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Donal Lenihan: Australia paying a heavy price for not doing their due diligence on Jones

WHILE it’s extremely difficult to have any sympathy for Eddie Jones, the demise of Australian rugby brings me no satisfaction whatsoever.

Wallaby rugby is close to my heart, maybe because they broke it on more than a few occasions. I have a closer association with Australia than any other southern hemisphere rugby playing nation.

Throughout my playing and management career, they were a constant presence.

Not only did I win my first Irish cap against them back in 1981, I was part of a Munster team that beat the touring Wallabies in Musgrave Park five days before my international debut.

At the time, people said I was mad to play a match so close to winning my first cap. It was traditional back then that you didn’t play for your club the week before an international debut in case you got injured and missed out, but it never even crossed my mind to step down from playing for Munster that day in Cork.

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Three years later, I was privileged to play against, in my opinion, the greatest Wallaby team of all time, on three occasions for Munster, Ireland, and the Barbarians on their successful Grand Slam-winning tour of Britain and Ireland. That team included a back-line of all time greats in Nick Farr-Jones and the brilliant Mark Ella at half-back, Michael Lynagh, their captain Andy Slack, David Campese, and Roger Gould.

They played attacking rugby from a different planet and inspired Mick Doyle’s “give it a lash” attacking policy that landed a Triple Crown and Five Nations Championship for Ireland the following year.

A Lions tour to Australia as both a player and manager in 1989 and 2001, two World Cup quarter-final defeats to the Wallabies as captain in 1987 and in a shattering one-point defeat at the death, courtesy of Lynagh’s try in the corner, in 1991.

Add a two Test series down under as Ireland manager with Warren Gatland in 1999, along with a pool defeat to the eventual winners at the 1999 World Cup, and it’s fair to say I’ve enjoyed some good days but also a lot of pain at the hands of Australian rugby.

Their status in the game is highlighted by not only winning the Webb Ellis Cup in 1991 and 1999 but in reaching the 2003 final against England, when it took a Jonny Wilkinson drop goal in extra-time to separate the teams, and they were runners up again in the 2015 final, losing out to possibly the greatest New Zealand side of all time with Dan Carter and Richie McCaw at their imperious best.

Four final appearances in nine tournaments is some record for a country where rugby has never been the number one sport. Far from it. With four other big professional sports in Rugby League, Australian Rules, cricket and soccer to compete with, success has always been the criteria for attracting mass attention from a sports-loving country.

The Aussies don’t like losers and are quick to abandon non-achievers.

Amateur club rugby in Australia is in a far worse place than it is here in Ireland with the advent of professionalism having a detrimental effect, while their top professional provincial sides, the Queensland Reds, the Waratahs, and Brumbies are seriously struggling.

IN an effort to rescue the slide, the ARU took the bold step to sack their coach, former Waikato Chiefs and Glasgow Warriors coach Dave Rennie, eight months out from this World Cup, opting to parachute Eddie Jones in after he was sacked by the RFU.

That has proved a disastrous call. On their autumn tour to this part of the world last November when Australia played against all the Six Nations teams bar England, a fast-developing squad under Rennie achieved some very notable results. Remember, it took a last-gasp penalty from Ross Byrne for Ireland to escape to 13-10 victory, maintaining our current 16-game run of wins.

The Wallabies started the tour with a 16-15 win over Scotland at Murrayfield and beat Wales in Cardiff, showing remarkable character to recover from being 34-13 down with 22 minutes left, to score 26 unanswered points to win 39-34. Compare that to the performance against Wales last Sunday.

Perhaps their best display on that tour was the agonising 30-29 defeat to France at the Stade de France which showcased the progress being made under Rennie.

However it was the shock 28-27 defeat to Italy in Florence the week after the game in Paris, when Rennie played an entire second team, that eventually cost the New Zealander his job.

All the defeat to Italy confirmed was that the Wallabies strength in depth was at an all time low.

However, several key experienced players were back at home having missed the tour due to injury. The ARU would have been far better advised looking at the positive performances, against Ireland and France in particular, as a barometer of where Rennie was taking the team rather than the defeat to Italy.

The amazing comeback against Wales was proof positive that the players were fully behind Rennie. When Jones became available after his dismissal by England, ‘wiser heads’ in the ARU opted for a quick fix, despite the shambles England had become since the 2019 World Cup. It now appears that the ARU failed in their due diligence prior to that shock appointment.

Contrast where Australia are now compared to Wales, who recalled Warren Gatland after they capitulated to Rennie’s Wallabies a week after losing to Georgia at the Principality Stadium, a result that ultimately sealed Wayne Pivac’s fate.

Welsh rugby was on its knees when Gatland stepped back into the breach. He was shocked with what he found on his return and Wales struggled throughout the 2023 Six Nations. What he has achieved in the six months since — Wales are the first team to qualify for the World Cup quarter finals — is remarkable. What worked for the WRU, in reappointing a former head honcho, has backfired miserably for their Australian counterparts.

In less than two years, they host a British and Irish Lions tour. The last one back in 2013 rescued the ARU financially but that money has long since dried up. The series was competitive in that it went to the third Test but, the tourists’ greater strength in depth saw them romp to victory in the deciding game in Sydney.

The 2001 Lions series is ranked as an all-time classic in a country where rugby has always struggled to capture the sports pages, not to mind the front page headlines. The hordes of Lions supporters that descended on Brisbane on the eve of the first Test at the Gabba was unprecedented and contributed in no small way to a cracking atmosphere and a great win for the Lions.

By the time the deciding third Test arrived the Olympic Stadium in Sydney, it was an 80,000 sell out. That series went to the last lineout in the final minute when the Lions had one last opportunity to score a series winning try. Justin Harrison pilfered the ball from the hands of the inspirational Lions captain Martin Johnson and Australia survived to win.

Back then they were top of the world having beaten France in the 1999 World Cup final in Twickenham. A month after that epic Lions series win, their outstanding coach Rod McQueen stepped down to be replaced by one Eddie Jones.

Australia recovered from a 38-7 defeat to the All Blacks in Melbourne, Jones’s first game in charge, to beat them for the first time ever in Carisbrook’s ‘house of pain’ in Dunedin. That win not only enabled the Wallabies to retain the Bledisloe Cup, it represents their last win over the All Blacks on New Zealand soil.

Little did anyone appreciate then that Australia would arrive at the 2023 Rugby World Cup without ever again lifting the cherished Bledisloe Cup, contested between New Zealand and Australia, over that 22-year span.

Rumours that Eddie Jones has been in contact with the Japanese Rugby Union with a view to returning there, despite being under contract with the ARU until 2027, emerged before their key game against Wales last Sunday. Jones has denied any contact. Watch that space.

In the media room at Twickenham prior to the 2015 World Cup final between New Zealand and Australia, I spoke to two members of World Rugby, expressing my disappointment that Jones was leaving Japan as head coach given the remarkable job he had done.

Remember, Japan beat South Africa 32-34 in the pool stage in the greatest shock the tournament had ever witnessed. With Japan hosting the 2019 event, I suggested it would have been great if they had managed to keep him.

The response was swift as one of the well-informed officials proclaimed that, even had Japan lifted the Webb Ellis Cup, they couldn’t put up with Jones for another day, not to mind four more years.

The Japanese Union might do well to remember that sentiment when it comes to announcing a successor to Jamie Joseph when the former All Black steps down after this campaign — be careful what you wish for.