Rugby 2023: World Cup chances and Rennie’s future

    The Wallabies only won five Tests from a possible 14, were hammered by Argentina away and suffered a historic first loss to Italy. Then there were the bizarre scenes in Melbourne against the All Blacks, and a thrilling comeback against Wales. The Brumbies, Waratahs and Reds – Australian rugby’s traditional power houses – made the Super Rugby finals, while the Rebels and Force struggled again. Meanwhile, two new teams – Fijian Drua and Moana Pasifika – joined the Super Rugby Pacific competition. The more things change, though, the more they stay the same, with the Crusaders winning the competition. Again. It was a similar story in Sydney club rugby, with Sydney University winning their third title in the past four completed seasons – although the competition throughout the season made for compelling viewing. Elsewhere, the Australian 7s teams enjoyed more success, and the Women’s World Cup in New Zealand provided some of the best rugby you’ll see all year. Oh yeah, and we finally received confirmation that the Super Rugby Pacific will remain intact and unchanged until at least 2030. That news, delivered in December, came after a many months of strained (read: near-breaking point) relations between Rugby Australia and New Zealand Rugby. So, all’s well that ends well. Coaching conundrumDave Rennie is under the most pressure he’s ever been under during his tenure as Wallabies coach, but surely he keeps his job until after the World Cup.Rennie’s Wallabies outfit were levelled by injuries during the Spring Tour. A loss to Italy summed up a gruelling and not very successful tour. Calls came thick and fast for his scalp, but the timing of the World Cup in France next year could save him. If it was any other year, it wouldn’t have been a surprise to see Rennie given his marching orders, but a complete coaching change so close to the biggest tournament in the sport is a huge risk.England and Wales both bit the bullet and sacked their coaches at the end of 2021, but they both had fairly obvious replacements with a deep knowledge of the rugby landscape in those countries. Longtime England assistant Steve Borthwick replaced Eddie Jones, and former Welsh coach Warren Gatland returns to his old job. That’s not really the case in Australia. While Rugby Australia have openly stated their desire to bring Jones back, the ousted England coach probably wants more time to prepare for the World Cup. Of course, a big fat check could change that pretty quickly. Rennie’s contract is up after France ’23, and it’s unlikely to be renewed. Jones is back in Japan with Suntory at the moment and hasn’t made any comments on the Wallabies job, but don’t be surprised if he’s back in the mix in 2024.Where are the Wallabies? What a weird year it was for the national team. First there was an unlikely win over England in the series opener in Perth, when Quade Cooper injured himself in the warm up and Darcy Swain was red carded for a headbutt. Rennie’s team then lost the next two matches and the series. August delivered a 48-17 hiding by Argentina, and in September there was the controversial defeat to the All Blacks following a strange refereeing decision. The swings and roundabouts continued on the Spring Tour, with narrow defeats to France and Ireland – the two best teams on the planet – sandwiching Australia’s first ever defeat to Italy. The Tour ended with a remarkable comeback win over the Welsh, and we were no closer to answering the question of how good – or bad – the Wallabies really are.A glance at the win-loss record makes for ugly reading, but the team didn’t always play bad rugby. Intent to play positive, attacking footy was always there, even if the cattle to get the job done wasn’t.The heartbreaking final few minutes of the loss to the French sums that up perfectly. Pegged deep inside their own half, with five-eighth Bernard Foley having just been replaced, the Wallabies needed to find touch inside French territory. Instead, the Gilbert floated harmlessly down the middle of the pitch and France scored the matchwinner 30 seconds later. Not for the first time, the Wallabies were in a position to win a Test, but couldn’t capitalise. A long list of injuries didn’t help matters, but with Rennie employing a rotation selection policy, it’s hard to gauge what the ideal starting side actually is. Not the best set-up this close to the World Cup, but it makes for an intriguing Super Rugby season.World Cup, World Cup, World Cup For the next nine months, everything that happens in Australian, Japanese, French and English rugby will be assessed in relation to the World Cup. Good individual performances, injuries, comebacks, ill-discipline and poor form will combine to create a unique union pressure cooker. It’s going to be a hectic and wildly enjoyable time. Waratahs – A new hopeWinless from eight games, and stone motherless last in 