You’d rightly be concerned for the bus’s well-being, initially. But looking beyond the literal, just how good is the depth of Australian No. 7s behind the premier openside in the country?
The public bus test is something that I like to apply from time to time because it forces immediate contemplation of something that you otherwise wouldn’t want to consider.
I most recently applied it to the spin-bowling ranks within Australian cricket, and the answer there – worryingly – is still no clearer.
Nevertheless, in New Zealand during the Rugby World Cup late last year, Pocock was hit by the metaphorical bus. The Wallabies, and more specifically the selection and planning of coach Robbie Deans, were left to look a little foolish as a result.
Happily, Pocock is again fit and firing, and seems to have taken to the Western Force captaincy like a duck to water. And with another Super Rugby competition under way, and with the international season nearing, are Australia’s openside stocks any better?
Happily, I think they are. Paul Cully did too, about a month ago, but I think things have improved even since then.
Looking around the five Australian teams, I think it’s now safe to conclude that there is considerably more depth behind Pocock than there was, and even more than when the Rugby World Cupn squad was selected. Ben McCalman shouldn’t have to worry about resuming his unsuccessful understudy role any time soon.
While the Reds have essentially kept their championship forward pack together, it’s interesting to note what is either the promotion of young Liam Gill, or the drop off of Beau Robinson.
Robinson is probably still in front of the apprentice for the moment, but there isn’t a lot of difference between the two at the breakdown. If Robinson is still in front, it can’t be by much now. Gill has really come along after gaining experience off the bench last year, though is still prone to the odd brain explosion infringement that youth creates.
That said, Robinson has been off the mark so far this year, perhaps a barometer for how the Reds are going in general. If he has any designs on adding to his sole Wallaby appearance, he has to reclaim both the No. 7 jersey and his 2011 form within the next month.
Apart from once-warm pies, the Canberra Stadium media box is perched directly above the commentary and coaches boxes, and it was from this perfectly elevated vantage point that I paid close attention to young Brumby Michael Hooper last weekend.
Hooper won all the plaudits and platitudes for his demolition job on the Highlanders a few weeks back, and there’s no question his star is rising rapidly.
What was noticeable about Hooper was the way he operates within the middle thirty or so metres of the field, and particularly how well he picks his times to attack the breakdown. It’s probably not that much different to how Pocock operates, though I don’t recall Pocock having the same patience at the same age.
That’s not to say that Hooper is destined to better Pocock, just that he clearly has a wise head on young shoulders. 2012 might be a bit soon for higher honours, but I’m quite certain Hooper will play for Australia sooner rather than later.
Pat McCutcheon started the season as the Waratahs’ preferred openside, but his horrible ankle break in Dunedin has opened the door for Chris Alcock to continue where he left off in 2011.
Alcock plays with a different level of physicality to McCutcheon, and it was for this reason that many a Roarer suggested he should’ve been wearing the New South Wales No. 7 from the outset in 2012. You could say that Alcock has the size to play the game that Phil Waugh always tried to.
Down in Melbourne, it was interesting to see young Tom Chamberlain had been keeping England international Michael Lipman on the bench up until this week, especially when the Rebel’s own profiles list Chamberlain as a blindside.
And it’s obvious that he is a blindsider, because he doesn’t play that natural ‘fetcher’ role even as well as Jarrod Saffy does. This in itself is interesting, too, because I do wonder if the thought has been given to playing Saffy at openside.
Though Saffy and Chamberlain’s dimensions are essentially the same, Saffy looks to be the more natural openside build. Chamberlain’s impressive tackling stats wouldn’t be lost at blindside either way. If someone from the Army could arrange that for me, that’d be grouse, as you guys put it.
This brings me back to Perth, where I’ve had similar thoughts about Pocock and Matt Hodgson. Like the two Rebels, Hodgson and Pocock share similar height and weight proportions, though to see them in the flesh you would swear Hodgson was the smaller, openside build. There’s no other way of saying it, Pocock’s bloody enormous now.
I think the Force have got it right this season, though, playing Hodgson at No. 8 in McCalman’s absence, because it’s essentially allowed Hodgson to play as a second opensider, with Richard Brown and Angus Cottrell both playing well so far on the blind.
It shouldn’t really make much difference from playing at blindside, but Hodgson seems to be relishing the extra freedom to roam at the breakdown and in attack from No. 8, and indeed, scored one of the tries of the year last weekend against the Reds.
The depth behind Pocock might be a bit stronger now, and I’ll be keeping an eye on how Hooper and Gill progress over the rest of the Super Rugby season, but Hodgson still looks to be heading the queue behind his Western Force skipper at the moment.
We still don’t need Pocock to go near public buses, of course, but at least if the worst-case scenario returns, we’re a lot better equipped than we were not too long ago.