David Campese needs no introduction. His history of excelling on the world stage in an amateur era consisting of pure talent and free-flowing play has long since etched this man’s name in rugby folklore.
So when I sat down with him, albeit on opposite poles of the world via video link, there was something almost unreal about it. A man who has achieved so much in his playing days, coaching days, and in the years that followed, was still displaying such a fiery interest in the sport that had brought his name into the world lights.
The interview itself was part and parcel of a meeting that was centered around the love of rugby, from his pure enthusiasm about the intricacies of the current game to the reminders of the long-lasting legacies that players leave behind.
Among the wide variety of mementos and achievements that David has collected over the years, it was his framed commentary notes by the late great Scottish commentator Bill McLaren that made it to centre stage. Perfectly positioned behind him, it was clear he holds onto and embodies the spirit of a game that continues to bring souls together from around the world.
As a legend in his own right, the questions initiated with talk around the current crop of Australian players, and the challenges that current coach Eddie Jones has had to face.
“I think world cups are a very different animal”, Campese started. “Especially Eddie coming in six, seven months before the tournament, you look at most of the other teams and they’d be together for four years building to the World Cup.
“I watch a lot of Rugby in Australia, and the thing that stood out for me early on was that we need a goal kicker” Campese stressed, indicating that the current squad is missing that vital component.
“World cups are one by number tens. You had Michael [Lynagh] in 91, Grant Fox in 87. Then you had Joel Stransky, Matt Burke, and Jonny [Wilkinson].“
It was here that the conversation elevated to the comparison between World Cup matches and any other international or club match. With expectations lifted and the eyes of the world watching, it is only obvious that the standards of play are going to be heightened. Teams once considered underdogs are now drawing upon strengths, not seen in perhaps less visible games, making the scores much tighter and margins much smaller.
The importance of a goal kicker cannot be underestimated in such tight matches, with the difference of just three points potentially being the factor between victory and loss, progression and expulsion.
Coping with the intensity of the tournament is a vital component of any player, but in particular, the half-backs who need not only find that extra bit of physical energy but also need that mental toughness above all else – Campo was keen to stress the importance of bedding-in these young players.
“Tate McDermott and Gordon need to play more,” he said, before adding that Nic White “Kicks the ball away a bit too much for us, and without the ball, you can’t really win.
“I think the combinations are vital, especially when you get to those quarter-final games where one decision can change the whole game.”
Tate McDermott is starting to come into his own, as a Wallaby scrum half, following in the footsteps of the likes of George Gregan, Will Genia, and Nic White before him. With over 20 caps for the green and gold already, the 24-year-old has gained many fans, including, it appears, David Campese.
“I think Tate McDermott is a great player. I think he keeps the opposition busy, which is what you need from a player. You’re gonna keep the opposition guessing what you’re gonna do next.”
Although the Australian squad is currently under the control of Eddie Jones, the squad is far from a finished article. Discussing the current setup, Campese highlighted the need of not just having quality players in the side, but being able to create a system that enabled them to succeed.
The key point, as we discussed, was that the Wallabies do hold fantastic qualities in their backline, but their talents will go wasted if the ball does not reach them.
“I think that I would put Mark Nawaqanitawase at 13, I think he’s very good because he runs really good angles. If you’ve noticed when he runs, he’s actually very hard to tackle but we need somebody to create something out wide for our wingers. We got Koroibete who’s a great winger, but he’s got to go into the ruck from five meters out to score tries. I want to see him one-on-one.
“The back line at the moment is still working out, will Gordon be the number ten going into the quarters? At the moment in France Eddie’s got Foley, he’s got James O’Connor over in Australia A, and he’s got the other number ten. We’ve got three number tens already over there.
“Eddie’s smart the way he does things, but the thing is, the more you go on, you’ve got to have those combinations. You can’t just swap and change players week and week out”
It was the discussion surrounding Eddie that seemed to be the biggest point of contention for Campese, whilst he appreciated that Jones is a well-known name, he felt that the attention should be more on the players rather than the coach.
“Eddie’s been around a long time and he’s very knowledgeable, but I think he’s just got to get on with it and allow the team to play a style of rugby that’s going to do Australia proud, and also get the country back involved with Rugby which has been missing for many years. He’s got a great opportunity if he realises that the game’s about the players and not about him.”
“Eddie’s got to understand that sometimes he makes it very personal and he gets a bit emotional about things instead of actually realising it’s a game of rugby. It’s an opportunity that he’s got to take, he’s got a young side and should just enjoy the moment and remember that Australian rugby supporters want to watch rugby.
