Of all Eddie Jones’ Rugby World Cup selections, few have been picked apart like the inclusion of two-Test Wallabies utility Ben Donaldson.
The NSW Waratahs back was selected ahead of Quade Cooper as one of only two fly-half options for Australia in France, off the back of a Super Rugby Pacific season the Randwick junior himself described as inconsistent, and then no game time at all during the Rugby Championship.
Such had been Jones’ praise of Cooper since his return as Wallabies coach, that the Queenslander was considered a walk-up start in the 33-man group, even if he had shuffled one spot down the pecking order at No. 10 behind Carter Gordon.
So when Cooper’s name was missing from the Aug. 16 squad announcement, and Donaldson’s listed alongside Josh Kemeny as a “utility player”, the 22-year-old playmaker was labelled one of the luckiest World Cup inclusions ever.
Two weeks on, Donaldson finds himself preparing to play his first Test of the year – and Jones hasn’t heard from Cooper. There’s a bit doing, as they say.
“It definitely does, in professional sport there are always going to be critics out there,” Donaldson told ESPN when asked whether proving the naysayers wrong, and there have been a lot of them, was part of his motivation.
“If you get the coach’s backing and the backing of the boys, that’s all that really matters at the end of the day. And I know I’m working, I know I am good enough to be at this level and I’m just bloody keen to get out there now and show everybody what I am actually made of.”
Indications are that Jones will select Donaldson in his 23 to face France in the Wallabies’ final World Cup warmup, in Paris early Monday morning [AEST], for what will be his first game of any kind in three months.
“They’re good options and both on their arrival into France, have trained well, so they’re putting their name up to be considered for the 23 against France and certainly be good to get each of them a bit of game time,” Jones said of Donaldson and Gordon.
“He’s [Donaldson] trained predominantly 15 for us, but he’s done a little bit of work at 10. And as a player, who can play 10 and 15 and a goal kicker he’s a pretty important player for us. He’s got the skill set we want, which is to be able to play the game as it comes.”
Donaldson has been earmarked for Test rugby since he was a junior, despite a long-running battle with teammate and close friend Will Harrison throughout his formative years.
It was Harrison who got first crack at the Waratahs gig under Rob Penney in 2020 when both youngsters had graduated from Australia’s runner-up Junior World Championship team the year prior. Tane Edmed was soon added to the mix at NSW, too, setting up a three-way fight to wear the No. 10 jersey, depth that saw Donaldson shift to fullback on occasion, highlighting his “utility” worth.
And that’s where he finished this year’s Super Rugby Pacific season under Waratahs coach Darren Coleman, having endured an up-and-down regular season that highlighted his promise, but also revealed he still had an enormous amount of work to do.
Silky touches against the Rebels in Sydney, and even the Blues [at fullback] in the quarterfinal, were mixed with the simplest of errors, like his kick out on the full against the Brumbies in Canberra – a mistake when there was no pressure on Donaldson at all.
“Definitely an inconsistent year, I would put it down to,” Donaldson reflected. “But that’s rugby, you’re going to have those years, you’re going to have some dry patches, you’re going to have some good games, some bad games, but I took a lot of learnings out of it.
“It wasn’t the year I wanted personally, nor the team at the Tahs wanted, but I took a lot of learnings out of it, good and bad, and I think I’ve started to put them into my game, on and off the field, and I’m pretty happy to say that’s helped me get to where I am now.”
One of the biggest criticism’s of Jones’ selection of Donaldson was that the coach had not given him a run at any stage of the Rugby Championship or Bledisloe Cup series. Conversely, while the Wallabies eventually went down in Dunedin, Cooper’s coolness under pressure to slot a penalty that drew Australia level was viewed as proof for many that the 35-year-old should be on the plane to France.
But Jones has never shied away from a bold selection, and having shifted his focus to the future, the 2027 World Cup in particular, the Wallabies boss opted for Donaldson, whose last game was that quarterfinal loss to the Blues in Auckland.
“I was there the whole time [in camp], which was really positive, and I was getting a lot of positive feedback,” Donaldson told ESPN of the past couple of months.
“The coaches said I was training really well, a bit at 10, a bit at 15, and they kind of said to me that I’ve got some assets that some other players didn’t have and they were really happy with how I was going; even though I didn’t play, they were still really happy with how I was going. And I guess I did enough, I guess I showed enough, to be in the position that I am now and I’m just keen to keep working hard.”
While Cooper has only addressed his controversial omission on Instagram, Jones’ revelation that the fly-half “wasn’t answering” his calls suggests the veteran was, understandably, hugely disappointed he did not win selection for a third World Cup campaign
Bernard Foley, meanwhile, looms as the most likely call-up if either Gordon or Donaldson go down with injury, given the veteran New South Welshman has travelled north with Australia A.
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Donaldson couldn’t be more appreciative of the advice from both men.
“You take so much. Nardy [Foley] last year, I’ve known him for a while now but especially on the spring tour, his knowledge, the way he preps, prepares for games, his knowledge, his skill set; just everything around training, how he plans his week out, he’s just so professional, and I took a lot of learnings out of that,” Donaldson told ESPN.
“And he’s just a great man off the field as well, he’s good to have a beer with, or a chat with, or a coffee, so he was really good for myself last year.
“And Quade very similar this year, he’s so professional, so diligent with his prep and how he looks after his body, he’s almost a second coach; in meetings he’s always speaking up, he’s always teaching us different little things, tricks of the trade, and he’s been really helpful for myself and Carter.”
Donaldson’s Test debut will, unfortunately, be forever tied to the Wallabies’ first ever loss to Italy. Faced with a match-winning conversion after fulltime, Donaldson stroked his kick wide, inadvertently placing Rennie’s job under even further pressure.
The heartache for Donaldson was obvious. Faced with a moment he had dreamed of as a kid, the nightmare of Florence may be hard to shake. But there’s one way to erase at least part of that pain, and that’s ensuring he nails the opportunity when next it rolls around.
“That first game, obviously not the end you want in your debut game,” Donaldson reflected on his Test debut. “But I’ve taken a lot of learnings from that game, mentally I’ve just grown as a person on and off the field, just learning a lot about how you can move on from things like that.
“And then starting in that Wales game in front of 80,000 people and to get a win, just taking a lot of learnings and growth out of that win knowing that I am ready to step up at that level and I’m just going to keep building on that.”
There’s no question that Donaldson looms as a key figure in Australian rugby in the run to 2027. His talent is obvious, but time-in-the-saddle, as Jones used to describe the recent form of Richie Mo’unga, will be vital before Australia prepares to host the World Cup in four years’ time.
Gordon, too, clearly has the runway to develop, but he faces the far more urgent challenge of making the Wallabies a World Cup contender, rather than a pretender, over the coming weeks.
It may be that Donaldson is used only sparingly off the bench in France, perhaps earning a start against Portugal in the Wallabies’ final pool game. But he says he is ready to perform if or when he is handed the responsibility of leading Australia around.
“It’s a great honour and privilege to be selected for this World Cup,” Donaldson told ESPN. “I’m extremely grateful, so is my family and my friends, and I’m just extremely proud to be in a squad representing our country. Like I said before, you make your debut and it’s what you dream of doing, but you also dream of going to a World Cup, and finally I’ve got here, I’ve made it to this moment.
“And now it’s just about getting onto the field, I want to contribute by playing, not just being in the squad, and putting my best foot forward and doing my nation proud. And then moving forward, I want to be here for the Lions series and then the home World Cup, even though that’s a long way away it all starts now. So I’m just extremely grateful to be in this position.”