2021, the Waratahs were the big improvers in 2022. Reinvigorated under new coach Darren Coleman, the Tahs earned a shock win over the Crusaders as $15 outsiders, had Leichhardt Oval heaving and secured a spot in the finals. It’s even more remarkable when you consider they did it training out of demountables at their Daceyville base while Allianz Stadium was rebuilt and their new headquarters were finished. With state of the art new training facilities that are exclusive to them, big things are expected of the squad. A longtime Shute Shield coach, Coleman’s influence should be felt for many years to come. The premiership-winning mentor has reconnected with the club game, creating pathways for the best players in the state to advance to Super Rugby level.Veteran back Kurtley Beale makes his Super Rugby return in 2023, but Coleman’s comments about his leadership credentials are telling. Despite his decade and a half in professional rugby, Beale is unlikely to have a formal leadership role at the Waratahs. Instead, Coleman says Jake Gordon, Jed Holloway, Dave Porecki and others will continue in those jobs. It’s a subtle but important hint that Coleman and the Tahs are planning for the future with young talent. What’s doing with Noah Lolesio?There’s a similar sort of issue playing out at the Wallabies too. Noah Lolesio is an out-and-out star for the Brumbies, and excels at Super Rugby level, but has struggled to maintain consistency in the gold jersey. Not that he’s really ever been given the opportunity to find his feet, develop and nail down his spot.Lolesio started all three Tests against England, but only after Quade Cooper’s freak injury moments before kick-off in the first encounter. It’s obvious Rennie prefers Cooper, while Bernard Foley and Ben Donaldson also started at flyhalf in 2022. It leaves Lolesio in a weird spot.Surely he’s on the plane to France – he’s too talented not to be there – but it’s still unclear how and when he’ll be utilised.Still just 23 years old, he has the potential to carve out a long Wallabies career, but his development to date hasn’t been handled well. It would be a shame to see him not fulfil that promise.Sevens Heaven The Women’s 7s side is the jewel in Rugby Australia’s crown. After an awful result at the Tokyo Olympics, Tim Walsh’s side bounced back and won … well, everything. The side scored a Commonwealth Games gold in Birmingham, claimed the Sevens World Cup in September and lifted the World Series trophy as well. 2023 is about qualifying and preparing for the Paris Olympics in 2024. The team is a well-balanced mix of experience and youth, and the players in the squad now will be the ones representing Australia at the Olympics. Despite the highs of 2022, motivation won’t be an issue. The scars from Tokyo remain, and redeeming that quarter-final defeat to Fiji will be front of mind over the next 18 months.The Aussies and Kiwis shared a win and a loss in the final of the opening two rounds of the 2023 season, and will likely go head-to-head over the next five months, including the series’ return to Sydney in late January. It promises to be a mouth-watering season, and, like the Wallabies and the World Cup, every result will be viewed in relation to the Olympics. Wallaroos developmentThe attention, money, resources and time invested in 7s has had a negative impact on the Wallaroos over the past decade. The NRLW and even AFLW are also funnelling talented players away from the 15-a-side game. The Super W competition is a start, but more sponsorship, development opportunities and clear pathways are needed if Australia wants to compete when it hosts the World Cup in 2029.Australia has appeared at the seven most recent World Cups, with a best finish of third in 2010. Nearly every member of the Wallaroos side that played in last month’s World Cup in New Zealand has a day job outside rugby, so a spot in the quarter-finals was probably par for the course. A heavy last eight defeat to a juggernaut England team speaks more to the lack of investment in the women’s game rather than the difference in skill, talent or potential in Australia.A golden era The Sydney 7s, to be held at Allianz Stadium on January 27-29, can be considered the first event in a momentous couple of years for rugby in Australia. Back for the first time since Covid, the festival of footy makes for a great couple of days out in the summer sunshine. Looking longer term though, the British and Irish Lions are touring Australia in 2025, and the World Cup will be played two years later. Two years after that, in 2029, the women’s World Cup will be staged in Australia for the first time. It’s an exciting time for fans, players and game’s decision makers alike. Union doesn’t have the same pulling power in Australia as it did 20 years ago, but these global events help bring money, attention and enthusiasm for the code.

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