Wallabies props Angus Bell and Taniela Tupou have lamented Australia’s woeful Rugby World Cup campaign, pointing to injuries to key forwards and the non-selection of an “experienced 10” as the chief reasons behind a maiden pool-stage exit.
The post-mortem of Australia’s French campaign has been underway virtually since their 40-6 loss to Wales in Lyon, a result that all but sealed their World Cup fate, despite Portugal’s best efforts in their memorable win over Fiji, but few players have reflected publicly since the Wallabies’ exit.
That changed last week in Cardiff, where 10 World Cup Wallabies and former captain Michael Hooper were part of the Barbarians team that faced Wales, the invitational outfit ironically being co-coached by Eddie Jones who at the start of the week resigned from his position as Australia coach.
Speaking on the Ballcarrier Podcast, Bell, Tupou and back-rower Rob Leota said there had been no issues with Jones in Barbarians camp, as the coach was a completely different character to the one that was seen in the media.
But Tupou said he did think Jones had erred in his squad selection, despite initially trusting the 63-year-old’s previous World Cup experience.
“I was [shocked], obviously when the team [was] named and I looked at the squad, it was a lot different from Dave [Rennie] and the squad that we would normally [play with], because we’d been playing together since Dave was coach and we know how to play with each other. We know what this bloke can do, that bloke, whatever,” Tupou explained.
“And then when Eddie named the team, what I was thinking was ‘well, Eddie’s been in the World Cup, he knows what he’s doing, I’m going to trust him with that. And then when I went to the World Cup it didn’t happen, because when the pressure was on, we needed players who could handle the pressure, and we had guys who couldn’t do that.”
Jones selected only first-year Test rookie Carter Gordon as a fly-half in Australia’s 33-man World Cup squad, while Waratahs youngster Ben Donaldson was named as a utility player, before he later started at No. 10 in the Wallabies’ final pool game against Portugal.
Asked whether Australia could have used an experienced fly-half in France, such as Quade Cooper or Bernard Foley, Tupou added: “One hundred percent. Things happen and whatever, and I don’t want to sit here and moan we could have been this or that, whatever, but an experienced No. 10 would help… or anyone who could sit in the driver’s seat and then just [say] ‘we’re going that way, we’re heading this way.”
Tupou and skipper Will Skelton played only Australia’s opening game of the tournament, against Georgia in Paris, before both forwards went down with injuries at training ahead of the Wallabies’ second pool match against Fiji.
First Tupou was laid up with a hamstring complaint, before Skelton was then cruelled by a calf issue. Australia struggled to match Fiji’s physicality as a result and were well beaten at the breakdown, before they eventually lost 22-15 in a defeat that proved the beginning of the end for the team in France.
“My biggest opinion on it was that injuries cruelled us a lot,” Bell reflected. “They say the most important position, as you guys would know, on a field, is tighthead prop. Losing him [Tupou] … so you think about it, during the Bledisloe we lost Allan Alaalatoa, who’s a world-class tighthead; we lost Nela, who is probably one of the better tightheads in the world; we lost Skelts, who is probably the in-form lock in the world currently; you lose 315kg or however much it is on the right side of your scrum.
“And obviously we came into the World Cup through a few games, like we played France, who [have] Uini Antonio, we genuinely won scrum penalties against France, who are one of the better scrums in the world. And then we played against Georgia and we did really well as well.
“Obviously losing the boys that came in did a job too, but it just hurt. I believe the injuries were the biggest thing in the World Cup. My opinion is it would have been a different result if we didn’t get those injuries and we stayed that solid team that we had.”
The Wallabies trio are unlikely to find out who their third Test coach in the space of 18 months will be until next year, with Rugby Australia’s “rugby committee” to soon begin the business of recruiting Jones’ replacement.
But Bell is already looking to the future, the 23-year-old prop planning on using the pain of Australia’s embarrassing World Cup exit as fuel to fire his preparation for the British & Irish Lions series in 2025 and then the World Cup on home soil two years later.
“One hundred percent [there were positives]… we sat home at 6am and watched the Springboks vs. New Zealand, and you see the Springboks winning and what it means to their country, how passionate they are,” Bell told the Ballcarrier Podcast. “And obviously with our results, incredibly disappointing, and it does leave a burning desire to want to be successful in a World Cup. Obviously it’s the pinnacle of our sport, it happens only every four years, you might play only one World Cup in your whole career.
“So yeah, it burns and it hurts, and watching that game and watching the people there and the passion, and obviously South Africa winning was something that really hurt. But again, it will leave that hole, but we can only look forward… hopefully we can get to the next World Cup.”