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Paris, August 22, 2023
Wouldn’t you know it?
My first Wallaby training in decades, and if this Uber driver doesn’t get a move on, I am going to be late.
Coach said to be there 10am sharp, at this exclusive rugby club on the edge of Paris, and if he doesn’t shake a jambe, sigh, sigh, sigh . . .
Sirens behind us! What now?
It is police on motorbikes, stopping traffic, blowing whistles and directing everyone – including us – to stop, and pull over.
Wallabies coach Eddie Jones, as always, at the centre of everything.Credit: Getty
It must, surely, be for the French President, Emmanuel Macron?
We pull over and, in a flash, we are passed by two buses, followed by a small convoy of vans, one of which has an Australie sign on the back!
This is the way the Wallabies make an entrance to training these days, at least when it is only a fortnight out from the World Cup?
Follow those buses!
The Wallabies in Sydney last week before departing for France.Credit: Getty
As it happens, we get in so tight behind the last of the vans that we make it through the security checkpoint only lightly challenged, and we are in. The buses disgorge, I kid you not, at least 60 people – of whom half are Wallabies. And of that half, nearly half again prove to be the new captain, Will Skelton. He is even bigger than I remember. You’d get little change from 140kg, and no argument from anyone that he is a formidable presence even with a smile on his face.
The rest are medical people, video staff, media managers, logistics experts, assistant coaches, and I think maybe at least one assistant-assistant coach. The last one off the bus is my friend, the winning All Blacks coach of the 2015 World Cup, Steve Hansen – in camp for a week as a freelance freebie favour to coach Eddie Jones, giving the benefit of his wisdom.
Once training starts under the hot Parisian sun on this pristine turf, Steve turns out to be my interpreter as I try to make sense of the many unfamiliar things I am seeing.
In my day – you knew I had to say that, yes? – warm-ups went for 10 minutes or so and we were all in the same jerseys. These blokes, though, have got different coloured vests, of meaning unknown, and are going through a variety of ever faster and more technical drills that I gather are designed to especially warm up their pecto-abdo-cruciate-anterior-whatsits in efficient manner.
Eddie Jones (left) and Steve Hansen (right) shake hands before the 2019 Rugby World Cup semi-final between England and New Zealand.Credit: Getty
Something, something, warm-ups
As the training proper starts, there is a sudden whirring sound. It is two drones, with cameras attached, filming the whole session. They are controlled by two blokes sitting at a specially set up table in a marquee behind the goal posts.
Eddie feels more like a maker of masterpiece jigsaws, constantly trying pieces in different spots, forever trying to fit them together.
The footage will be analysed later, into the night, he tells me, looking at alignments, something, something, something.
Does that actually help the team play better?
Yes, because when you analyse the something, something, something, you can work out the something, something else.
The session is nothing if not cosmopolitan. There are different accents doing most of the shouting. A couple of the assistant coaches are from the UK, roaring at those in the different coloured vests to get into position, to execute faster, to do it again and this time get it right. The former league player Brett Hodgson – who was Eddie’s defensive coach in England – takes them for a frantic 20 minutes, and seems often dissatisfied with whatever defensive configuration they are getting into.
Wallabies captain Will Skelton.Credit: Getty
Someone is shouting like a demon: “Twos and threes”! “Twos and threes!” ”TWOS AND THREES!”
It’s about how many should commit to the breakdown, something, something and . . .
And, oh Christ!
Someone didn’t commit enough to the breakdown, because right now Wallaby winger Marika Koroibete has broken right through on the right flank – try THREES AND THREES, you bastards, or maybe EIGHTS and THREES! – and is coming straight for us! His arms are like pistons, his thighs like two tree-trunks making a break for it down a hill at impossible speed, as he surges, swerves, and accelerates some more.
Everyone, run for your lives!
I am the only journalist there, but – not counting the drones – there are four or five cameras on them at all times, two of which are part of a documentary crew, doing fly-on-the-wall stuff. Hopefully, they will have captured the horror of Koroibete’s thighs, coming straight for us, with no escape.
And what now, Steve? What are these lineout drills they are doing, where the hooker seems to be hurling the ball in at the rate of about four times a minute, as they move up and down the field?
Those are tempo lineouts.
Which is what, exactly?
Lineouts where the call as to where the ball is going, is made just two seconds before the ball is thrown in, something, something, depending on how the defence lines up, something, something.
Oh. One reassuringly familiar face is former Wallaby Dan Palmer who is helping out with the forwards – though he is about half the size of the front-row forward he was, and looks svelte and smiley. The veteran prop James Slipper sits out a fair part of the session, while winger Andrew Kellaway misses a little training with just a touch of Samkerritis, a calf-strain.
Watching over the whole lot, of course, is Eddie Jones, a perpetually restless figure, roving around from drill to drill, on the edge and edgy, and occasionally giving a roar like the one the pygmies heard when the lion was getting close at midnight.
Another former Wallaby, Dan Palmer, is helping Eddie Jones in the forwards.Credit: Getty
I once wrote of erstwhile Wallaby coach Alan Jones that he was like a master-builder walking along a street full of shonky housing – he could barely take a step without seeing a dozen improvements he wanted to make, on each and every house, each and every player.
With so many moving parts to this massive operation, Eddie feels more like a maker of masterpiece jigsaw puzzles, constantly trying different pieces in different spots, forever trying to fit them together to make the finished design durable and world-class. He is the only one that understands the whole, and if the pieces just don’t fit, he is quick to try others, which is where we are now, with so many older players discarded and younger ones brought in.
Eddie is, as we know, as intense a bastard as ever lived – and the stories of that intensity are as legion as they are legendary – but on this day, he broadly seems satisfied. At the end of it, Skelton leads the whole lot of them in something odd. Standing in a circle with their arms around each other, he starts them off clapping in unison, at which point they do a strange manoeuvre with their hands on the ground.
Steve? He has no clue.
We are united in ignorance, at last.
All up, the ambience of the Wallabies seems happy. They play, France, one of the finest teams in the world on Sunday (Monday morning AEST), in their own backyard. Our blokes are coming off a difficult domestic season with no wins in the kick. But the sun is shining, the drones are whirring, new combinations are extant and hope springs eternal that Eddie has got the pieces he needs, and can make them fit in time to give this World Cup a real shake.
Into the buses, and away.
Watch all the action from Rugby World Cup 2023 on the Home of Rugby, Stan Sport. Every match ad-free, live and on demand in 4K UHD from September 9.
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