By Iain Payten
A protective Eddie Jones launched an aggressive defence of rookie No.10 Carter Gordon after backing the young playmaker for another start in the second Bledisloe Cup clash in Dunedin on Saturday.
In a starting side with only three new faces from the opening defeat at the MCG, Gordon was retained in the playmaking hotseat ahead of Quade Cooper, despite a nervous run-on debut in Melbourne.
Tate McDermott was also not only retained in the starting halves alongside him, but the 24-year-old was named the new captain of the Wallabies, following injuries to Michael Hooper (calf) and Allan Alaalatoa (Achilles), and a decision to keep co-captain James Slipper on the bench.
With Taniela Tupou also ruled out with a rib injury, Pone Fa’amausili was named to start at tighthead and one-cap prop Zane Nonnggor returned to the bench as back-up.
Lock Richie Arnold was promoted back into the starting side and in a reshuffled back row designed for the fast surface of the covered stadium in Dunedin, Fraser McReight returns to the No.7 role and Tom Hooper was shifted across to blindside.
The All Blacks, by way of contrast, named a side with 13 changes in the starting side.
Explaining his selections, Jones said he was continuing to remodel the Wallabies and had decided the best option was to “improve the side by promoting younger players”.
In only his third Test, Gordon’s run-on debut in Melbourne was understandably a mixed bag and the 22-year-old attracted mild criticism for an errant kicking game. Post-match, and when prompted by Jones, a New Zealand journalist questioned Gordon’s selection for the MCG game but when the critique was referenced in a question on Thursday, Jones bristled.
“Firstly, I don’t think I got it wrong and in fact I am going to get it right, and the player will get it right,” Jones said.
“And to say a young 10 in his first game, you’ve got it wrong in selecting him, it’s just a load of rubbish. Anyone who asks that question doesn’t know anything about rugby.
“If you know anything about rugby you know 10s need time in the seat. If you don’t know anything about rugby, don’t talk to me.”
Asked later if he had sat with Gordon this week to discuss his first Test experience, Jones added: “That’s not how coaching goes mate. He is a young guy coming through, he is getting enough instruction from his assistant coaches, my job is to give him the confidence to keep going forward.”
Jones continued by saying he didn’t expect a faultless performance from Gordon.
“He is going to make more mistakes. I can guarantee you that, he will learn from it. And when he has played as many Tests as Richie Mo’unga or if (Damian) McKenzie plays ... then he will cease to make as many mistakes as you make now,” Jones said.
“Now we would love him to have a mistake-free game on Saturday, but the reality he is a young guy learning his apprenticeship. He needs to just make mistakes, learn from it and not listen too much to blokes like you. Right? That’s my job, to make sure he doesn’t listen to blokes like you, who want to put rubbish in his head.
“For the sake of Australian rugby we need to invest in a young 10 because Quade, as good a player as he is, he’s not the future of Australian rugby.
“And we’ve got to look out for the future of Australian rugby and that’s why having a young captain like Tate and having Carter there has its risks and its foibles but also for the future of our sport it’s important.”
Strategically, Jones firing up at largely non-existent criticism of Gordon was likely designed for one set of ears and, combined with back-to-back selection, points to the coach firming on the rookie No.10 as a starter at the Rugby World Cup. Jones has said he is using the Rugby Championship as a trial stage, and 79-Test veteran Cooper is a known quantity.
But with just two Tests left before the tournament starts next month, there is also limited time available to bed down combinations in the midfield. Jones picked Cooper and Samu Kerevi for the Barbarians in May for the purpose of getting them time together on the training paddock.
Asked if people could read into the selections for the second Bledisloe Cup as getting closer to his World Cup preferences, Jones said: “You can read into it that it’s the best team to play against New Zealand this Saturday.”
With Alaalatoa out, the Wallabies starting side has reduced its collective experience even further from the Melbourne Test, with just 277 combined caps. Jones said it was the seventh-smallest Wallabies total in the professional era, but the 198 Test caps fielded against Italy in 2009 remains the fewest ever in a Wallabies run-on side.
Though he is doing it on the eve of a World Cup, Jones said the decision to go with youth was a calculated one.
“We have to improve the team, and I have decided to improve the team by promoting young players. That doesn’t mean senior players haven’t got a crucial role to play,” he said.
“We need to keep progressing this young team forward. We feel they can be a team that’s capable of winning big games consistently, and at the moment we are going to go through up and down until we get there.”
Part of the remodel is leadership, and McDermott will become the third captain in as many Tests for the Wallabies. With Hooper out, and Angus Bell named ahead of James Slipper, there is also now a chance the Queensland skipper will keep the gig for the World Cup — if he stays in the side.
Wallabies team to play New Zealand in Dunedin
1. Angus Bell (22 Tests)
2. David Porecki (13 Tests)
3. Pone Fa’amausili (4 Tests)
4. Nick Frost (11 Tests)
5. Richie Arnold (3 Tests)
6. Tom Hooper (2 Tests)
7. Fraser McReight (11 Tests)
8. Rob Valetini (33 Tests)
9. Tate McDermott (c) (24 Tests)
10. Carter Gordon (3 Tests)
11. Marika Koroibete (54 Tests)
12. Samu Kerevi (44 Tests)
13. Jordan Petaia (26 Tests)
14. Mark Nawaqanitawase (5 Tests)
15. Andrew Kellaway (22 Tests)
16. Jordan Uelese (18 Tests)
17. James Slipper (130 Tests)
18. Zane Nonggorr (1 Test)
19. Will Skelton (27 Tests)
20. Rob Leota (15 Tests)
21. Nic White (62 Tests)
22. Quade Cooper (79 Tests)
23. Izaia Perese (4 Tests)
McDermott said it was a big honour, and a long way from when he was left out of Jones’ first squad in April.
“I knew better than most, and me and Eddie spoke about it, that my performance just wasn’t good enough. Particularly when you are playing for your country, you can’t afford to dish that out at Super Rugby level,” McDermott said.
With no silverware up for grabs, All Blacks coach Ian Foster took the chance to make mass changes but Jones said he understood the fact teams are building for the Rugby World Cup and didn’t perceive the Kiwis’ move as disrespectful.
Sports news, results and expert commentary. Sign up for our Sport newsletter.