Earlier this week, Eddie Jones was asked whether, after hooking his 22-year-old fly-half after 50 minutes in the loss to Fiji, he feared that Wales would target Carter Gordon.
“There’s no team in the world that doesn’t target the opposition 10,” said Australia’s head coach. “They are the conductor of the team and if you can get to them you get to them.
“There are various ways you can look after your 10 and we’ll have a look at that this week.”
The words that Jones did not say, however, were far more salient and enticing than anything he uttered at his Fijian post-mortem. It was Gordon’s name. Jones never said his name; the Wallabies’ fly-half jersey had been dehumanised, neutral, without identity. That, to anyone who has followed Jones’ coaching career, was the death knell. Gordon, the rookie to whom Jones had given Australia’s backline keys, would not just be sitting out the final half-hour of the loss to Fiji; the Rebels fly-half would be surplus to requirements in the Wallabies’ do-or-die clash with Wales, too. You could bet your mortgage on it.
And so, when Jones, in lieu of veteran fly-half back-ups like Quade Cooper and Bernard Foley – both fit but deemed surplus to requirements by the former England head coach – named 24-year-old Ben Donaldson as Australia’s play-maker for the titanic tussle with Wales, it came as a surprise to precisely no one that Gordon would be sitting on the bench. Especially not to Danny Care, Luther Burrell, Teimana Harrison or Nick Isiekwe, all of whom had all been on the receiving end of Jones’ ruthless radio – replacement before the second half – during the head coach’s time with England.
Whether Jones has obliterated Gordon’s confidence, the swagger which has seen him arrive on the international rugby scene with such promise, remains to be seen. Certainly, the 63-year-old was adamant that the sidelined starlet should take no blame for the loss to Simon Raiwalui’s inspired Fijians.
“I just want to make it clear it wasn’t just Carter who had a tough day,” Jones said in the aftermath. “There were definitely other people in the same boat.
“He’s been good though, he’s really resilient. I’m really close to him. He’s incredibly disappointed of course – and the whole squad is – because of that performance but you’ve got to have a short memory. Particularly given how important his preparation will be going into this game.”
Except, there is only really one other in the same boat, according to the side that Jones has named to face Warren Gatland’s Wales. Openside Fraser McReight has dropped to the bench alongside Gordon; so, too, Nic White, but the scrum-half was always going to make way for first-choice Tate McDermott after injury.
Jones spoke about the need to “freshen his team up” at his press conference on Friday; about how Gordon “struggled a bit against Fiji” and about how he would be best suited to finish this match against Wales – not start it.
“With young players, you’ve got to have a feel with where they are,” Jones said when asked to justify the dropping of Gordon. “And sometimes you need to back them and sometimes you need to pull them away a little bit, and at the moment we feel like it’s best to pull him away a little bit.
“He’s obviously disappointed. Every player is disappointed. They all want to start. But he knows he’s got an important role in the team.”
When asked for the rugby-related reasons for Gordon’s omission, Jones hid behind a veneer of confidentiality, saying it was between him and the player.
In essence, Jones, once again, has gambled. Of course, the head coach must follow his gut and his instinct when selecting his team for a particular game – especially with Wallaby backs to the wall this Sunday – but the elephant in the room remains: Gordon’s career is teetering on a cliff edge, and only time will tell in which direction it travels.
Either Jones will be hailed (or hail himself) as the genius who managed Gordon tenderly and fastidiously on the journey to stardom – with the hooking after 50 minutes and subsequent benching deemed as a necessity on that path of enlightenment – or the fly-half will be yet another one of Jones’ players biting the dust, embarrassed on rugby’s most high-profile stage.