The Eddie Jones factor amplifies the Aussie threat at Loftus
The arrival of the veteran coach in South Africa, in his second stint as Wallabies mentor, will ask tough questions of the Bok management.
Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber’s coaching credentials will be put to the test on the opening weekend of the 2023 Test season.
Their direct opponent, Australian boss Eddie Jones, has a knack for transforming struggling teams into world-beaters. What’s more, he knows what makes South African rugby players tick.
Jones worked alongside Jake White during the Boks’ successful 2007 World Cup campaign, and went on to mentor legends Fourie du Preez and Schalk Burger at Suntory Sungoliath in later years.
By all accounts, he amplified the potency of the players with his technical expertise. At the same time, he continued to learn about the South African players’ physical strengths, as well as their psychological weaknesses.
Architect of sport’s greatest upset
Several years later, Jones guided the Japan national side to a stunning win over the Boks at the 2015 World Cup – one of the greatest upsets in the history of professional sport. After England failed to qualify for the playoffs at their home tournament, Jones took the coaching reins, and steered a resurgent team to 18 consecutive Test victories, as well as two Six Nations titles.
Jones’s England enjoyed mixed results against the Boks during the Erasmus-Nienaber era, losing a three-match series staged in South Africa in June 2018, but winning tight contests at Twickenham in late 2018 and 2021. When the teams met in the 2019 World Cup final, England were outplayed and Jones was out-coached, as the Boks romped to a 32-12 victory.
Nienaber presided over a landmark win at Twickenham in 2022 – a result that ended an eight-year losing streak against England at the London stronghold. In the wake of that match, Jones was fired, and appeared destined to watch the 2023 World Cup from the comfort of his sofa.
Fast-forward to the present: Jones has rejoined the Wallabies as head coach, and is telling anyone who will listen that the side ranked seventh in the world is suddenly on track to lift the Webb Ellis Cup in France later this year.
Some will dismiss the hype, but many will remember what the old master has achieved over the past decade and a half. Jones specialises in resurrecting struggling teams, and has been known to orchestrate a miracle or two.
Wallabies start as underdogs
Make no mistake, the odds will be stacked against the Wallabies when they face the Boks at Loftus Versfeld on 8 July.
Australian rugby has fallen on hard times, with the national team losing nine of their 14 Tests in 2022. The Brumbies were the only local franchise to qualify for the recent Super Rugby Pacific semifinals.
Unsurprisingly, Jones has asked for restrictions on overseas-based players to be relaxed. The upshot is five world-class players have returned to the Wallabies squad for the Rugby Championship and could face the Boks in Pretoria.
Will Skelton – a monster at 2.03m and 140kg – powered the La Rochelle pack in back-to-back Champions Cup wins in 2022 and 2023. Another lock, Richie Arnold, 2.08m and 127kg, has been recruited after impressing for French Top 14 champions Toulouse. These two enforcers will be tasked with meeting the physicality of the Boks, Pumas and All Blacks.
Centre Samu Kerevi has featured in several big wins over the Boks in past seasons, as has veteran flyhalf Quade Cooper. Wing Marika Koroibete has been consistent in a misfiring Wallabies side and could pose the greatest threat to the Bok defence.
If this Japan-based trio, and those locks, start at Loftus, the Wallabies’ chances rise dramatically.
Altitude and a partisan crowd
It’s been 12 years since their last victory on South African soil, though, and they haven’t won a Test against the Boks at Loftus. Few visitors adapt to the altitude and partisan crowd.
And yet, Jones and company may see the challenge as the ultimate opportunity. If he begins a second Wallabies tenure with a historic win at Loftus, the rugby world will sit up and take notice. Wallabies players themselves may start to believe a World Cup is possible. Erasmus did something similar in guiding the Boks to a morale-boosting win over the All Blacks in Wellington in 2018.
The current Bok group is in a very different space. They’ve won the Rugby Championship, the World Cup and a series against the British and Irish Lions over the past five years. Despite that success and the wealth of experience in the squad, they are under immense pressure to win the 2023 season opener.
A first-ever defeat to the Wallabies at Loftus would be viewed as a disaster in isolation. It would leave them needing a win against the All Blacks in Auckland to keep their Rugby Championship title hopes alive.
For all the talk of splitting the squad and fielding a “weaker” side at Loftus – a necessary tactic, given the logistical challenges – the Boks are treating the game against the Wallabies as a priority. If they claim a convincing win against Australia, they will head into the next game against the All Blacks in a position of strength.
Comparisons have been made to the 2019 season, where the Bok coaches used the same selection strategy in the first two weeks of the tournament. Back then, they secured a bonus-point win against the Wallabies in Johannesburg, and a draw against the All Blacks in Wellington the following week. A resounding victory in the final clash against Argentina in Salta earned them their first southern hemisphere title in 10 years.
This time round, the Boks will have the benefit of a better draw, at least with regard to the final fixture. If they beat the Wallabies in Pretoria, and claim a log point or even a win in Auckland, they will be well placed to clinch the Rugby Championship title when they host Argentina in Johannesburg on 29 July.
For now, they won’t be looking any further than the clash against the Wallabies, who will be significantly harder to beat with Jones in tow. DM
This story first appeared in Daily Maverick’s sister publication DM168, which is available countrywide for R29.