Wallabies’ defeats hurt but Eddie Jones is gambling on a long game | Angus Fontaine

Six years ago they had the All Blacks 17-0 down before being overrun and beaten 35-29. Last year in Melbourne they needed only to kick on time before a bizarre refereeing call and a New Zealand try on the siren denied them. On Saturday a fresh tale of misery: wasting a 14-0 lead inside eight minutes and 17-3 at half-time, to choke on bitter Bledisloe defeat again.

The Wallabies truly are the heartbreak kids of Australian sport.

They have now lost 15 of their last 20 Tests and plummeted to eighth in the world rankings. The margin in nine of those defeats – including the dagger-to-the-heart in Dunedin on Saturday – was a penalty goal or less. But that concession would be putting lipstick on a pig. The fact is that Eddie Jones’s woebegone team is 0-4 this year and alarm bells are ringing.

Last week, the coach asked fans to pray. “They’ve got to keep being hopeful,” Jones said after the Wallabies blew a 7-5 lead. “Whatever God they’ve got … keep praying we turn it around.” On Saturday, after Australia’s winless streak in New Zealand hit 8030 days, Jones was more zen. “Four losses are four losses. Are we making progress? Sometimes the result sheet doesn’t reflect what you’re accurately doing. That’s hard for people to understand. But we’re definitely moving in the right direction. We’re going to be a hell of a team.”

But restless Wallabies fans are asking: if not now, when?

In the first Bledisloe Test this year, Australia was a hell of a team for 25 minutes to lead 7-5. In the sequel, they were a hell of a team for 40 minutes and got ahead 17-3. But in the minutes either side of those periods, they were dominated. Rugby is an 80-minute game but “we don’t have the capacity to keep doing simple things well [for long periods],” Jones said.

A few simple things were evident on Saturday as Australia took the game by the scruff of its neck – fast passing, ferocious defence, excellent support play and precision set pieces. The Wallabies’ long-lamented discipline improved too, conceding four penalties to the All Blacks’ seven in the first half (alas, it crumbled to 9-3 in the final 40 minutes). But from the get-go, Australia were threatening, bending the defensive line then spreading the ball wide to their weapons.

This was what Jones promised Australian rugby fans when he took the head coach job in January – a return to the “Wallaby Way” of playing fierce running rugby with mongrel passion. “We’ve got big men with the ability to change direction in small spaces,” Jones said on the weekend. “We’re a running team and we need to play a strong running game.”

Four straight defeats hurt but Australia are gambling on a long game. The World Cup starts in a month. And while Jones’s results stink, his selections are coming up roses. Combinations are clicking – Tate McDermott and Carter Gordon in the halves, centre pairing Jordan Petaia and Samu Kerevi, and a young backrow of Tom Hooper, Fraser McReight and Rob Valetini.

Jones also has strong locks in Nick Frost, Rory Arnold and Will Skelton, all 2 metres tall and growing with each Test. He has at least one A-list prop in Angus Bell back from injury and real match-winners on both wings in Marika Koroibete and Mark Nawaqanitawase. And fullback Andrew Kellaway has shone on his return to lock down the troubled No 15 spot.

Now is the time for Jones to pick-and-stick with these players – and young debutant captain Tate McDermott, who led well in Dunedin – when he names his 33-man World Cup squad on Thursday. A warm-up match against host nation France on 28 August is the men in gold’s final chance to alchemise before their first pool match on 10 September against Georgia.

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The coach still has issues. His injury list is growing, with tight-head props Allan Alaalatoa (Achilles) and Taniela Tupou (ribs) joining centre Len Ikitau (shoulder) and veteran flanker Michael Hooper (calf) as doubtful for France. And his ‘bomb squad’ bench men are fizzling, with finishing halves Quade Cooper and Nic White failing to spark in both Bledisloe games.

Australia have been blessed with an enviable World Cup run on the easier side of the draw, but they face a tricky clash with Fiji on 18 September and a genuine danger game the week after against Wales, newly resurgent after a powerful 20-9 victory over England at the weekend. Both nations sit directly below Australia in the rankings but neither can be underestimated.

Nor can Jones. His World Cup record is awesome. He took Australia to the final in 2003 and England in 2019, winning the trophy in 2007 as a Springboks adviser and engineering the tournament’s greatest upset when he coached Japan to victory over South Africa in 2015. Jones wants a “smash and grab” on rugby’s greatest prize. If anyone can, it’s Jones.

Back in 2003, his Wallabies were walloped 50-21 by New Zealand in July only to beat them 22-10 in the World Cup semi-final that November. On Saturday, his men had the All Blacks monster slain until it rose up and bit their head off again. Yet Jones’s smile stayed intact. He believes in the darkness is a bigger monster, “a Meg” still unseen, just starting its final surge.

Source: theguardian.com

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