How did we get here? At the end of 2022 and with the Rugby World Cup year up next, the Rennie-led Wallabies were not an outstanding team, but nor were they a bad one.
In the midst of a huge injury crisis, the Wallabies beat the recently crowned world champion Boks in Adelaide, went within a skinny Frenchman of beating the World Cup runners-up in Melbourne, beat Scotland and Wales and went very close to beating Ireland and France on the Spring Tour as well.
With a fifth Test added to the Spring Tour schedule, however, Rennie knew he couldn’t play a full-strength team against Italy and gambled with a B-team.
Rugby Australia chairman Hamish McLennan was at the game, steamed about the loss and when Jones became available in December, the disruptor chairman swooped to sign a coach cut from the same cloth.
How much of this signing was a “captain’s call” by McLennan will be scrutinised in coming weeks, as wider accountability for the Jones debacle is sought. The board signed off on the change.
Players were not stoked. Rennie’s only words after leaving were to say he never lost the dressing room, and that was right.
But it is also right to point out that early on, many fans, pundits and ex-players accepted and even embraced the second-coming of Jones – even at the uncomfortable price of sacking a good man.
After a highly successful stint with England, Jones represented a chance to extract the missing 10-15% and beat Ireland, France and New Zealand next time. To use the good fortune of a decent draw and go deep in the Rugby World Cup.
And as Super Rugby rolled on, Jones continued to bang the drum. The nation was on board.
But then the Wallabies started playing and … well, you probably caught the rest.
After a poor start playing a new style, the Wallabies began to slowly show glimpses of form. But just a few days after almost beating New Zealand in Dunedin, Jones went rogue and decided the time to start a rebuild for the 2027 Rugby World Cup was right now – a few weeks before the 2023 Rugby World Cup had even started.
The old brigade of Michael Hooper, Quade Cooper, Bernard Foley, Jed Holloway and Tom Wright had maxed out their potential and were not good enough, Jones later explained.
So Jones pressed the “nuclear option” button for his Rugby World Cup squad, leaving most of the experienced men out and naming 15 players with less than five caps. Experienced ex-Wallabies messaged each other “WTF”, fearing it would be lambs to the slaughter in France.
And so it proved. Missing senior players or not selecting the ones he took, the Wallabies had no fall-back spine of composure or experience when the pressure came on. Tactics were clear as mud and go-to basics like a functioning maul (a Brumbies staple under previous forwards coach Dan McKellar) simply evaporated.
Jones has since sold the story that his decisions were necessary, and others will benefit from the criticisms he is copping now.
But playing the martyr card is Jones’ only remaining option, and gives him a narrative to spin to future employers. If the Wallabies do well in 2027, he’ll claim it. If they do poorly, he saw it coming.
The simple reality is the Wallabies rebuild simply didn’t need to happen a month before the 2023 Rugby World Cup. After it, sure. Go for your life.
The Wallabies had the core of a competitive team under Dave Rennie, and a handful of elite stars. But Jones couldn’t do the simple thing and take the Rennie team forward. Would they have won the tournament? No. Would they have gone out in the pool stages? Also, no.
Would Australian rugby have still recognised the need for major systemic change after a quarter or semi-final exit? Of course.
Will the rookie and youngsters asked to grind through that World Cup extract any lasting benefit from the pain of the last few months? Doubtful.
Was it red-hot for Jones to do a Zoom interview about switching to Japan in 2024, just weeks after he’d pushed the nuclear button and told everyone we’re strapping in for the long haul to 2027? You know the answer to that one.
Jones told Peter FitzSimons he was pissed off for having to take the blame for 20 years of decline. But he doesn’t.
It is disingenuous to point to structural failures of Australian rugby as being the cause for the Wallabies’ World Cup rudderless exit in 2023, and any official who also pushes that line in coming weeks is trying to avoid their share of blame.
It’s far simpler. The bin fire of 2023 ignited because Jones decided to torch the gains of the previous three years, and start a hasty and ill-considered rebuild. Then he logged on to Zoom.