Rugby Australia pursuing alignment, yet it tied itself in knots in 2023

Can Hamish McLennan survive 2023 disaster? (3:46)

The ESPN Scrum Reset crew discuss Hamish McLennan's future as RA chairman and if there needs to be more change after the Wallabies' World Cup. (3:46)

For an organisation that is determined to achieve "alignment" through centralization, Rugby Australia has been tying itself in knots all year.

As the fallout from Eddie Jones' departure continues, and RA chairman Hamish McLennan maintains a defiant stance, saying he is "no quitter", ten Wallabies have reunited with their now-former coach in Cardiff where the Barbarians will face Wales this weekend.

That group also includes Michael Hooper, whom Jones last week labelled "not the right role model" for Australia's Rugby World Cup campaign alongside Quade Cooper, a comment RA chief executive Phil Waugh on Tuesday dubbed "absolutely unfair".

Waugh's view would be almost universally shared amongst the Australian rugby community, but the chief executive, his chairman, and Jones are all largely on the nose across that same cohort.

That is partly because, unlike their stated push for streamlined pathways, contracting and overall approach, the trio was never aligned on just how Australia should have approached Rugby World Cup 2023.

Certainly Waugh's comments that Australia went to France to win the Webb Ellis Cup are hard to cop when you consider what McLennan and Jones said earlier in 2023. And the series of events that played out leading up to - and during - the tournament.

"We went in within so much hope and optimism, the disappointing aspects are I believe that when people say 'we're building for '27'. Make no mistakes, we were going to 2023 to win the Rugby World Cup," Waugh said on Tuesday afternoon.

"And clearly we were a long long way from that, but certainly some players will have greater experience going forward, however I want to make sure that fans and supporters understand that we were going to 2023 to win the World Cup."

Given the squad that Jones named back in August - that included only youngsters Carter Gordon and Ben Donaldson as playmaking options, the duo with not even 10 caps between them - Waugh's claims don't stack up.

Waugh's comments also flew in the face of what McLennan told ESPN a couple of days after Jones named his squad, the chairman declaring the Wallabies' looming French campaign was all about 2027.

"To me, it's all about '27 and working backwards really, and I've said that to Eddie," McLennan told ESPN on Aug. 16th. "Obviously we want to do really well in this tournament, but the Lions and '27 are really important to us.

"RA for too long has just been going from quarter to quarter, we've secured those two big events and we've got the women's World Cup in '29, we've got to think long term if we're going to fix it."

While McLennan and Jones may have been aligned on the Wallabies' focus for '27, Waugh clearly was not.

Waugh also tangled RA up when he stressed the importance of winning "between World Cups" in what was a marathon press conference on Tuesday afternoon.

"I know that we focus, certainly in Australia, on the Rugby World Cup cycles, but I'm far more interested in winning between Rugby World Cups than actually winning Rugby World Cups," Waugh told reporters.

"Because you look at the Irish, the Irish have never got past the quarterfinals of a World Cup, however they win in between, they win provincial rugby and they've got a really healthy system. For us, we need to be winning between World Cups and not rely purely on World Cup success."

While it is understood that McLennan virtually made a "captain's pick" in sacking Dave Rennie to parachute Jones into the role, the question must still be asked as to why that decision was made when Jones' stated mantra during his final four years with England was that it was "all about the World Cup."

Meanwhile, former RA chief executive Andy Marinos had resisted the push to sack Rennie and insert Jones; six months later the CEO was gone, having also pushed back on the huge deal to sign NRL star Joseph Suaali'i. Marinos declined to comment when contacted by ESPN this week.

From the sacking of Rennie and the insertion of Jones, to the Wallabies squad selection, the goal of the team at the World Cup and where it was heading beyond the tournament, the accompanying discourse had enough twists to make Chubby Checker proud.

As former Wallabies captain Stephen Moore told ESPN as Australia's campaign unravelled in France, the governing body's senior administrators have been "shifting the narrative" for far too long.

The same issue goes for McLennan's claims that Australian rugby has been in decline for 20 years. That is painfully obvious for anyone with even a passing interest in the code Down Under, yet to lay the blame for the Wallabies' failings in France for that two-decade long period is facetious.

And why then wasn't Rennie afforded the same defence when he limped to a 5-9 record and 37% winning percentage in 2022 -- which was still a full 15% better than Jones' 2-7 this season -- before the Kiwi was sacked at the start of the year?

The Australian rugby public is tired of the excuses, the deflections and the mixed messaging that continues to come from Moore Park. But it will at least take solace in Jones' departure and the fact that it allows for another "reset", just months after the last one, and that the Wallabies' calamitous 2023 season that began on Jan. 16 can finally be confined to the scrapheap.

Centralisation is already proving challenging for RA with the Reds and Brumbies resistant to various aspects of the governing body's plan for alignment. And how could they not be, given the shifting dialogue of its chief executive, chairman and now-departed head coach?

The level of trust between the governing body and its stakeholders is almost non-existent. Getting everyone within the organization on the same page moving forward should be the first step, before it starts what will be an arduous and potentially unattainable goal of uniting the game from top to bottom.

It is admirable intention, but to deliver it will be another challenge entirely.