again.
Weirdly, this single-minded focus on World Cup success is why England have axed him. A restless English rugby public booed him from the field last week, tired of uninspiring recent performances shrugged off by Jones as minor setbacks as he experimented with 112 players and over 80 coaching staff over a seven-year reign in the quest for world domination in 2023.
Admittedly, despite a 73% record (the greatest of all England’s coaches) and his equalling of New Zealand’s all-time record of 18 consecutive wins in 2017, Jones’s former lustre was lacking this season, winning five Tests (two of them over Australia in July) and losing six. So the triggermen at Twickenham did what former Wallaby Matt Giteau said was “the silliest thing they could do to the English rugby team. [Jones] plans and plans and plans in advance for… the one competition he has got consistently right time and time again. Big mistake.”
And big opportunity for Australia? Back in July, the rugby rumour mill ran hot and heavy with tales of Jones being lined up to return home in 2024 in a rirector of rugby role. If true, the plan can now be expedited to leave Rennie with the reins as promised, but with Jones’s strategic brain and insider-savvy part of the Wallabies camp in the lead-up to Paris 2023.
If it works there, it sets Australian rugby up nicely for a blockbuster tour by the British and Irish Lions in 2025 before Jones and a new coach – possibly the Brumbies’ Stephen Larkham or the Force’s Simon Cron – reboot Wallabies culture so Australia’s current crop of young guns win the 2027 World Cup right here in Australia.
The stars are aligning. But if Australia wants Jones a year early, they would need to act quickly. There is movement – some might say panic – as rugby’s four-year cycle nears its climax. A day before Jones was jettisoned, Wales harpooned Wayne Pivac and installed Warren Gatland who left New Zealand urging Scott Robertson to replace Ian Foster in 2024.
But Jones is a maverick. At 62, he may chase a left-field bucket-list item: rugby league. Jones segued from his triumphant tour of Australia this year straight into an NRL camp with the Melbourne Storm, and he mentored new Sea Eagles coach Anthony Seibold at England. After all, Michael Cheika recently proved it’s possible to coach Lebanon at the Rugby League World Cup then lead Argentina to victory over the All Blacks in the same weekend.
Even that love of league elevates his value to rugby. In 2001, Jones was at a Sea Eagles trial when he recruited one George Smith and turned him into the Wallabies greatest flanker. Forgiven for past ills and feted for his growth since, then given a role as overseer not coach – Jones’s intensity as a leader is said to border on megalomania – he might make a difference. The Wallabies need a wildcard to win big in 2023. Jones might just be their joker in the pack.