Eighteen months ago, on the eve of England’s series opener Down Under in Perth, Nic White said Eddie Jones would be the first person he would love to have dinner with if he could choose anyone in the world. Would he still be the top pick?
“Nar, it wouldn’t be now,” he quips, before adding, “I’ve had a few dinners with him, so I’ve done that.”
“Look, I did actually learn a fair bit from Eddie; some of what not to do also.
“His energy was infectious. He was very committed to the job when he was there. He was first up in the morning, last to go to bed.
“I’m sure he’d probably have a few regrets as well of how things went in 2023. I guess he experimented with some things, and you’ll only ever know if you have a go at it. It just didn’t work, unfortunately.
“But he’s certainly someone who has done a lot for rugby and has been for a long time ahead of the game. I’m glad I met him and was able to have dinner with him a few times.”
White is one of the 28 players who lined up in France for the Wallabies who have returned to training paddocks across Australia over the past two weeks. The 29th, James Slipper, will return to the Brumbies early next month while the remaining four others who featured at the World Cup are already back playing for their overseas clubs.
Their early return to their Super Rugby franchises comes after the Wallabies’ year from hell, where they missed the knockout stages for the first time.
So as most Australians wind down in the year and prepare to switch on the cricket and head to the beach, White is one of the Wallabies somehow powering back up.
Asked to reflect on the year, White, the ever-yapping halfback who could talk underwater, takes a moment to gather his thoughts.
“That’s a tough one,” he told The Roar on the eve of Jones’ official return to the Brave Blossoms.
“It’s been an interesting year. It’s been a long year. That’s probably the best way to describe it. It’s just been a really long year.”
White has never been one to skirt around a subject.
Nor does he about the year that was, which started with the brutal axing of Dave Rennie and ultimately unravelled spectacularly even further as every area of Australian rugby was exposed following Jones’ forgettable homecoming.
“I really enjoyed Super with the Brumbies. I felt like we went bloody close. I felt like we almost had that [semi-final] in Hamilton,” the departed Brumbies halfback said.
“Obviously, the second half of the year was what it was: it was chaotic and disappointing and something we’ll have to live with.”
It wasn’t just the fact that the Wallabies only managed two wins from nine Tests throughout the year, but the manner of their performances.
Even against Portugal, where the Wallabies’ World Cup campaign was on borrowed time, they struggled defensively, their set-piece was inconsistent and they never looked in control, particularly in attack.
That was in large part because of Jones’ desire to reinvent the wheel by throwing structure out the window and playing off the cuff.
The issue was, not even the Wallabies knew how to play under Jones.
Nor did Jones’ assistants inspire them with any confidence, with half of the coaching team coming from other sports.
“I think Taniela [Tupou] said it as well, when you’re right in, you fully believe it because Eddie Jones is telling you, a guy who’s had so much success in World Cups. We believed in it,” White said.
“But there was an element that you knew it was a bit of an experiment because we were doing, and he was saying, something that no one else had done in the way we were trying to play.
“You kind of knew that if the rest of the world was doing it a different way, maybe there was a fair element of risk in what we were trying to do.
“There were glimpses of it [working] but after playing it a fair few times, we started to figure out it was not quite working. We were in the process of fixing it, but it was all too little, too late.”
Never one to simply go with the flow, White asked plenty of questions throughout the year.
But as history has increasingly shown under Jones, that’s not always worked out favourably for the curious.
Indeed, after starting the season as the Wallabies’ first-choice No.9, White battled for a jersey by the end of the World Cup campaign as Jones’ great risk backfired brutally.
“We were trying to play this very different style of footy,” White said.
“Maybe with more time, because I kept on questioning it myself because I’ve never thought this is the way to go, [it could have worked].
“But it was new to all of us and certainly new to the older guys, so that’s maybe why the way he went.”
White does, however, think Will Skelton was an inspired decision to appoint as captain and thought Jones’ desire to build the leadership stocks in Australian rugby was positive too.
“There was certainly some good that came out of those guys,” White said.
“Certainly Neil Craig, around the leadership stuff for the younger leaders, I felt like that would have been good to have as a younger leader. I guess, he’s not the psychologist, but they worked a lot with the younger leaders and I do feel like that was a positive.”
White, too, believes Australian rugby isn’t in as bad a shape as their World Cup flop suggests it is either.
“It’s not a quick fix, but I think we can get back to being very competitive real quick,” he said.
“The players are here. We weren’t a million miles away in 2022. You’ve just got to look at that Spring Tour and the teams we were playing over in the north and beating South Africa. So, it’s not that far away, but to get that consistency staying up there it’s going to take a bit.
“There may be another lull in the future and we’ve got to be OK with that. South Africa had that only in 2021 when they lost a few in a row in Australia and then they’re world champions.
“I just think we’re pretty quick to pull the trigger and get pretty negative around a few bad results. We’ve just got to understand that world rugby’s [pretty tight]. Ireland and France got knocked out in the quarters and that’s just where we’re at in rugby now. It’s so competitive at the top.
“We’re not as far off as what it looked like at the World Cup. That was just an anomaly and a bit of an experiment gone wrong.”
As for Jones, what frustrated White was the games in the media.
“If that was better for him to go to Japan, then I’d rather him just be a little bit more open and transparent about it,” he said.
“We’re all grown-ups and would have been OK with it. But I guess him leading the golden path to having the press conference to say ‘I’m not going anywhere’ and telling us players that he’s fully committed and then seeing reports that are looking like they’re probably true, that sort of stuff does hurt a little bit because you want to take someone on face value.”
After switching off in Europe with his young family following the World Cup debacle, White has quickly shifted gears and found a late second wind heading into the new year having linked up with his new teammates at the Western Force.
It’s something he feels has helped him move on and hopes drive him to greater heights.
“This has given me a new lease on life and a bit of fresh air to come over to something new and leave that behind because I think that’s probably the best thing you can do is just leave that behind now and move on,” he said.
“I think a clean slate is certainly what we need after 2023.
“I had a good chat to Stirling Mortlock more about this, this year. It’s something he wished he did a little bit [earlier] in his career.
“The change gives you that little bit of anxiousness and that kick to want to improve.
“When you move to a new place you feel like you’ve got something to prove, you’ve got to deliver and it helps you find that extra little kick in the game and that bit of hunger.”
White is one of several new faces at the Force, with the experienced Test halfback joined at the franchise by Test teammate Ben Donaldson, the well-regarded Harry Potter and former All Blacks prop Atu Moli.
More depth has arrived in the forwards too, with prop Harry Hoopert and back-rower Will Harris joining.
Now coach Simon Cron finally has some selection headaches, with White to battle with Test teammate Issak Fines-Leleiwasa for the No.9 jersey.
“Finsey was the first person I called when I signed with the Force. I fully understood he probably had the shits,” said White, before their conversation put his fears at ease.
“We’ve got a pretty good relationship.
“He plays very different to how I play. He’s a bit of a pocket rocket, really explosive and powerful, and I feel like we can be a real strong combo.”
One position further out, Donaldson’s arrival is coupled with the return to fitness of Reesjan Pasitoa to challenge rising incumbent fly-half Max Burey.
“It’s exciting,” White said.
“He’s [Cron] going to have a headache on his hands, which is a good thing and what you need when you want to go deep in Super Rugby.”
As for the next person White wants to have dinner with?
“The next one on the list is Rassie Erasmus,” White said. “He might be just as wild. It could be good.”