Australia – the third best team in the world!
As highlighted in the Gavin Cummiskey-compiled World Cup Diary in today’s Irish Times, it’s an honour that at least Greg Growden of the Sydney Morning Herald could do without:
“After the despair of missing the final, it is asking too much of these players to hang around another week and play a game with little appeal.” Amen, brother. I’ve no doubt that it’s a good money-spinner for the IRB, but the sight of Kurtley Beale and Quade Cooper, two of the brightest young attacking talents in the world game, limping off the pitch with serious injuries should make those in charge consider whether or not the game is worthwhile on any basis other than financial gain. Why not award both losing semi-finalists bronze medals and be done with it?
What’s the point of finding out just which team is the third best in the world? Why stop there? Why not have the four losing quarter-finalists play each other, with the winners of those two matches playing each other for fifth, and the losers playing each other for seventh. Then we can have more borderline meaningless games!
Anyhow. The state of the union in Australia will probably interest NH fans more than that of yesterday’s subject, the Boks. Reason? The Lions are touring there in less than two years. The Wobs have a far better age profile than the Boks, but four years into the tenure of Dingo Deans, they’re still far from the finished product … and four years is a long time for an international coach.
As to just what’s unfinished about them, the Mole – as ever – has his opinions.
What’s their midfield? Pre-tournament, many commentators picked Quade Cooper to be the star of the World Cup. Not only did he fail to live up to that hype, he was arguably the biggest underperformer in the tournament. He had a shocker, and to add injury to insult has been cruelly hit by serious injury in a relatively inconsequential match. Just when it looked like Deans had got the midfield mix right [Genia, Cooper, Barnes, Ashley Cooper], it has blown up in his face again. With the timing of the injury, Cooper shouldn’t miss too much international rugby, but with a player of his temperament, regaining form is going to be a big worry.
Deans’ Twin Danahers midfield – Grey Man Pat McCabe and Anthony Faingaa – impressed with their toughness and commitment to the cause, but are seriously limited players compared to the talent outside them. There may be room for one tough-tackling centre in the middle of the park, but two is at least one too many. Rob Horne looks as though he may bring something to the team other than his identikit-Aussie-threequarter look, but the lad badly needs to go out and get a full season of rugby under his belt. He’s too injury prone to be included in international squads so often – what has he ever done to validate the faith shown in him? Get injured again? As some clever Aussie said about him in the aftermath of his fractured cheekbone: “Tough as nails, hard as chalk.”
The Wallabies have an awesome collection of outside backs in Beale, Ioane, O’Connor, Mitchell and Two Dads, although hamstring injuries put paid to both Shmoo Mitchell and Curly Bill’s involvement at varying stages of the knock-outs. The form Ioane, Beale and O’Connor have shown this year makes them undroppable, so Two Dads and Shmoo have their work cut out in getting their respective names back into the teamsheet on a regular basis.
With regards to the pack, there are going to be a lot of changes. Benn Robinson [still only 27] will come back into the side at loosehead to partner Stephen Moore and Ben Alexander in the front row, with Kepu, Tatafu Polota-Nau and James Slipper backing up – that’s pretty reasonable depth. However, while all the names are familiar, only Moore played to a high international standard at this World Cup … and he was outplayed by Keven Mealamu and Bismarck du Plessis. None of Slipper, Alexander or Kepu would make it into the front row of any Tier One country, bar Scotland.
Vickerman  and Sharpe  provide the real mongrel in the pack, and neither will be around long term. Everything about Vickerman’s recent career says that he was really only interested in returning for the World Cup, and Deans’ treatment of Nathan Sharpe – a man who along with George Smith held together the Aussie pack during some lean years – has been pretty dismal.
James Horwill’s form dropped off somewhat from his Tri-Nations efforts. He was outplayed by a number of older opponents and just didn’t quite hit the heights the Mole expected of him. With Matfield in decline, Botha largely injured and Brad Thorn on his way to retirement , this looked like it’d be Horwill’s time to announce himself as the best second-row in the southern hemisphere, if not the world. As it panned out, he just didn’t hit that standard of performance.
At No8, Radike Samo will be hitting 36 next year and Cliffy Palu is increasingly injury prone. Samo had some eye-catching moments during the pool stages, but was absolutely AWOL in the semi-final, and Palu may as well not have been at the World Cup. The Ghost of Rocky Elsom was a sad sight to those who remember his incredible season of 2008-09 with Leinster, when he looked an awful lot like the best player in the world. David Pocock is a world class player at openside, and surely a future Aussie captain. Curiously, Ben McCalman saw a lot of gametime in the World Cup ahead of Scott Higginbotham. The Mole is really not all that sold on McCalman, even at No8, his favoured position.
Must Do Better
Scrummage: For years the Wallaby weak point, it looked to have righted itself in 2009 during their NH tour. However, the loss of Benn ‘Fat Cat’ Robinson [who hadn’t been in particularly good form, it should be said] set it back several paces. If Sharpe and Vickerman both depart the stage as expected, the Wobs will be left to pair either Rob Simmons or the raw talent of Sitaleki Timani with Horwill in the engine room. Whether they can provide the shunt to compare with the older men is dubious.
Ball-carrying: oddly enough, the Wallabies lacked ball-carriers up front. Stephen Moore and David Pocock put in good efforts, but Rocky looked ordinary, Samo tame against good opposition and Horwill decent, but nothing special. The Wycliff Palu of 2009 was a quality tackle-breaker, but that guy is just not around anymore. Tatafu Polota-Nau never found any decent form after his run of injuries, and was a significant step down from Stephen Moore: that wasn’t always the case. The Mole is more and more convinced that tackles broken and metres made after the broken tackle are probably the most important stats in the game, and the Wobs just couldn’t make those breaks in the pack.
Higginbotham is a natural runner and should be brought into the backrow as a matter of urgency. The Mole isn’t sure why he’s not considered as a No8, as he certainly looks to have a more complete skillset than Ben McCalman.
Midfield: Decide whether they want to play a first and second five-eighth system with Quade Cooper and Berrick Barnes [when both are healthy], or a NH-style outhalf and first centre combination of Barnes and McCabe, or a two-attacking-geniuses pairing of Cooper at 10 and James O’Connor at 12.
Hot-tempered larrikin James O’Connor looks gifted enough to be able to play absolutely anywhere in the backs. Frankly, the Mole doesn’t know if his best position is winger: Curly Bill was an outhalf-cum-first centre when he started with the Waratahs, debuted for the Wallabies on the wing and had a couple of unconvincing tests at fullback before everything clicked for him. O’Connor’s best position could be winger, or outside centre, or inside centre – who knows? The more he gets involved, the better the Wallabies look.