Deans has more tangible problems than a sceptical rugby public and a greedy union: he’s got a serious rash of injuries to contend with, and some of his marquee players are not just out of form on the pitch, they’re out of sorts off it. With a shallow playing pool like Australia, that’s a big deal. And it’s not as if the coach is blameless either: some of his selections – and some of his omissions – have hurt the Wallabies’ short-term prospects with little long-term pay-off.
The Captaincy Curse
There’s no getting around the anecdotal evidence that being named Wallaby captain is a short-cut to a long-term injury. Will Genia ruptured his ACL two weeks ago; David Pocock tore the cartilage in his knee against the All Blacks in mid-August and James Horwill ruptured his hamstring in late May, an injury from which he is currently in the late stages of recovery.
Of course, the model for all these captains’ injuries was Rocky Elsom. Elsom is only 10 months older than former Leinster team-mate Jamie Heaslip, but looks to be out of the pro game before his 30th birthday. The Wallaby blindside put in a monster 2008 Super Rugby campaign with the Waratahs that saw the New South Wales men contest only their second final of the Super Rugby tournament, a repeat of the 2005 final against the Crusaders – in which Elsom had also started – that unfortunately followed precedent and saw the New Zealand side again running out winners.
Following that he played eight test matches from 14 June [vs Ireland] until 13 September [vs New Zealand], and a mere two weeks after playing against the All Blacks in Brisbane he was lining out for Leinster in a season that would see him starting 21 games – only one of which he didn’t finish – from late September 2009 until late May 2009.
He was announced as the Wallaby captain [succeeding Stirling Mortlock] in October 2009, and the following season, his first with the Brumbies, he had a big impact for his new club, starting all 13 games in the last season of the Super 14.
Quite a lot of guff has been talked about Elsom collapsing under the pressure of captaincy; he was still well capable of performing at test level [if not necessarily at his career best], leading the Wallabies to a phenomenal, Kurtley Beale-sealed, last minute win over a full-strength Springbok team in Bloemfontein, that upset win over a strong All Blacks team in Hong Kong, and the enormous 59-16 thrashing of the French in November 2010 that seemed to signify the dawn of Dean’s first great Wallaby team.
However, since turning 28 years old at the start of 2011, Elsom has been plagued by injury after injury; he has only started three Super Rugby games over the last two seasons. He has been a huge loss, because Super Rugby has failed to breed competitive Aussie forwards during the time when Deans has been in charge.
Where’re All The Hardchaws? Where’re The Flamin’ Gullahs?
Even though they didn’t play in John Connolly’s last match in charge, Tatafu Polota-Nau [first capped 2005], Benn Robinson  and James Horwill  were all in the Aussie set-up before Dingo pitched up; the only new forwards who have become Aussie regulars on his watch have been kinda-okay tighthead Ben Alexander [to whom Deans gave a Wallaby cap before he had debuted in Super Rugby] and all-world openside David Pocock. You can’t blame Deans for that – he’s given plenty of players chances, and they haven’t got the job done. Bar Scott Higginbotham [whom The Mole rates but Dingo is apparently conflicted about as a starter] nobody has really pushed himself into contention in the last four years. When you consider that Ireland have turned over half a pack in the same time frame under conservation-specialist Declan Kidney [Horan/Healy; Flannery/Best; Hayes/Ross; O’Callaghan/Ryan; Wallace/O’Brien], it’s apparent just how few Australian forwards have made a case for themselves.
It’s particularly relevant to the backrow. Deans has picked some pretty ordinary players – Ben McCalman , Dave Dennis  and Dick Brown  spring to mind – who haven’t thrived at test level.
Radike Samo [36 – allegedly] is the best that the Wallabies can do at No8 in the absence of permanent injury-worry Wycliff Palu . Palu actually managed a very reasonable amount of Super Rugby this season, but another shoulder injury in the penultimate game of the Waratah’s season – he fractured it before in June 2011– has kept him out of the Tri-Nations [he played all three games against Wales in June 2012, but there was a break in the Super Rugby calendar to allow for test matches, and he was injured in July]. This is on the back of a ruptured ACL in April 2010 and a torn hamstring at RWC11. The poor lad just rebounds from injury to injury.
When fit, Palu is worth his 120kg in gold because he can break tackles, simple as that. He’s a big, tackle-breaking monster who gets across the gainline an awful lot at test level … and the Wallabies are really missing that at the moment.
