Young, Untested Wallabies Face Tough Group
All change for 2023
Australia have started 2023 with a new manager and a new captain in Eddie Jones and Will Skelton. Both seem to be huge gambles. Jones had been England’s head coach since late-2015, losing the job just nine months before the World Cup. His tenure with England was relatively successful, winning three Six Nations titles (including one Grand Slam) and getting to a World Cup final in 2019. You’d argue a second World Cup final in a row may be out of reach. 2022 was an inconsistent year, with his England side winning just five of thirteen matches.
With Skelton, Australia have a juggernaut of a man. Measuring 2.02m and weighing in at 145kg, it’s safe to say he doesn’t shy away from much on the field. Except maybe the captaincy. Reportedly, he had to be asked three times before he accepted the role. He’s even admitted in an interview that he’ll need to lean on his vice-captain Tate McDermott for support, and that as a team they’ll all grow together. It seems a big step to replace the leadership team of Michael Hooper and James Slipper – the former not included in the World Cup squad at all.
The one thing that hasn’t changed so far this year is Australia’s poor form. Four defeats from four – a clean sweep in the truncated Rugby Championship, and a second, albeit closer, defeat to New Zealand in the second Bledisloe Cup match.
Strengths and Weaknesses
Despite the results going against them, the Wallabies squad has several strengths. Their options at scrum-half in McDermott and Nic White mean they’ll be able to field an experienced 9 on the pitch for the full 80 minutes. And their selection of outside backs is amongst the most exciting in the competition – Andrew Kellaway, Marika Koroibete, Mark Nawaqanitawase, Suliasi Vunivalu and the uncapped raw talent of Max Jorgensen.
It's not just in the backs where the Aussies have strength in depth, but the front five too. Skelton, alongside Matt Philip, Nick Frost and the vastly experienced (just not on the international stage) Richie Arnold are the options at lock. James Slipper with more than 130 caps is possibly the most capped prop in world rugby currently, while Taniela Tupou is swiftly closing in on 50. And in Dave Porecki and Jordan Uelese they have two hookers both staking a claim for that starting spot.
However, those positives are offset by several glaring weaknesses. The main talking point seems to be Jones’ choice to take just one out-and-out fly-half in Carter Gordon. He’s young, he’s not the main goal kicker at his club, and he only made his Test debut earlier this summer. His back up Ben Donaldson is just a year older, and has fewer caps. The main theme in the squad is its youth, with Jones saying the youngsters are there on merit. It’s a brave choice but with no Michael Hooper in the back row and no Quade Cooper at fly-half, that’s a huge amount of experience missing.
Who are the Young Guns?
The three youngsters who will undoubtedly feature at the World Cup are all 22 years of age, which bodes well for the 2027 World Cup in Australia, if not for now.
Carter Gordon will definitely be the first-choice fly-half, similar in style to Wallabies legend Stephen Larkham. He’s a capable kicker, but more impressive is his tries to games ratio with 7 tries in just 13 games for the Melbourne Rebels in Super Rugby this year. This is the best record of any fly half in the world right now.
In the back row there’s still a Hooper – Tom Hooper, a physical flanker who can also fill in at lock. Australian fans see him as a long-term replacement for Scott Fardy. He’s been fantastic for the Brumbies this year.
The one name on everyone’s lips (though few can pronounce it correctly) is Mark Nawaqanitawase, a winger who made his Test debut against Italy in 2022. He’s a powerful runner, good under the high ball, and previously represented the Australian Sevens team at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, meaning he’s effective in broken-field play.
Uncapped Max Jorgensen has been named in the squad, but it’s unlikely he’ll get his chance unless there’s an injury. He’s just 18, but 4 tries in 11 games for the Waratahs this year shows he’s capable of mixing it with the bigger names. His dad Peter played both League and Union and picked up 2 caps for Australia in 1992. It’s almost certain that Max will surpass that number, it’s just a case of how quickly he does that.
What are Their Chances in the Group Stage?
Pool C is surely the ‘Group of Death’ – Wales are on a similar trajectory to Australia at the moment, a team in transition with plenty of younger players getting their first challenges on the world stage. The two shoe-ins for qualification on paper will need to be wary of Fiji and Georgia, who on their day are both capable of upsets. You’d think a win against Portugal is almost guaranteed, but they too are a country on the up.
I believe the Australians will see it through, the star names are amongst the best in the world – Skelton, Slipper, Koroibete, McDermott and Rob Valetini show they have talent across the pitch. And the youngsters in the squad are not token inclusions, they’re at a World Cup because they deserve to be there.
Who’s in the Squad?
Eddie Jones has picked a mixture of experience and youth, mostly from three franchises within Super Rugby – Melbourne Rebels, NSW Waratahs and ACT Brumbies. There’s just one player from the other Australian club in Super Rugby, Western Force. In addition to this, there are two inclusions from the Top 14 in Will Skelton and Richie Arnold, and two from Japan in Koroibete and Kerevi.
There’s three uncapped players in the squad – prop Blake Schoupp, scrum-half Issak Fines-Leleiwasa and 18-year-old outside back Max Jorgensen. How much game time they’ll get is anyone’s guess but Jones’ selection policy shows they’ve got a chance at least.
Props: Angus Bell (NSW Waratahs), Pone Fa’amausili (Melbourne Rebels), Zane Nonggorr (Queensland Reds), Blake Schoupp (ACT Brumbies), James Slipper (ACT Brumbies), Taniela Tupou (Queensland Reds)
Hookers: Matt Faessler (Queensland Reds), Dave Porecki (NSW Waratahs), Jordan Uelese (Melbourne Rebels)
Locks: Richie Arnold (Stade Toulousain), Nick Frost (ACT Brumbies), Matt Philip (Melbourne Rebels), Will Skelton (Stade Rochelais)
Back rowers: Langi Gleeson (NSW Waratahs), Tom Hooper (ACT Brumbies), Rob Leota (Melbourne Rebels), Fraser McReight (Queensland Reds), Rob Valetini (ACT Brumbies)
Scrum-halves: Issak Fines-Leleiwasa (Western Force), Tate McDermott (Queensland Reds), Nic White (ACT Brumbies)
Fly-halves: Carter Gordon (Melbourne Rebels)
Centres: Lalakai Foketi (NSW Waratahs), Samu Kerevi (Urayasu D-Rocks), Izaia Perese (NSW Waratahs), Jordan Petaia (Queensland Reds)
Outside backs: Max Jorgensen (NSW Waratahs), Andrew Kellaway (Melbourne Rebels), Marika Koroibete (Saitama Wild Knights), Mark Nawaqanitawase (NSW Waratahs), Suliasi Vunivalu (Queensland Reds)
Utility backs: Ben Donaldson (NSW Waratahs), Josh Kemeny (Melbourne Rebels)
Can the Green and Golds Take Gold?
There’s a fight to be had in Pool C, with the matches in that group arguably harder to call that in any other group at the World Cup. But Australia should come out on top, barring any disasters. Then knockout rugby, as always, has to be taken one game at a time. Realistically, this Australian team is capable of getting to the semi finals if they play to their potential.