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.