New Wallabies doco is a masochistic watch that borders on black comedy | Eddie Jones

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Stan’s new documentary series following the Wallabies’ woeful 2023 season and calamitous World Cup campaign in France is cursed on so many fronts it’s almost a black comedy.

A losing team from an ailing code, a polarising protagonist who goes on to betray his side, a cast of sad sack interviewees who get injured or dropped, and an ugly piece of history – the first Australian team eliminated in the World Cup’s pool stages – make The Wallabies a bruising watch.

But great storytelling doesn’t need good news, amazing characters and happy endings to be entertaining. Australians love an underdog story and a glorious defeat more than most.

The problem here is the filmmakers have hitched their wagon to a team that has lost its soul.

The Wallabies used to be Australia’s team. The AFL and NRL had more fans and better TV figures but that gold jersey was where the nation once united. Alas, that was 20 years ago. Australian rugby is on the rocks, the Wallabies are woeful and the Matildas have our hearts.

Of course, having coach Eddie Jones in the main role is a hospital-pass piece of casting. Former coach Dave Rennie initially refused the documentary-makers. His wounded side was struggling but he was building a culture and needed fierce focus not outside distraction.

But when Rugby Australia sacked Rennie to install Jones nine months from the World Cup, the documentary got a green light. “Fast Eddie”, freshly sacked by England Rugby, was a big talker with an outsized ego. RA needed a coach but hired a ringmaster; a circus was inevitable.

Episode one kicks off 145 days out from France and Jones is Jonesing at full blast from the outset, telling his wide-eyed squad: “we’re going to change Australian rugby”; “we’re going to fight hard and steal the World Cup”; “we’ll be the greatest team Australia’s seen.” This bluster is meant to inspire, but we know it’s empty rhetoric, so it’s sure to enrage fans.

Young gun Mark Nawaqanitawase during the Wallabies’ World Cup pool match against Georgia in France. Photograph: Stéphanie Lecocq/Reuters

Executive producer Andrew Farrell wanted to reach an audience beyond the hardcore. “We want viewers to meet the players, see the game through their eyes,” he says. “But given the way the story turns out, there is a degree of masochism to tuning in, and given what they went through last year – and for 20 years – Wallabies fans may have hit their threshold.”

As have some players. The personal odysseys behind team stories usually enrich these documentaries but this core cast lack insight – and luck. Veteran Michael Hooper is cruelly cut from the squad, and front rowers Allan Alaalatoa, James Slipper and Taniela Tupou all get injured. Halfback Nic White is honest, funny and ultimately haunted, but mostly it’s gnarled heads grumbling as the team goes 0-5 and then sees their World Cup campaign inevitably leave the rails.

Given this squad was the youngest ever, a pivot to a cast of media-savvy Gen Next players seems obvious but Jones and RA forbade it, not wanting their fresh faces “distracted”. Even Will Skelton, the campaign’s unlikely captain, is weirdly MIA. Instead we see whiz-kid Carter Gordon play golf with his girlfriend and get his mullet trimmed, while charismatic young guns Mark Nawaqanitawase, Fraser McReight, Tom Hooper and Tate McDermott stay gagged.

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It hurts the doco, because the team behind the team is so insipid. Jones’ executive staff are a motley pack of mostly NRL, AFL and Euro-rugby minds so cowed by their boss they refuse to challenge his increasingly slippery hold on power. Dr Sharron Flahive gets lots of air with dry data while psychologist Dr Corinne Read, a rare sane voice in the chaos, is sidelined.

There is some lovely camerawork amidst the dervish of training, travel and game day and some poignant moments – a freshly-injured Tupou washing his muddy boots in a dirty shed – as well as some bracing ones – Jones decrying the Australian game’s lack of “hardness”. The fine margins of glorious victory and abject defeat are brought into sharp focus too. “The bounce of a ball, a pass left not right, and the Wallabies win and it all changes,” says Farrell.

But in a glut of slick behind-the-scenes sport docos – Drive to Survive (Formula One, Break Point (tennis), Full Swing (golf), Beckham (football) and Six Nations (rugby), The Wallabies is, like the team it profiles, flawed. “RA knew it couldn’t be a PR exercise,” admits Farrell, “but they cut stuff to protect players. Eddie got his crazier cluster bombs of swearing cut too.”

Hopefully the filmmakers are playing the long game: laying down a marker before profiling the rising stars baptised with fire in France who will contest the next World Cup on Australian soil. With some luck, the heartbreak kids of 2023 might be the Wallabies heroes of 2027. That’s a comeback story for the ages and an underdog story all Australians can get behind.

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