“They don’t want to see him being questioned every five minutes about the game. How about hearing from some of the players so that the Australian young kids know who the Australian rugby players are?”
This was a key point being made when it comes to participation in Australia and around the world, because without exciting rugby there won’t be increased participation levels through the youth, and that spells trouble for the elite level in years to come.
A big call from Jones was to leave experienced fly-half Quade Cooper out of the World Cup squad, a decision that the Wallaby didn’t take too kindly to. As an expert who knows the ins and outs of Australian rugby like so few others, Campese was able to give as educated an assumption as you can come by, into the Cooper snub.
“The reason is probably because he injured his Achilles last year, and in the second Bledisloe Cup the ball was unfortunately knocked on. There was a scrum in the final minutes that went New Zealand’s way. So I think little things like that in big games are vital.
“Eddie knows what he wants and he probably thought, we’ve got young number ten. You’ve got Donaldson, who plays nine, ten, and fifteen. So you’ve got someone that covers that, and then you’ve got Kellaway, who’s a fullback. We’ve got enough backs but trying to fit them into the combination wise is probably the problem at the moment.
“Quade’s been around as well. So it’s sad it happened, and sad with Hooper as well. But you’re there to win a World Cup not to keep everyone happy.”
Cooper has since been seen enjoying himself on the golf course, beach, and gym as he takes himself away from the rigmarole of his World Cup disappointment.
Moving along to the actual set up of the World Cup; with the All Blacks, South Africa, Ireland, Scotland, and France all situated on one side of the draw, Campese joined others in sharing his disappointment surrounding the pools.
“The unfortunate thing in this World Cup is that you’ve got four of the best teams in the quarters on one side of the draw, so realistically you’re not going to get the best two teams in the Rugby World Cup final.
“Why do we do a draw 18 months out from the Rugby World Cup? It is bizarre because a couple of weeks ago Australia went to number ninth in the world. Now they’re number seven. So on one part of the draw, you’ve got the top four countries in the world. Then, on the other side, you’ve got five, six, seven and eight.
“It’s not how you have a World Cup. You’re supposed to have the two best teams in the final. But at the moment it could end up that way, which obviously would probably suit the northern hemisphere sides because they’ve only won one World Cup.
“That’s probably the only way they’re going to win another one”, he joked, referring to England’s 2003 victory against Australia as the last northern hemisphere victory.
In terms of northern hemisphere sides, the hosts France appear to be many people’s favourites for this competition. They have now played twice in this year’s World Cup, once in a terrific victory over three-time champions the All Blacks, and recently with a slightly weakened side that was pushed hard by a much improved Uruguay.
With each side having their own strength and weaknesses, it was never going to be an easy prediction to pick the winners of the tournament, but Campese felt the hosts were the most threatening.
“I’d be picking France to win, and the only reason is if you look at the game against the All Blacks they just demolished them, and the All Blacks had no idea. But what I really enjoyed was the the skill factor from the forwards, the way they passed the ball and they were looking for space instead of running at somebody. Obviously, their style of rugby is great, the skill factor showed they’re miles ahead at the moment.
“I know it’s only one week in, a lot of things can happen. You could lose some star players. But realistically, the Irish are probably the form team. South Africa are a very complete team, they’ve got so many good players.
“The French at home, if they’re not gonna win this World Cup they never will. This is their time in the sun. They have embraced the World Cup this year, compared to 2007 when they were kept away from the whole sort of banange and all that. They’ve actually matured a lot more.
“But again, it’s one week’s finish. This is one week. So it’s gonna be a lot of interesting things. As I said, if you lose a couple of key players, what’s the backup going to be? Are they going to be just as good? Or will they struggle or change the way they want to play?”
It was here that the attention turned to the enhanced structure imposed upon these professional sides. In our various conversations, David couldn’t emphasise enough just how much attacking and instinctive play is being restricted in the modern game.
“The only way that they’re gonna win another one is if they’re a defensive team, and this is one of the things I don’t like about the modern game,” Campese said, “It’s more about defense than attack.
“It’s a very different game and Ireland don’t compete on the ground. So if you play in the All Blacks which they did last year in New Zealand, the All Blacks had four players in the ground. The Irish had no one, so basically, you’ve got 11 vs. 15, that’s how they play.
“It will be interesting to see what happens if Ireland go behind in a game, how are they going to change their game plan? Because I don’t think they’ve got a plan B, either. If you look at most of these teams. They’re all very structured and you know exactly what they’re going to do, they all do the same moves.”