Welcome To Mungoville
That the Wallabies are lacking a big forward who can bosh it over the gainline is ironic, given that that’s basically the point of rugby league, which is bigger than ever in the country. However, in recent years the ARU have summarily failed to attract League players to cross codes. It’s a thorny issue, because the union/league divide is stronger in Australia than anywhere else in the world. The ARU might like to give the impression that it doesn’t care what the NRL is up to and that it doesn’t need NRL-bred players, but there’s nothing like getting one over the opposite code by attracting one of their star players to cross the great divide.
And the union/league divide is as deep in Australia as it was in the UK pre-1995, when the northern code was pro and union was amateur. It’s more than friendly rivalry; there’s a fair bit of class war between the codes. Union fans can be snooty about league, but on the other hand, some of the behaviour of league players over the years has been deplorable. Whether it’s shitting in hotel corridors, racism, allegations of gang rape or numerous cases of drunken criminality, NRL players have dragged their code through the dirt and been forgiven by virtue of their performances on the pitch.
The team that reached the RWC03 final on home soil was bulwarked by a back three of league converts [Mat Rogers, Wendell Sailor and Lote Tuqiri] who were lured away from NRL and State of Origin by a one-off extravaganza … namely a home World Cup. There’s a strong argument that says the Wallabies would have done just as well to say with home-grown players like Joe Roff [who retired from international rugby before he turned 30, having won 86 test caps] and Chris ‘Latho’ Latham ahead of Big Dell and Rogers, but Lote Tuqiri was a flat-out superstar who scored thirty test tries in his six-year Wallaby career. He was well worth it, and others might be too.
Though the NRL is popular – and State of Origin especially so – it’s not the commercially dominant force in Australian sport that the NFL is in America or the Premiership is in England. It’s big, but it’s not huge. While the Brisbane Broncos [average home attendance 33,377], the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs [average home attendance 23,572] and the Newcastle Knights [average home attendance 20,909] bring in the punters, the average attendance in 2012 over the 192 games of the regular season was 16,423. That’s more than the Aviva Premiership’s 12,925 and the Pro12‘s 7,520 but less than half the average crowd of the Barclay’s Premiership. Fully half of the 16 teams have an average crowd of less than 15,000. Australia’s a sports-mad country with a great climate, so attendances of less than 15,000 aren’t all that special.
Old blowhards like to make a lot of the fact that Wendell Sailor never really transferred his enormous abilities in the league game across, but there’s little doubt that a big name league signing energizes the union game in Australia and drags in casual sports fans. With the Lions series – a massive draw – to come in less than a year’s time, the Wallabies are leaving it late to stock up on some NRL backup … but while they’re short of NRL talent, they’re unfortunately not short of NRL attitude.
Brilliant Backline – Dodgy Discipline
A number of the brilliant young Wallaby backline have had discipline issues for pretty much the entire Deans era.
Quade Cooper and Kurtley Beale have both been charged with relatively serious crimes. Quade was charged with burglary back in December 2009 and more recently, Beale was charged with assault. The Mole is of the opinion that Quade has wound his neck in – not necessarily in terms of his tweeting or public proclamations, but at least in terms of not getting arrested – but Curly Bill looks like he’s still spiraling.
Guff-spouting Sky Sports smoothie Scott Johnson said of portly Beale a couple of weeks ago that “he used to be able to beat you in a phonebox; now he can’t even get into the phonebox.” Beale has previous with the pies: before the 2009 Super Rugby season, the Waratahs strength and conditioning team put him on a strict nutrition plan to lose some of the pudge. Unfortunately, since he has moved to the Melbourne Rebels he looks to have totally lost the run of himself. It’s a move that has panned out for precisely nobody: not Beale, not the Rebels, not the Wallabies and not Deans.
Hot-tempered larrikin James O’Connor has similarly had his disciplinary issues, but enforced time away from the game and just getting a little bit older and more mature might have allowed him to turn the corner and realise that while the whole rugby lark is easy for him, it’s also important for other people.
For all three players, maturity is the key issue [unless they’re actual nutcases, which isn’t necessarily out of the question]. One of Deans’ crucial early decisions as coach was to axe Stirling Mortlock as captain and hand over the armband to Rocky Elsom. Rocky might have been the best blindside in the world at the time and thus more sure of his place in the side, and he might have had a better age profile, and figured more prominently in Deans’ plans for the future, but he never showed – or even hinted – that he was a better captain than the man he replaced.
Mortlock’s last game for the Wallabies was in August 2009, against South Africa in Capetown. With glorious 20-20 hindsight – twennytwenny heinzight, to those in the know, being the best kind of heinzight – The Mole is convinced that Deans should have kept him on for the next calendar year, while he introduced Genia, Cooper, O’Connor and Beale into the team around him. As it turned out, those four players emerged into a leadership vacuum. Even if James Horwill [a better captain than Elsom] had been appointed first off, there still would have been a deficit of leadership in the backline.
