BRISBANE, Australia (AP) — Never has any team heading into a Rugby World Cup been in such a “good place” without having won a game all year.
Except — maybe — in the mischievous eyes of Australia coach Eddie Jones.
On naming a youthful and inexperienced 33-man squad with three uncapped players, no Michael Hooper and one specialist flyhalf who was not named Quade Cooper, Jones said, “This squad is good enough to win this World Cup and possibly go on to win the next World Cup." His tongue wasn't firmly in his cheek. "That’s the advantage of picking young guys. The experts have written us off. No one believes we can do it, but we believe."
Those comments were made before the Wallabies lost their fifth in a row, 41-17 to World Cup host France at Stade de France, where Australia will open its World Cup campaign against Georgia on Sept. 9. Wales, Fiji and Portugal are also in the Wallabies' pool.
Jones was still upbeat, though, after being swept in the Rugby Championship and Bledisloe Cup and losing their last World Cup warmup.
“Within the camp, we’ve got a fair bit of confidence,” Jones said. "Obviously we’d like a better win-loss record. We’ve destabilized the team. Taken away all the leadership that was there previously.
“We have new leadership in place. We’re trying to play a different way. And the results haven’t been good — I’m not hiding away from that. But we do have a longer-term plan in terms of the World Cup and that’s what we’re here for.”
The longer term has to be the 2027 World Cup in Australia. Jones' clearout of experience means only eight of the squad have previously appeared at the World Cup. Prop James Slipper will be at his fourth and he's had the co-captaincy taken from him.
The new skipper was giant lock Will Skelton, who captained Australia for the first time against France. Skelton went to the 2015 World Cup, missed out on the 2019 World Cup when he went overseas, but upgraded his credentials at La Rochelle, winner of the last two European Cups.
The only listed flyhalf was Carter Gordon, who has five caps, with backup from utility Ben Donaldson, who has two caps. Concerns about Australia’s lack of goalkicking options were heightened in the loss to France when Gordon converted just one of three tries and missed two penalty goals.
Jones, though, looks around at all the new talent and publicly says he sees only positivity.
“They all deserve their opportunities,” he said. “It’s not as if we’re handing them jerseys on a platter. They’ll bring energy and a lot of ambition and enthusiasm.”
Skelton chimed in.
“We’ve got some experience in our pack, some big men as well,” Skelton said. ”I’ve got no question we’ll be able to help these young boys in our team really go forward.”
The Wallabies are fortunate to be on the right side of the draw. They have fallen to eighth in the world but won't have to face any of the top five until the semifinals — if they get that far.
Australia won the World Cup in 1991 and 1999 and, under Jones, was beaten by Jonny Wilkinson's drop kick in the 2003 final.
The rugby union dropped Dave Rennie as coach at the end of last year after a run of consecutive losses in hope of the quick fix that Jones is renowned for. But, if anything, Australia has regressed under Jones.
“I enjoy it when people say you can’t do it, but we’re ready to show the world what we can do,” Jones said defiantly before flying to Europe. “We have the right balance of youth and enthusiasm. I am much more confident now than I was at the beginning of the year.”
AP rugby: https://apnews.com/hub/rugby