Eddie Jones admits he had to make some “really difficult decisions” after delivering a number of huge shocks in his Wallabies squad for the Rugby World Cup but is adamant it would have been worse to not take a gamble for the game’s centrepiece tournament starting next month.
There were “terrible” phone calls made to the likes of Quade Cooper, Michael Hooper and Len Ikitau, who all missed selection in a group of 33 players that features Waratahs bolter Max Jorgensen and a new skipper in Will Skelton.
Wallabies players were informed on Wednesday whether they had made the cut for next month’s World Cup in France, ahead of an official announcement by Rugby Australia on Thursday night.
Jones was expected to pull a number of surprises but no one in the Australian rugby fraternity could have predicted just how extraordinary and bold the selections would be.
It is the most inexperienced Wallabies World Cup squad in the professional era (post-1996), with an average of 19 Tests per player.
Jones felt there was no option but to throw caution to the wind and back a number of untested players in the hope they would be better off for the experience by the time a home World Cup arrived in 2027.
“I think the biggest risk is not to take the risk,” Jones told reporters on Thursday evening. “This is a very good squad of players.
“Really difficult decisions. We need a bit of a change in generation. We have had a pretty skinny period for Australia ... and we just feel this is the time to start bringing some of these young guys through. They deserve the opportunity.
“It is not as if we are just handing them the jersey and a World Cup opportunity. We believe this is our best chance of winning a World Cup [in 2023] and the 2027 World Cup. We want to win the World Cup and if we don’t, then it will be a failure.”
The celebrated Wallabies career of Hooper, a 125-Test stalwart of the team with two World Cup campaigns under his belt, has likely come to a close, just weeks after being named co-captain alongside James Slipper.
Hooper started against the Springboks last month in Pretoria but has missed the last three Tests for the Wallabies after picking up a calf injury ahead of Australia’s Test against Argentina in Sydney.
Young Queensland Reds back-rower Fraser McReight, who started for the Wallabies against New Zealand at the weekend in Dunedin, is poised to wear the coveted Wallabies No.7 jersey at the World Cup.
In the same sentence, Jones said Hooper wasn’t picked because of fitness concerns, before revealing on Stan Sport he might still play a World Cup warm-up match against France on August 27, two weeks before the tournament begins.
Jones was asked to clarify why then, if Hooper was still a chance to play a Test in 17 days’ time, was he not in the World Cup squad.
“I’m not here to talk about players we haven’t selected,” Jones said. “I said we haven’t picked Michael. He could be fit for the French game. We don’t know.
“He has a calf injury. There’s a number of players in that category, but I’ve made a decision [that] this is the best 33 for the World Cup.
“It’s a tough call. He’s been an outstanding servant for Australian rugby. We feel for him.”
If Hooper doesn’t play for Australia again, it is a sad end to a brilliant career.
The shocks did not stop there, with Cooper told his services were not required, having been Australia’s first-choice No.10 for the opening two Tests of the year.
In March, Jones all but confirmed Cooper would be at the World Cup and in May said Cooper’s best rugby might be ahead of him.
It is a brutal backhander for Cooper who has rehabilitated from an Achilles injury that sidelined him for most of last year.
Incumbent No.10 Carter Gordon and Waratahs playmaker Ben Donaldson have been selected as the two five-eighths, with James O’Connor named as an extra training member.
“We’ve gone for a younger guy in Donaldson,” Jones said on Stan Sport. “We feel that’s our best option going forward. Quade’s come back from a serious Achilles tendon. He’s probably not as sharp as he’d like to be. He could still feature in the World Cup further down the track.”
Gordon has performed well at Test level from limited opportunities but the decision to pick Donaldson, a two-Test rookie, over an experienced player like Cooper is a major talking point out of a raw squad.
Just eight of the 33 players selected have been to a World Cup.
In another huge omission, star centre Ikitau has also been left out of the squad due to a shoulder injury, despite being only two to three weeks away from a return to the field.
Wallabies fans will be scratching their heads based on that logic, given Samu Kerevi (hand) and Jorgensen (knee) have both been picked despite nursing injuries.
“He was close,” Jones said. “We had to draw a line with who we took that was borderline fit. It just comes down to a judgment of what we think we can carry and what we think we can’t carry. We’ve decided that we wouldn’t take Lenny.
“He hasn’t had a lot of rugby recently for the last six or seven weeks but there’s no reason why, if he got fit, he couldn’t feature in the World Cup.”
Jorgensen, who injured his MCL in June, will be fit to play in the coming weeks but had not been touted as an option, given his age and lack of rugby. Even high-ranking Waratahs figures on Wednesday didn’t think he’d be in World Cup contention.
Instead, the 18-year-old will be on the plane to France with a chance to make his debut, alongside fellow uncapped players Blake Schoupp (prop) and Issak Fines-Leleiwasa (halfback). Jorgensen could go into a World Cup match without playing a game of rugby for three months.
“One of the reasons is he’s such a versatile player,” Jones said. “He can play fullback or wing, equally as well. He is a player of the future for Australian rugby and we want to give him the opportunity to go to this World Cup. He’ll contribute ... every time he gets on the field he’ll play well for us but then he’ll take that experience onto the next World Cup.”
The merry-go-round of Wallabies captains has continued, even after the joint appointments of Hooper and Slipper in June, followed by Tate McDermott’s one-game stint as skipper last week against the All Blacks in Dunedin.
Skelton, who for years turned down opportunities to return for the Wallabies when he was playing in Europe, has been named as skipper in a remarkable backflip by Jones. McDermott is listed as a vice-captain.
“Shocked and nervous were the emotions I had when Eddie gave me the call,” Skelton said. “I was very reluctant at first but when the big man calls you, you follow his lead.”
Jones added: “We went for the biggest bloke in the team. Nah, we want to change the team. Part of that is changing the leadership. Will is a good man and team man. He’s played in a lot of winning teams in Europe and he brings that common touch to the team.”
Jones appears to be making plans on the run, with little time on his side ahead of Australia’s first match against Georgia on September 9 in Paris.
There will be players who will be incredibly disappointed after receiving the news that - barring an injury to someone - their World Cup dream is over.
The likes of Jed Holloway, Ryan Lonergan, Pete Samu, Reece Hodge and Tom Wright are among the unlucky ones to miss out.
“They’re terrible phone calls,” Jones said. “You never like to tell the players they’re not in the squad. Don’t get me wrong, they’re more painful for the players, but for a coach they’re not the discussions you like to have.”
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