Gam­ble back­fires

The Daily Telegraph - Sport - - Total Rugby - Ben Coles

on from where a fine Ashes se­ries left off. Eng­land have barely reg­is­tered on the story chart out here and have not been fully tested in wins over Tonga, the United States and Ar­gentina.

So, as Jones ap­peared at a team ho­tel where the Christ­mas dec­o­ra­tions are al­ready out, you could feel a dis­tinctly un-fes­tive air set­tling in. No­body could ac­cuse him of play­ing safe with his start­ing XV – par­tic­u­larly the drop­ping of Ge­orge Ford – or in the ap­pear­ance in Eng­land’s camp of yet an­other Aus­tralian ad­viser, Ricky Stu­art. “Well that’s a lovely story you’ve cooked up,” Jones replied to a ques­tion about Stu­art. “Ricky and I are old mates, we’ve known each other for a long time. He pre­sented jer­seys to the Wal­la­bies dur­ing my time as a Wal­laby coach, I’ve known his strength and con­di­tion­ing coach since 2007 and he wanted to come over and have a look at what we’re do­ing – and it’s as sim­ple as that.”

Jones spent much of his news con­fer­ence try­ing to per­suade his au­di­ence that “fin­ish­ers” are as im­por­tant as “starters”. In other words – that Ford and Ge­orge Kruis would re­treat to the bench happy just to be part of the col­lec­tive. We all know in­ter­na­tional sport does not work this way. Eng­land’s play­ers still have faith in Jones’ de­ci­sions and they cer­tainly re­spect his power. On the line in

Oita, though, is his abil­ity to win the defin­ing games with a group of play­ers who have lost, un­der the cur­rent coach, to five of the other seven quar­ter-fi­nal­ists.

The Dublin Six Na­tions de­feat in 2017, Scot­land’s come­back from 31-0 down to draw 38-38 at Twick­en­ham only seven months ago: there are plenty of rea­sons to doubt whether Jones can turn this crop of Eng­land play­ers into world cham­pi­ons. Equally, there are rea­sons to think he can, start­ing with his ex­pe­ri­ence in World Cups, Eng­land’s depth and the ab­sence of a truly hot tour­na­ment favourite. If this is as far as Jones can take them, the cry for help in 2015 will re­turn as a scream.

For the Wal­la­bies, the worst as­pect of Samu Kerevi de­vel­op­ing into a world-class cen­tre over the past two years is the fact that he is about to leave Aus­tralia be­hind.

Kerevi, cousin of for­mer Aus­tralia in­ter­na­tional Radike Samo, signed up to a three-year con­tract with Sun­tory in Ja­pan ear­lier this year and is sched­uled to join the Top League pow­er­house af­ter the World Cup on a re­ported salary of about £630,000 per year, al­legedly a third more than Rugby Aus­tralia’s best of­fer.

Los­ing key as­sets is noth­ing new for Aus­tralia but the fact that Kerevi, a tackle-bust­ing be­he­moth of an in­side cen­tre, at 26 years old is just about to en­ter his prime means his de­par­ture will sting more than most.

“It is a loss, a big loss. A shame to lose him when he is right at the peak of pow­ers, rather than two to three years down the line,” ad­mits Rod Kafer, the for­mer Wal­laby in­ter­na­tional and Le­ices­ter Tigers back. “Samu gives you that abil­ity, gen­uinely, to beat peo­ple one on one, ei­ther by go­ing over the top of

them or around them. He has very good feet for a man who is 109kg, he is very fast, with an ex­cel­lent off­load.”

Kerevi has also be­come the main­stay of Aus­tralia’s mid­field amid con­fu­sion at both half-back and out­side cen­tre. Michael Cheika has reg­u­larly chopped and changed his half-backs this year in search of a win­ning com­bi­na­tion.

There was a case for a younger Kerevi (be­low) to go to the 2015 World Cup as a bolter, but de­fen­sive in­con­sis­ten­cies needed to be ironed out. Huge strides in that area, and mov­ing from out­side to in­side cen­tre, have trans­formed him into a top op­er­a­tor.

His num­bers this year high­light that in­creased in­flu­ence on Aus­tralia’s at­tack, post­ing ca­reer­high fig­ures in 2019 for car­ries, me­tres made, clean breaks, de­fend­ers beaten and off­loads.

“Samu is ab­so­lutely world-class, right at the peak of his pow­ers,” Kafer says. “Manu Tuilagi is a fan­tas­tic foot­baller on his day, in a sim­i­lar vein to Kerevi. As that big, go-for­ward guy, Samu brings you a deft short-pass­ing game and is a re­ally im­pres­sive player.”

The other area where the Wal­la­bies will miss Kerevi sig­nif­i­cantly is his lead­er­ship. Ap­pointed as cap­tain of the Queens­land Reds ahead of this year’s Su­per Rugby sea­son, Brad Thorn, the Reds head coach, praised Kerevi’s “hum­ble and hard-work­ing” out­look.

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