In the Wallaby backrow – less is more

Andrew Logan Columnist

By Andrew Logan, Andrew Logan is a Roar Expert

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    Former Wallaby, Australian coach and ARU president Bill McLaughlin once ran a critical team meeting in Potchefstroom before the second Test of the 1963 tour of South Africa.

    The Wallabies had kicked away possession over the previous Test and been soundly beaten, and McLaughlin knew that the Australians only hope was to take on the Springboks in the true spirit of Australian rugby – running the ball.

    “I’m sick of this ball straight to the 5/8 and kicking for touch” said McLaughlin. “Australian teams have always been known for running the ball, and that’s what we’ll do from now on”.

    History shows that the underrated Wallabies, went on to become the first team to win consecutive Tests against the Springboks in South Africa since 1896 – a feat that the All Blacks didn’t manage until Sean Fitzpatrick’s 1996 tourists.

    McLaughlin’s plea to his ’63 side could equally apply to the current Wallabies as they head into the World Cup in 2007, particularly in the 6, 7 and 8 conundrum.

    The 1963 Wallabies eventually found a large piece of their winning puzzle in their backrow, which had morphed from a big heavy trio in 1962 (featuring Peter Crittle and Rob Heming, both eventually outstanding second rowers for Australia) to a light, fast and athletic model in 1963, featuring the mercurial Greg Davis, the aggressive and physical Jules Guerassimoff and an athletic runner with great ball skills at 8, in Dr John O’Gorman.

    The balance of the backrow was important. Greg Davis was a flanker in the Smith/Waugh mould – an inexhaustible chaser and fetcher who was always there and who made life miserable for opposing backs. His crony Jules Guerassimoff was the firebrand. “Big Julie” was a crash tackler and clean out merchant extrordinaire, who often hammered opposing backs out of the game.

    Had selectors continued to use Heming at no. 8 as they had done the previous year though, the backrow would have taken on a heavier, tighter appearance, and although more dominant in the lineout, would have lacked the ability to link effectively with Catchpole and Hawthorne in the backs.

    The same is true of the Wallabies in 2007. Smith/Waugh and Elsom are ideally balanced as the fetcher and intimidator pairing, and so the no. 8 becomes the crucial piece of the puzzle. This is where Wycliffe Palu becomes a liability. Heavy though he may be, the Palu athleticism is not in the same class as Stephen Hoiles, and his workrate is less. The other alternative, David Lyons, has been true servant of the Wallabies, but his play is predictable and his offload is non-existent.

    Hoiles and O’Gorman have much in common. Light and fast, with excellent hands, they both have the athleticism of backs, indeed O’Gorman played in the backs until his final year at St Josephs where he immediately played GPS firsts when switched to no. 8.

    Both have the ability to create a viable extra man in the backline, with the necessary skills to continue a movement, and also the necessary speed to make the most of a break when it appears.

    It could have been argued that against the massive Springbok pack in 1963, that the Wallabies needed as much muscle as they could muster. In fact the opposite was true – they needed as much speedy support for their brilliant backs as they could find.

    Against dominant forward packs in 2007, the Wallabies may also learn the same lesson, that in the case of a balanced backrow in front of a brilliant backline – less is more.

    Andrew Logan
    Andrew Logan

    Andrew Logan has played rugby for over 25 years. A contributor to The Roar since its inception, he also writes for Inside Rugby magazine, and Super Rugby and international match day programs. A regular panellist on ABC Grandstand discussing rugby and other sports, Andrew has appeared on ABC's The Drum and also Sky Sportsline. He has convened and managed several touring sides including the Australian Rugby Sevens team on the IRB circuit, and the Australian Barbarians XV.

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    The Crowd Says (8)

    • July 20th 2007 @ 2:40pm
      jameswm said | July 20th 2007 @ 2:40pm | ! Report

      Ironic that Lyons getting injured has arguably made us a stronger team. Ditto Huxley – don’t forget AAC played most of the season at fullback for the Brumbies, so he knows what he’s doing. I wish they would have given Turner a go on one of the wings, but anyway…

      I disagree a little on one point though – I think Palu is ideally suited to starting the match. Our forwards tend to improve in matches as the game wears on, and having Palu there early steadies the ship and lets us retain possession more easily when getting outmuscled. We have tried running the ball from the first whistle and it doesn’t work – you have to earn the right to throw it wide and I say bring Hoiles on for thelast 30 or 50 – so about 10 miniutes either side of half time.

      Playing the ABs, they have power as well as athleticism and skill and this is what makes them a formidable opponent. But once we reach near-parity, we have been able to out-think them for a lot of the last 10 years, winning games we have had no right to. Our kicking game must be good on Sat, and for that we will rely a lot on Giteau and Gerrard. If we are within a score at half time, it could be very interesting. I really think the ABs need to blow us away in the 1st half, or it could get touch and go.

    • July 20th 2007 @ 4:18pm
      kenikenipat said | July 20th 2007 @ 4:18pm | ! Report

      Suprisingly, I agree with most of you’re opinion Andrew.

      Regarding Palu, I think someone just needs to pull him aside and say ‘Mate you are huge, you can break tackles and offload, you belong here’, and then he might perform to his ability. It’s his 6(maybe 12, as it’s a fair melon) inches between the ears that are letting him down.

      Hughie seems a good replacement for Rocky after he’s all tuckered out from intimidating. Hopefully he can find the balance between aggresion and his bodies limitations.

      Chisolm needs to take his opportunity this weekend. If he comes on in the row, stands at inside cent all day ,shovelling the ball on and not playing tight, he will not be going to France.

      So, if the balance in the loosies is right in the last ten to twenty minutes as well… we’ll smash the kiwi’s at the back end…again.

      Fingers crossed

    • July 20th 2007 @ 4:26pm
      ulysses said | July 20th 2007 @ 4:26pm | ! Report

      Well you have got your wish with Lyons out – Hoiles to start. And if Palu doesn’t recover for WC, he may be there for France as well.
      But what about reversing it – Hoiles for #12 next year…..?!

    • July 20th 2007 @ 4:47pm
      Bob Thomas said | July 20th 2007 @ 4:47pm | ! Report

      Interesting about Palu I have always seen him as a huge talent with an inferiority complex, particularly against the AB’s. A lot of these Island boys grow up worshipping the AB’s and then to play against them is like trying to play gods not players.

      If Palu wakes up to his ability and what he can do he will be one of the top 2 No 8’s in the world. He needs to have a chat to Willie O.

    • July 20th 2007 @ 9:49pm
      jools-usa said | July 20th 2007 @ 9:49pm | ! Report

      Andrew has described the ABs to a “T”.
      Wallabies must emulate & not be sucked into the SA/Pom mode of smash up front after mindless kicking…………….”for position”?
      Jools-USA

    • July 21st 2007 @ 12:12am
      Dexter William said | July 21st 2007 @ 12:12am | ! Report

      Totally agree with the other posts that the team would be better without Huxley and Lyons.

      Would really like to see Staniford coming into the game earlier. He runs straight and is hard to defend against in general play. The slowness in our attack recently allows defences to be set. And once the AB defence line is set, they have the hard men required to keep the attacks in check.

      That is why Gregan is ineffective, as he almost always move sideways in setting up attacking moves. It is very hard to get good line breaks when the defence is set.

      Really looking forward to the game. I sense that the ABs are nervous and as good as they are. we might have a chance to bring back the silverware.

      Cheers

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