In comments bound to raise eyebrows in Melbourne, Rebels-bound star prop Taniela Tupou says the Wallabies’ World Cup flop was down to the young side, particularly at fly-half, not being able to handle the pressure.
The fallout and inquest into the Wallabies’ horrendous World Cup campaign is continuing despite their fate being sealed some five weeks ago.
Rugby Australia is currently conducting a review – less than 12 months after their last one found wide-ranging support of former coach Dave Rennie from the players – into the failed year, which saw Wallabies coach Eddie Jones resign late last month.
Consecutive defeats to Fiji (22-15) and Wales (40-6) put the Wallabies on the brink of an early exit, before their fate was sealed soon after when Portugal failed to win by more than eight points over their Pacific rivals in the final match of Pool C.
The nightmare tournament coincided with reports that Jones was interviewing with the Japan Rugby Football Union a fortnight out from their World Cup opener.
Jones has since left his post, citing RA’s inability to deliver on promises, but his departure one season into a five-year deal has left a bitter aftertaste, particularly having repeatedly said he was “committed” to Australian rugby.
The decision to go into the tournament with an unproven, inexperienced squad – the youngest at this year’s campaign and indeed the youngest Wallabies World Cup squad since 1991 – also backfired in the short-term.
Whether it pays off long-term remains to be seen, but Jones has won no friends by walking away so soon after farewelling several household names, including Michael Hooper and playmakers Bernard Foley and Quade Cooper, and ushering through the next generation.
Tupou, who missed the defeats to Fiji and Wales alongside captain Will Skelton because of injury, said he was surprised that Jones had gone into the World Cup without an experienced voice at fly-half to compliment emerging talents Carter Gordon and Ben Donaldson.
“When Eddie named that team, what I was thinking at the time was that Eddie has been in the World Cup [before]. He knows what he’s doing. I’m going to trust him,” Tupou told the BallCarrier Rugby podcast ahead of the Barbarians’ fixture against Wales in Cardiff last week.
“Then I went to the World Cup and it didn’t happen. When the pressure was on, you needed guys who could handle pressure. We had guys who couldn’t do that.
“I don’t want to sit here and moan that it could have been this or that but an experienced 10 would have helped … or anyone who could have sat in the driver’s seat.
“When the team was named and I looked at the squad, it was a lot different to Dave [Rennie’s squad]. We knew how to play with each other.”
Gordon, 22, was pulled from the field after 50 minutes against Fiji.
His tough afternoon in Saint Etienne was highlighted by his inability to get a hand on a box kick, which led to Fiji’s only try to Josua Tuisova. Tupou will join Gordon at the Rebels in 2024 after making a high-profile switch from the Queensland Reds.
Donaldson, who was a controversial selection at fullback for the opening two Tests of the tournament, was then shifted to fly-half for their do-or-die clash against Wales but struggled and was also dragged early.
Teammate Angus Bell said injuries had cruelled the Wallabies’ World Cup hopes.
In the days leading up to their clash against Fiji, Skelton suffered a calf injury 48 hours after Tupou had pinged his hamstring at training. Both didn’t feature again in the World Cup.
Without the duo, as well as regular first-choice tight-head prop Allan Alaalatoa, the Wallabies’ scrum struggled just weeks after doing a number on France’s set-piece in their final match before the World Cup in France.
“Injuries cruelled us a lot,” said Bell, who sat alongside Tupou and Rob Leota for the podcast that was hosted by former Scottish international Ryan Wilson.
“They say the most important position … is at tight-head prop. Losing him [Tupou] was probably one of the biggest [factors]. We lost Allan Alaalatoa, who is a world-class tight-head. We lost Nela, who is one of the better tight-heads in the world. We lost Skelts, who is probably the in-form lock in the world currently. So you lose 315kg on the right side of your scrum [and it hurt].
“We came into the World Cup where we played France, who have Uini Atonio, we genuinely got 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.
“The boys who came in did a job but I believe 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.”
Tupou said he was left devastated by the injury and was desperate to return in time for a quarter-final that never eventuated, but added it was up to the current crop of players to change the perception of the team.
“I was dying to play. I was hoping Portugal somehow pulled something out. I was dying to offer something and play,” he said.
“Coming back from a calf injury, ribs, Achilles, I pretty much hadn’t played a game in two years and worked so hard to get to the World Cup and ‘bang, I only played one game.’
“I was happy and sad watching the game. After the game, I didn’t know how to feel. I woke up and knew it was done. It took me a while to accept that was that.
“It’s something we’ll have to live with for the rest of our lives. People will say we were the worst Wallaby team ever at a World Cup and whether we like it or not, we’ll have to live with it and it’s up to us to change it.”
Bell, who like Tupou said he enjoyed working under Jones, added that watching the World Cup final from home had left him wanting more.
“We sat home at 6am and watched the Springboks verse the All Blacks and you saw the result of the Springboks winning and what it means for the country and how passionate they are. It leaves a burning desire to want to be successful in a World Cup,” the 23-year-old prop said.
“Obviously it’s the pinnacle in our sport. It burns, it hurts. Watching South Africa win is something that hurt, but we can only look forward.”