In the 2007 Super 14 season, the Queensland Reds were brutal. They finished ten points adrift at the bottom of the table with two wins, the lowest in the competition, the second lowest points scored tally and the worst defensive record. In the final match of the season, the Blue Bulls beat them 92-3. Amidst all this mediocrity, James Horwill ran about the place making tackles, hitting rucks, carrying the football and sticking out like a sore thumb. Many of the Reds squad mentioned him as their favourite team mate, highlighting his enthusiasm. He earned the soubriquet ‘Big Kev’, named for an Australian entrepreneur who promoted his own cleaning products with the catchphrase “I’m Excited”. This season, the Queensland Reds, under Horwill’s captaincy, finished top of the log and beat the Crusaders in the final. James Horwill is a champion.
Robbie Deans named Horwill as his squad captain with one game left before the tournament commenced. Given that many other captains, including Richie McCaw, John Smit and Brian O’Driscoll were in situ during the last World Cup, this is an unusual move. In his first game in charge, Horwill’s Australian team beat New Zealand and earned the Tri-Nations title. Australia enter the tournament with confidence, a united squad and what looks like a favourable draw. Will that be enough to allow Horwill deliver a clean sweep this season?
Australia lost Ben Robinson to a cruciate injury and despite his best efforts, he’ll miss the World Cup. Robinson has been a quiet achiever for the Wallabies in recent years and steadied up their loosehead side. He has been replaced by Sekope Kefu who has done OK in his starts so far. Salesi Ma’afu and James Slipper travel as cover. Slipper is highly regarded but has been injured for the build up while Ma’afu seems to have been in the right place at the right time. Australia’s Achilles heel is traditionally their scrum and the loss of Robinson could be a big factor.
The Wallabies are better served at hooker where Stephen Moore is a proven performer and leader. He was replaced for a period last year by Saia Fainga’a. You have to give credit to the Fainga’as for getting the most from their athletic ability because they’re not particularly big or quick yet both make the squad, at hooker and centre. Saia is a long way behind Moore and Polota-Nau as a physical specimen and Steve Thompson had him for breakfast when England won last summer in Australia.
Dan Vickerman looks like taking the other slot in the second row alongside Horwill. Vickerman is a World Cup veteran who must have considered his international career was behind him when he went to Cambridge. The days of the Varsity Match acting as a shop window for the international game are long gone but Vickerman’s nous and physicality seems to have got him ahead of Nathan Sharpe and Rob Simmons. Nathan Sharpe has been a great servant of Australian rugby and has added distribution skills to lineout ability and work rate. The legs have slowed but Sharpe won’t let the green and gold down.
Rocky Elsom has never consistently matched his Northern Hemisphere form when, along with Brian O’Driscoll, he led Leinster to the Heineken Cup. Stripped of the captaincy in favour of Horwill, he is under some pressure from Scott Higginbotham, the ball carrying Queenslander. Higginbotham has looked dynamic in his test starts for Australia but has been give limited opportunity because of Elsom’s status. Radike Samo is another player who must have thought his international days were behind him when he was kitting out in the second row for Stade Francais. The innate confidence of the Australian sportsman was proven once again as Samo scored a superb individual try against New Zealand. Wycliff Palu has suffered a number of injuries but travels and is a very physical option for Deans to call upon. David Pocock looked tired and short of form during the Tri Nations but recovered in the last game and turned in a great performance. His defensive abilities will be key to Australia’s hopes.
Will Genia and Luke Burgess are joined at scrum half by Nick Phipps. Genia looks like he’s in the form of his life and has been mentioned in the same breath as previous World Cup winners Nick Farr-Jones and George Gregan. His decision making and basic skills are excellent and he controls the game for Australia. Outside him, Quade Cooper is yet to convince that he is more than a gifted show pony. His tricks and audacity are reminiscent of Carlos Spencer but it was Carlos the Jackass come knock out time in 2003. Cooper is prone to error. Berrick Barnes offers less of a running threat and is prone to concussion. However, his kicking and option taking is more consistent than that of QC, while he’s not afraid to tackle.
Matt Giteau’s omission means that Australia go into the World Cup with Adam Ashley-Cooper, Anthony Fainga’a, Rob Horne and Pat McCabe as their centres. This has been remarked on before in this blog. While Ashley-Cooper is an attacking threat, capable of playing wing at international level, none of the other three are notable attackers. However, Fainga’a and McCabe started against New Zealand and did nothing wrong. They are both defensively solid and do not have any bad habits.
If Australia’s centre pairing is nothing to write home about, their back three is worth crossing the road to see. James O’Connor looks like Justin Bieber and is only slightly older but is already a mainstay of the squad. He is first choice goal kicker, a very good distributor and a potent running threat. O’Connor played at fly half during the Super 15 for the Force. He could be the star of this World Cup. Kurtley Beale is another who has played top class rugby at out half. Beale offers the Australians a superb counter attacking threat. He seemed to be caught out of position a number of times by Dan Carter in Auckland but recovered in Brisbane and kicked very well. Beale straightens the line, has a fine awareness of his support players and soft hands, as well as moustache befitting a 30s matinee idol. Digby Ioane has the best try celebration in world rugby and could well end up as top try scorer in this World Cup. Drew Mitchell has been injured for most of the season but Deans has seen fit to include him.
Reviewing the Australian squad, one is struck by the contrast with the South Africans, in particular. Australia is not blessed with great depth: their first team is considerably stronger than their replacements. Deans has sided with youth and largely rebuilt the team from the last World Cup. His decision to leave Matt Giteau at home was a clean break with the past and a decisive expression of what is important to Robbie Deans’ squad. James Horwill did not go to the last World Cup and captains them here.
The draw favours Australia. Their main competition in the pool is an aging, misfiring Ireland. Should they win the pool they will play whatever is left of the second place team in the SA/Samoa/Wales/Fiji/Namibia group. That brings them to a semi-final against France, who they annihilated last year, or England. However, there are a number of questions surrounding Australia, notably their front row, place kicking, number of injured players and Quade Cooper. Their ability to score tries from deep is unrivalled, even by New Zealand and this ability has proven sufficient for the Reds and Tri Nations success so far this season. However, cup match rugby is usually won by the team with a better pack and place kicker and for this reason, I don’t think the Wallabies are the bet this time around.