Adam Ashley-Cooper had the experience [who knows if he has the personality?], but has been pushed all over the park throughout his career; even though the vast majority of his 71 test caps are starts, he has never conclusively nailed down a jersey in the Wallaby backline. Go figure. I think he’s a No13, and that he should have been retained as No13 once Deans made the decision that Mortlock had to go. That’s how Deans started, playing him there for the rest of the 2009 Tri-Nations, but then he switched him to fullback for the November tour, then to winger, and it has been musical chairs since then. ‘Two Dads’ would have far more credibility as a leader if he was simply bolted into the No13 jersey, rather than vacating it for pretty ordinary players like Anthony Faingaa and Rob Horne, but his versatility is obviously too tempting for the coach too ignore. As a result, there has been no senior figure in the Wallaby backline, and the unruly yoof have thrown their toys out of the pram, scrawled crayon on the walls and dribbled on the carpet.
As commenter Davus wrote in response to Pt.1 “… the surrounding hype and their ordination as world beating leaders of the Wallabies happened far too quickly and went straight to their heads … Their behaviour and the emergence of a ‘team within a team’ has apparently shattered the long cultivated togetherness within the Wallabies dressingroom.”
The Mortlock decision was indicative of Deans’ attitude to clearing a tabula rasa and rebuilding the Wallabies in his own image. We wrote about Dingo’s ageist selection policy almost a year ago to the day in this article, and twelve months on I’d stand by pretty much every word of it.
Deans actually picked 22-year old Rob Simmons on the bench ahead of Nathan Sharpe for the RWC11 game against Ireland … and then he kept on plugging away with that selection until they were knocked out by New Zealand in the semi-final. Simmons ahead of Sharpe. Faaaaack.
I know we’ve recently written that provincial or franchise partnerships can sometimes add up to more than the sum of their parts, but Simmons is simply nowhere near Sharpe as a player … but then again, Deans’ selection might have been more about Sharpe than Simmons. He had already parachuted Dan Vickerman in ahead of the Western Force man with unseemly haste following the former’s return to Australian rugby. Vickerman had played three or four games for Northampton in 2010 while he was pursuing his degree in Cambridge and only couple of Super Rugby games for the Waratahs at the end of the 2011 Super Rugby season before he was recalled to Aussie gold, but that was at least a debatable selection call: the big South African-born lock is an enormous mutant [204cm/6’8”+ and 119kg/18st10lbs] and he had put together a good body of test work between 2002-2008 [albeit not as impressive as Sharpe’s, at least not in The Mole’s opinion].
Anyway, selection is a coach’s prerogative. Deans obviously felt that Horwill needed a dedicated hardman beside him in the row in the tournament, which seems a bit odd: Big Kev is a hard nut himself, and Sharpey is no wuss. Those two would seem to form a pretty ideal partnership between size, athleticism, toughness and ball-skills, while the Horwill/Vickerman duo gave you a bit more aggression at the expense of a lot of football.
However, while you can make a reasonable, if not particularly convincing, argument for picking Vickerman in the starting XV, picking Rob Simmons ahead of Sharpe is just a f*cking daft selection. Daft. Now Deans has, to all effects and purposes, come crawling back to Sharpey in his hour of need, appointing him as his fifth captain of the last eighteen months [Elsom, Horwill, Pocok, Genia, Sharpe], and – as ever – Sharpey has stood up to be counted.
Alienating Matt Giteau – incidentally, that was the concern of our first ever blog post – was no brighter. Having Scott Higginbotham, the best ball-carrier in the Aussie pack currently available, sitting on the bench … wull gee whuz, Smuddy.
… And Upshots
One positive you can extract from the slag heap of injury problems, disciplinary issues, loss of form and selection missteps – if the people involved recover/screw their heads on/have some luck/see sense – is that the Wallabies have given more than a fair bit of high class gametime to players some way down the depth chart. While that’s not necessarily a good thing for short term results, it’s never a bad thing for long-term health.The injury issue is enormous. The discipline issue? It’s probably peaked, unless someone goes all Craig Gower at the next Wallaby box social. However, the combination of the injuries, discipline, lack of leadership from the top and key players losing form has led to a serious morale problem, which seemingly gets worse by the day.
How’s it going to pan out for the Wallabies with the Lions on the way within the next twelve months? In the [concluding] Part 4, we’ll look at Australia’s current place in the rugby world, and whether they can again attain the status of their 1999-2001 era forebears.