Overlooked Chiefs show the size of Robbie Deans’ task
The Sharks couldn't contain the Chiefs in the Super Rugby final (AAP/NZN Image/SNPA, Ross Setford)
By fortuitous coincidence, I became a new resident of Hamilton on the eve of the Super Rugby finals campaign.
For the princely combined sum of $NZ35, I have taken my place in the uncovered Greenzone at Waikato Stadium over the past two weeks and watched some of the world’s best rugby talent, coached by some of the world’s sharpest rugby minds, tear into each other at the semi-final and final stage of Super Rugby.
Also thrown in for free were the uninhibited opinions of the locals packed around me (although I may have detected a certain pro-Chiefs bias in the commentary).
Frank assessments are also commonly provided in Waikato public houses (“we hate Quade Cooper because he can’t tackle and he’s good”) and sports shops (“Sonny Bill won’t make it back into the All Blacks, there’ll be someone else to replace him”).
Should it be your wish, you can immerse yourself in rugby each day, from the radio programs with breakfast to schoolboy rugby in the afternoons and analytical shows in the evenings.
It can border on the suffocating but what a nonsense it makes of the claim that is sometimes aired that the Waratahs players struggle because they are under too much scrutiny in Sydney.
It also encapsulates just what the Wallabies are up against.
In New Zealand, rugby is king, queen and parliament.
That very thought was brought home while watching the performances of two players – Robbie Robinson and Tim Nanai-Williams – in the Chiefs v Sharks final on Saturday.
Both has significant roles to play in the Chiefs’ victory, with their pace and evasiveness a key plank in the Chiefs’ attack.
They counterattacked with purpose – often preferring to keep the ball in hand and set up the next phase even when the defence was set – and offered themselves as runners to No.10 Aaron Cruden.
The Chiefs’ crucial opening try came as Nanai-Williams spotted a mismatch against Jannie du Plessis and dashed past some understandably weary defence from the Sharks.
Yet neither Nanai-Williams nor Robinson have been even mentioned all year in terms of All Blacks selection. Their distance from the All Blacks squad – there are simply better options ahead of them – is a note of warning while appraising the 30-man Wallabies squad announced yesterday.
Robbie Deans’ unit is a collection of extreme talent in a limited number of positions – halfback, fullback, wing and No.7 – and significant question marks in many others.
Although there are cases to be made that a few players were unfortunate to miss out (Dom Shipperley must have come very close), none of those excluded would significantly alter the overall quality of the squad.
Ben Mowen is unlucky but clearly does not fit the selection philosophy, with Deans opting for size, power and athleticism in the back row.
The challenges facing the coach are exacerbated when you consider that the likes of James O’Connor, James Horwill and Wycliff Palu are in the casualty ward while others such as Kurtley Beale, Drew Mitchell and Quade Cooper are short of top-level rugby.
Already the New Zealand bookmakers have made their opinions clear with odds of $NZ1.50 offered on the All Blacks winning the Rugby Championship, with the Springboks at $NZ4.25 and the Wallabies at $NZ5.00. Newcomers Argentina are at $NZ100.
Those quotes might be a little flattering to the South Africans but the Australian conference’s dreadful record against sides from the Republic this year is clearly outweighing the Wallabies’ recent successes against the Springboks.
Regardless, the short price on the All Blacks is indicative of the size of the task faced by Deans and his new coaching panel.
They will have to be alchemists to conjure up a winning formula with a squad that looks light in quality in the pack and midfield.
The Wales series win was full of character and moments of class. But now the Wallabies need to take their game not just to another level, but another planet.
Paul Cully is a freelance journalist who was born in New Zealand, raised in Northern Ireland, but spent most of his working life in Australia. He is a former Sun-Herald sports editor, rugby tragic, and current Roar and RugbyHeaven contributor.