Wallabies prop Angus Bell needed only three words when asked to reflect on 2023: “It still hurts.”
But as the pain of Australia’s Rugby World Cup debacle under Eddie Jones proves hard to shake, the 23-year-old prop, who was second in Wednesday night’s John Eales Medal count won by Rob Valetini, is ready to start driving the game forward at home after an already inauspicious start to 2024.
“I feel like we have the talent in Australian rugby at the moment to keep pushing for those results,” Bell told ESPN before the JE Medal result was revealed. “So we’ll keep pushing for those results and prove to the sporting landscape in Australia that we are up to it and we are world-class, and we’ll prove that.
“I sit down pretty much every year [think about it] and I believe that we have got some of the best athletes in Australia, and also some of the hardest humans, and I guess my big thing of what I’d like to do for however long my career lasts is prove that Australian rugby is on top.
“I have no worries of where Australian rugby is going, we have great players coming through and great coaches coming through also. I’m just really excited to prove people wrong, and people that doubt Australian rugby can then become fans. It’s exciting for us.”
Bell’s comments tell the story of a player who simply can’t wait to get back on the field and contest a full Super Rugby Pacific season – he played just one game before injury ended his 2023 campaign with the Waratahs – so too someone who many believe is a Wallabies captain in waiting.
Bell has, in fact, already packed plenty into his professional career. There was the Waratahs’ winless season of 2021 and sacking of coach Rob Penney, multiple injury setbacks, his maiden Test call-up under Dave Rennie, Rennie’s sacking at the start of 2023 and, finally, Eddie Jones’ tumultuous second coming and the aforementioned French catastrophe.
His career resembles that of a 10-year veteran, not a 23-year-old who is still learning the tricks of the front-row trade. That being said, Bell believes his scrummaging acumen increased markedly last season as he packed down against many of the game’s best front-rowers.
“I guess experience. I’ve now packed against every nation in the world, or every Tier 1 nation in the world that is renowned for their scrummaging, so I’ve got a lot of experience against different tightheads and how they pack, and different countries and how they teach,” Bell replied when asked where he thought his game had improved in 2023.
“So I feel like I’ve got a good grasp on where I need to be and where I need to go to become that typical world-class scrummager. I’m not there yet but I’ll keep pushing towards that, but I know what that looks like and it’s just a process.”
While Bell was one of the Wallabies’ few standouts in France, Waratahs teammate Jed Holloway was forced to watch on from afar after missing selection in Jones’ 33-man squad when the coach essentially changed his plan and picked a group with an eye on 2027, only to then throw in the towel and head for Japan after 10 months at the wheel.
“At this stage now it’s all about moving on and, I guess, I’ve got the opportunity to prove a few people wrong, which is awesome and within my control and all I’m focused on,” Holloway reflected to ESPN.
“I’ve gone past the point of dwelling and second guessing or reflecting on what I could do better or what did I do wrong, it’s just all about putting it out on the paddock now and having a good year with the Tahs and taking this team onto the next step because the last two years have kind of been similar and we need to make that jump.”
Holloway, too, recognises the urgency in the need to get some positive stories back in the game in Australia. He also says the need for off-field engagement is just as important in rebuilding Australian rugby’s reputation.
“You want to get out and perform for the game, you want to produce good stories around it as well,” Holloway told ESPN. “It’s not only what we do on the field, it’s what we do in the community, it’s what we do for club rugby, and it’s making sure as players who are at the pinnacle of that, that we’re doing the best we can to try and facilitate that.
“Whether that is turning up on a Saturday and playing as best you can, or playing the way the fans want you to play and how we want to play, but also turning up in the community, whether it’s promos with the Tahs with kids and stuff like that. We’ve got to grow the game, I feel, that way, through the next generation, because that’s where we’re getting beaten to the punch at the moment.
“And it’s on us to make sure we can be good role models for them and me being a parent now you definitely want to steer your kids in the direction that’s going to suit them, and you want that to be rugby.”
Holloway likes what he has seen from Rugby Australia boss Phil Waugh thus far, particularly given the myriad issues the former Wallabies flanker has had to tackle in his short tenure to date.
“I’ve got a huge amount of respect for Phil and what he’s doing and what his vision is,” Holloway said. “He’s had a rough trot in the [seven months] he’s been CEO, he’s wore it on his chest, and he’s had to make some hard decisions I’m sure. And I feel like the game is starting to go in a direction, not only that they [RA] want it to, but also the players and people want it to as well.”
Waugh is currently facing another Australian rugby crisis – what to do with the financially-broken Melbourne Rebels. The RA boss has only guaranteed the Rebels survival through 2024, but with debts in excess of $10m, it may be up to the Victorian Government to step in if the franchise is to continue beyond this season.
The Rebels’ fortunes are beyond the control of Bell and Holloway, the duo can only shift Australian rugby’s narrative through their individual and collective efforts at the Waratahs.
After an impressive first year under Darren Coleman, the team plateaued in 2023, with one media report last week suggesting the coach has only four rounds of this year’s competition to make an impression and earn a contract extension.
The team also put a target on its back in 2023 by openly declaring it wanted a top-four finish. Holloway says they won’t make the same mistake again.
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“What kind of rugby are we going to see? We want to keep our goals internal, but we’re going to have strike weapons,” Holloway said. “Our backs are ready to go, guys in key positions are another year older, like Marky [Nawaqanitawase], Jorgo [Max Jorgensen] especially, Dylan Pietsch was killing it at the end of last year and I can’t wait to see him go a bit further.
“We’ve got guys in the forwards who can be physical, so we’re going to be really aiming up there and be a physical pack. But we’ve also got the flair and the ball playing to play a really expansive style, and we want to make that our identity, that we’re going to be consistent in that style.
“It’s going to be a ride, but we’re excited for it and we’ve been working bloody hard for the last six months of preseason to do that. It’s probably been the hardest preseason of my 11-year career now, I don’t know whether that’s because I’m getting older now, but we’ve changed a few things up this preseason to really get some intensity out of us.
“I know our first trial [a 38-12 loss to the Rebels] doesn’t reflect the way we want to play and perform, but bear with us it’s going to be a good year.”
The Waratahs, and Australian rugby, could certainly use one of those.