Surprise, Surprise!

In any catalogue of modern out-halves, the names of Grant Fox, Michael Lynagh, Joel Stransky, Stephen Larkham and Jonny Wilkinson inevitably feature at the top.

Butch James may make it on the occasional list, but Henry Honnibal is almost always included on the South African list also. To this list a month ago, many would have been satisfied to add either Daniel Carter, or Stephen Jones, or Felipe Contepomi, or Ronan O’Gara: all of them hugely experienced at international level, all of them having led their respective teams to great victories.

Few, if any, would have contemplated the names of Rhys Priestland, Morgan Parra, Colin Slade or Quade Cooper. But that’s what we’re left with.

Two months ago the Mole would not have predicted that three of the semi-finalists in RWC2011 would field their 3rd choice out-halves, as it might have suggested that moles survived solely on mead in their molehills. And yet …

During the summer of 2011 the greatest debate in the valleys was whether Stephen Jones, having received his 100th Cap in the game against the Barbarians in June 2011, would go on to break the Welsh record of Gareth Thomas, or whether James Hook would usurp him to such an extent that Jones might only sneak his 101st cap, under the radar, in their game against Namibia (he did).

In their fixture against the Barbarians in June, the Welsh backline was: Stoddard, North, J Davies, Henson, Brew, S Jones, M Phillips (James Hook was getting married that day). That’s right, just three of the players now setting the standards for back-play in this World Cup championship.

In fact, Priestland was on the bench that day in the Millennium Stadium, and for the Twickenham game against England on August 6th, the Welsh backline looked very close to the current model: Stoddart (Scarlets), North (Scarlets), Davies (Scarlets), Roberts (Cardiff), Shane Williams (Ospreys), Priestland (Scarlets), Phillips (Bayonne). Despite defeat that day, only the injured Stoddard was replaced and as a unit they have now grown in stature and skill to an undreamed of level. A week later in victory over England, Hook replaced the injured Stoddart and Priestland was beginning to look the part, whilst Stephen Jones was beginning to have a slightly haunted look at training sessions.

For most coaches, half a dozen games wearing the No 10 shirt at international level is hardly considered ideal preparation for a World Cup assault. But clearly Gatland (and Edwards) have stuck coaching gold again with their unearthing of a player with the ability to guide a team at the top level, despite apparent inexperience. Remember Alex King? Remember Stephen Donald? No 10s for Gatland, at Wasps and Waikato, who delivered a stream of trophies between 2002 and 2007.

The announcement early on Sunday morning, 2nd October, that Daniel Carter was out of the World Cup had an enormous effect on the New Zealand people. It was like somebody had died. Without question the greatest out-half of the past 20 years ­- and possibly ever – Carter is a genius in his position and without parallel anywhere in the game at present.

The All Blacks at home are a formidable team at any time, for any opponent. With Daniel Carter present they looked like an unbeatable force. Deprived of him they suffered the twin blows of his loss and strategic uncertainty because, incredibly, they have no plan B. The selection of Colin Slade and Aaron Cruden in their match-day squad for the quarter final against Argentina, coupled with the manner in which they played in that game, may yet be a fatal blow to the nation’s hopes of regaining the Webb Ellis Trophy after 24 years of failure.

The NZ Union Committee has firmly set their face against calling back Stephen Donald or Luke McAllister to fill the breach. Both have taken the ‘northern shilling’ and are beyond redemption as far as the NZRU are concerned. On the evidence of the RWC QF, this is not a good enough excuse for the New Zealand public, who have a week to ponder the prospect of being beaten by their nearest (and loudest) neighbours Australia, Wales – one of their oldest traditional rivals who claim rugby as their national sport – or France, their world cup bête noire.

For the conservative New Zealand rugby men, the most acceptable compromise may be the selection of Piri Weepu at first-five with Jimmy Cowan at scrum half, rather than try to play the next-door neighbour with only 14 players, as they did against Argentina for much of the game. Either way the All Blacks management have clearly been unlucky … but they have also been intransigent.  more tend towards the latter explanation.

France’s dilemma has been covered in some depth previously by the Mole. Suffice it to say that as the second ranked scrum-half in France in May 2011, Morgan Parra possibly would have been considered among the top 20 out-halves – but only based on cameo slots for his club Clermont in Top 14 or H-Cup games in which his team were leading and the coaches wanted to give game time to his understudy scrum half.

That Parra is now the central character in the biggest French farce of the year (and that includes the sexploits of DSK), is ironic. He is a superb scrum half, an intelligent and engaging interviewee and a great team player. He certainly never anticipated that he would be asked to be “le General” carrying his nation’s hopes in a World Cup semi-final against Wales, for whom his countrymen have had little rugby respect for the past 20 and more years.

In July 2010, when Australian coach Robbie Deans announced his Tri-Nations Squad, it was commonly believed that Matt Giteau and Berrick Barnes were the front runners for the out-half spot. Giteau, the experienced Brumbie, was under the cosh because he wanted to move and make money as personal issues were significant in his life, whilst Barnes had taken the reins for the RWC07 QF loss to England, a defeat that rocked Australian rugby to the core. Quade Cooper, not to be confused with his namesake Adam Ashley Cooper (AAC), is a rough diamond, born a Kiwi, with a mouth said by many Kiwis to be unconnected with his brain.

If any game served to ordain Quade Cooper for possession of the shirt blessed by predecessors such as Lynagh and Larkham, it was the Bledisloe Cup match in Hong Kong three months later. Four tries from QC, AAC, Drew Mitchell and finally James O’Connor sealed the deal in an historic 26-24 win for the Aussies. Matt Giteau kicked badly and probably drafted his own P45, although it wasn’t until 10 months later that Robbie Deans counter-signed it.

So, stranger and stranger, but the reality is that in less than a fortnight, one of these relatively unheralded young men will join the pantheon of those great names who have led their country to victory in the World Cup Final wearing that all important No 10 shirt. Will this year’s winning out-half be the exception that proves the rule that the most important player on a rugby team is the man with No 10 on his back? Or will history confer greatness after the event?

25 year-old Larkham emerged from the 1999 event as the converted full back who dropped a never to be forgotten goal, and then went on to establish his country’s greatest ever half-back partnership with George Gregan. In October 2008, Leinster suffered a rare six-try home defeat against the Scarlets in the RDS. The chief architect on the night was identified as New Zealand centre Regan King. But wearing the No 10 shirt that evening was 21 year-old Rhys Priestland, who contributed 22 points from the boot. Development may take time, but often it’s worth the perseverance.

Addendum

Just before the Mole went to post this, he read on ESPN Scrum.com that Colin Slade has retired from the World Cup due to injury, with Stephen Donald on his way out to replace him.

Slade had the look of a guy who wanted to be anywhere but Eden Park, and the All Blacks tried to play the game around him when he was on the pitch. The Mole has a degree of sympathy for him. There was a huge burden dropped on his shoulders, and he neither had the experience nor the confidence to bear it. Sport can be cruel like that.

Donald signed for Bath at the end of last season; to all extents and purposes, that would normally be the end of his All Black career. His last match for the All Blacks was against Wales in November 2010, when he came on for Carter at outhalf; his last start was at centre against the Springboks in the Tri-Nations game at Hamilton in September 2009, and his last start at outhalf was the loss against South Africa in Durban in August 2009. As a starting outhalf for the All Blacks, Donald has played 7, won 4, lost 3.

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