There is still a long way to go but rugby union’s tectonic plates are shifting. What would have been the odds, even four years ago, on four European sides potentially filling all the semi-final slots at a Rugby World Cup? No one, to be clear, is remotely counting out the defending champions South Africa or the flying Fijians but there is a chance that France, Ireland, Wales and England could all make the last four.
Some might even argue, given South African sides now play in the United Rugby Championship, that the Boks are also increasingly part of the northern hemisphere furniture. A slight exaggeration, perhaps, but a number of their coaching staff and players have worked in Ireland and several more are based in England and France. Recent results would suggest Australia, in particular, are increasingly fighting an uphill battle.
Again, it is early days and the margins separating, say, Ireland and South Africa remain wafer thin. But there is another factor in the mix that cannot be entirely explained away by domestic structures, data-driven game plans or development pipelines. It is good, old-school rugby instinct and coaching nous and the influence of key individuals on the bigger picture.
We are referring, among others, to Warren Gatland. Wales’s regions are battling for their lives and the Welsh Rugby Union has been grappling with instability and rancour. If you had suggested back in February, when the squad were discussing strike action before their game against England, that Wales would stick 40 points on Australia at the World Cup, even Gatland would have hesitated to believe you.
Four months of ferociously hard work, heat camps, bonding sessions and smart selections later and Wales are into the last eight, with power to add. “We are all back to where we want to be because of this management,” said the scrumhalf Gareth Davies, one of Wales’s three try-scorers against the Wallabies. “We are fighting for each other, playing for each other and the environment is good. Warren has just got his way. It works for me and it obviously works for everyone else in the squad. It just gets us all going.”
The centre Nick Tompkins made a similar point, suggesting the clear strategies Gatland has reintroduced have made a large difference in terms of self-belief. “Give the boys a bit of confidence and continuity and it just shows what you can do. I think we missed a vision and bit of clarity. It’s not rocket science but it’s not easy to do.”
Ireland, similarly, are increasingly mirroring Andy Farrell’s winner’s mindset, developed over many trophy-laden seasons with Wigan. If everyone feels better when results are good, it is instructive to remember both Farrell and his attack coach Mike Catt endured character-building World Cup campaigns with England in 2015. Did going through that experience make them better coaches? Or is it just that the Irish rugby pyramid is much better aligned than the English one, then and now?
The truth is invariably somewhere in between but Farrell and Gatland, as head coaches, deserve serious respect for the jobs they are doing. So, for that matter, does Simon Raiwalui, who took full charge of Fiji only this year. And Shaun Edwards at France. Not to mention the former French international winger Patrice Lagisquet, whose Portuguese side have been so consistently good to watch. You can often tell within a couple of minutes whether a team are a) well-coached and b) on the same collective wavelength and Os Lobos tick both boxes.
Which brings us to Australia and Eddie Jones. This is not another piece about Jones as the whole depressing soap opera has clearly now run its course. But how can a guru such as Jones, the architect of Japan’s famous World Cup pool win over South Africa in 2015 and the man who guided England to the final in 2019, now suddenly seem to be getting everything so spectacularly wrong?
It is not an age thing because Lagisquet, at 61, is only a couple of years younger and Gatland has just turned 60. No one disputes, either, that Jones still loves his rugby. To see him out on the pitch in his pullover during the warm-up on Sunday night, twitchingly keen to keep improving his players from a metre or two away, was to glimpse that ongoing obsession.
Increasingly, though, it has all become too much about him, to the detriment of the teams he has been trying to inspire. Australia have some talented individuals but the Wallabies have never looked flatter than during the second half against Wales. This is relevant because, in Gatland’s view, the two countries share some similarities.
“Wales are not that different from Australia. We’ve got regional teams that need to step up, perform and get better. It’s the same with the Super Rugby sides in Australia. If you can get to semi-finals or finals it has a huge positive impact on the national team. Players come in with a bit of a spring in their step. That’s the first step for Australian rugby. Get quality players and then quality coaches doing a job. We’ve definitely got to do that in Wales but it takes a little bit of time.”
Quite so. But as with every aspirational Test team the Wallabies also need a head coach with a bit of empathy and a sureness of touch. They are hosting a British & Irish Lions tour in 2025 and the next men’s World Cup in 2027 and something fundamental needs to change between now and then. As things stand, their northern cousins are accelerating away from them. – Guardian