The Australia puzzle facing Eddie Jones after coaching exodus
Assistant coaching turnover was a staple of his time in charge of England but even Eddie Jones must be finding life a little lonely after returning to Australia. There were always likely to be changes to the Wallabies staff on the Australian’s return to the head coaching role, but news of the resignations of Dan McKellar and Petrus du Plessis strikes another significant blow to Jones’ first preparations for the autumn World Cup.
If the former England head coach wanted a blank canvas to begin his second stint as Australia boss, then the removal of the last bones of an already skeleton-like staff may be welcome. But embedding an entirely new coaching team in the same year as the tournament may prove difficult - as Steve Borthwick and Warren Gatland are finding with England and Wales.
Jones was reportedly keen to keep both the highly-regarded McKellar, who is a shrewd appointment for Leicester Tigers, and Du Plessis, who has elected for a new challenge after turning down an offer to stay. The former Saracens prop is a likely candidate for a potential vacancy at his old club, who could lose scrum coach Ian Peel to England this summer, or at Tigers if McKellar wishes to take the South African with him. Perhaps it speaks to Jones’ reputation as a harsh taskmaster that he was unable to convince the pair to even delay their departures until after the World Cup.
“This was an extremely difficult decision to make but it’s one that’s made with my best professional and family interests in mind,” McKellar said after agreeing to take charge at Leicester ahead of the next Premiership season. “I firmly believe my next challenge will make me a better coach and hopefully allow me to return home and contribute in a positive fashion to Australian rugby in the future.”
Jones is granted a longer lead-in before on-field international business than either Borthwick or Gatland, but the Super Rugby season start is imminent and the 62-year-old has few trusted voices around him as he begins to assemble his plans. He is, however, now free to identify and appoint lieutenants as he sees fit, which could suit Jones.
Before the muddles of the last two years, a strength of his England was the quality of the coach’s deputies: Borthwick, John Mitchell and Scott Wisemantel all played influential roles on the run to the final of the 2019 World Cup in Japan. Appointing proven international coaches to power a swift turnaround would be wise. A reunion with Wisemantel is a possibility, but having given up the Australia attack coach role citing family reasons just before Jones was reappointed, it may be that involvement as a consultant is a better fit.
Installing the right people will be key to guide a flawed team. While an injury-ravaged year did go some way to building a degree of squad depth, the Wallabies appear to have few certain choices in the starting 15, and Jones must also make a decision on who will captain his side. Incumbent James Slipper did a credible job during the Rugby Championship and November Tests, but the 33-year-old prop is starting to show the wear of 122 caps in the front row. Michael Hooper has indicated a willingness to return to a role he relinquished last year, though Jones may also recognise a time to seek new direction.
But the new Australia coach will not panic. Among the reasons why Wales, England and the Wallabies were all compelled to change coaches over the last two months is the conceivable ease of the path to success at the tournament in France. An early draw has left the current men’s rugby heavyweights in the other half of the draw; a last-four berth is eminently within reach for any of the three teams, requiring only a quarter-final win over another flawed side in flux.
“There’s a beautiful jewellery store around the corner,” Jones explained last week of the challenge he faces. “We’ve got to get four or five coaches that can work together, can bring together a team, get in there, steal the trophy and get out without getting caught. They’re the sort of people we need.”