“World cups are won by teams, not individuals and the All Blacks against France again looked like they’ve got a game plan, but no B game plan, and if you watch that game they look lost. The guys who came on didn’t really add any spice to the game, they just did their job.”
It is Campo’s analysis here that will become a point of note over the next few weeks. Teams will be tested in ways they have not in four years, sides will go behind and deal with challenges that take them away from their original game plan. It’s these changes, their plan B that will become the true marker on which they will be tested.
You only need to look at the All Blacks in 2007 against the French, tested for the first time in that fateful quarter-final, and they had no answer to it. They weren’t used to being behind, and an early exit and costly inquiry back in New Zealand was the price they paid.
Teams like Ireland, the All Blacks, and England – all destined to suffer the same fate if challenged, suggests Campese.
“I wrote a book in 1991 called On A Wing & a Prayer, in that book I said, ‘If we go professional, it’s not gonna be good’, I said it again in 2003 because individuals stand out, like Cheslin Kolbe. Kolbe made a really good run against Scotland, but he had Faf on the outside and he didn’t even look to pass. There are little things like that, you watch the guys make a break and they die with the ball when there are opportunities if you could anticipate.”
Alluding to Italian player Ange Capuozzo’s wonderful try assist in the victory over Wales in 2022, Campese pointed out that all these bits of instinctive play are what makes the game truly beautiful. Explaining that back in his own playing days the majority of all tries were scored off of first-phase possession, with players expecting to keep the ball alive and make the passes once the defensive line had been broken.
The key point being noted was that once these modern players break the line, it is not about looking for support anymore, it’s simply a case of tucking the ball under one’s arm and heading straight towards the try line without looking for teammates – all because these talented players are being stifled by a case of overcoaching.
To put it in the simplest terms, Campese explained that the first thing youngsters are taught to do when they play rugby is to keep the ball in two hands, so why should professional rugby players not do the same?
Coaches work with probabilities and risk factors, but to truly create moments of magic and set your team apart, these players need to play what’s in front of them and take those risks.
“It’s a structured game, and that’s where a lot of teams are gonna struggle when you need to do something different, and you put yourself under a lot of pressure. But that’s where the skill factor comes in, and at the moment the French are actually playing the French style we used to play against Serge Blanco, Jean Baptiste Lafond, Franck Mesnel.
“Back in those days everyone had a unique way of playing, but now if you get a jersey and change them at halftime, you wouldn’t know if there was a different team, because they all play the same.”
It’s not just the lack of individuality on the field that Campese finds issue with, but also the amount of in-game coaching they are subject to. For Campese, the coaches need to take a step back and trust their players.
“You’ve got runners on the field all the time talking to players. These guys are professional, play the game, let them play.
“Danny Cipriani came out as well last week saying he’s one of these guys who doesn’t fit in because he’s an instinctive player. Coaches don’t like instinctive players because they can’t control them, that’s why they pick players for certain positions.”
In a conversation that was surrounded by the importance of free-flowing rugby, Campese turned his attention to the officials and the increasing amount of convoluted rules that have been put in place, asking “Do these players play the game for the benefit of the fans or the officials?”
When you watch the game of rugby from the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, it’s a very different spectacle. It’s rough, it’s fast, and it’s furious. Now, whilst the game has been cleaned up, it’s become overly complicated for those new to the sport.
These complications have not just had an effect on the top-level players playing to please the referee, but the rules have also become a detriment to a sport that used to thrill fans in David’s own country, Australia.
There has always been an embarrassment of riches involved in Australian rugby, from the amateur days for which David is famed through to the players that reached the 2015 World Cup final.
The problem in Australia is not the amount of talent in the country, but rather the number that are focused on rugby union. A country famed for its sporting prowess among a multitude of different disciplines has seen rugby union disappear so far down the list that it can be seen only those with an innate connection to the sport.
And why is that?
David stressed the point, who is going to continue watching the game if it’s not enjoyable?
“It’s supposed to be a world sport. We are the third biggest sport in the world.
“The biggest thing with the scrum, leave the scrum alone, they’re old enough to be an international player, they train properly, let them come together and maybe we won’t get the three-minute scrums. It takes so much time walking to line outs, is that professional? People pay money to go watch, they don’t want to see guys walking, they don’t want to see the scrum collapsing.
They want action, and they want to see these individual players burn up the oval. That’s what they want. They want something exciting to happen. And here’s the opportunity.”
Watch the full interview here: