O’Neill’s World XV would be very different to most
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Australian rugby union player Ben Robinson, ARU chief executive John O'Neill and SANZAR CEO, Greg Peters. AAP Image/Paul Miller
There have been some interesting viewpoints emerging from the Australian Rugby Union this week in defence of the Wallabies.
The pugnacious John O’Neill has come out fighting, telling his accusers that the Wallabies’ injury list was an underrated factor in their recent performances.
“We haven’t lost foot soldiers. We have lost World XV players and lost them in numbers,” O’Neill told The Australian newspaper.
It is, of course, O’Neill’s job to stand up for his side against criticism. In fact, if he didn’t come out swinging you would want to know why. And there is some legitimacy in his claim that the Wallabies are down on quality.
But I’m not sure the defence stacks up to scrutiny, and there are also question marks over the underlying argument about how much the unavailable list is hurting them in comparison to other sides.
Let’s start with the specific claim that the Wallabies have lost World XV players “in numbers”.
Presumably, O’Neill is making reference to Will Genia, James O’Connor, James Horwill, and David Pocock. Let’s also be generous and include Quade Cooper and Kurtley Beale in that list, although whether Beale can be included when a lack of fitness has clearly been the main factor is debatable.
Of those players, Will Genia is the name that stands out. Gather a collection of rugby nationalities around a table and he is one of the few players that could produce a consensus. He has had his critics this year but he is the best halfback in the world, a really special player.
But the others? I’m not so sure. O’Connor’s best rugby has probably been on the right wing and that position would be occupied by Cory Jane. On recent form, Richie McCaw has extended the gap between himself and Pocock. Cooper and Beale’s cases – even before the injuries and subsequent loss of form – were already undermined by some rough edges in their games. Israel Dagg’s kicking game – so important in the All Blacks’ win on Saturday – has him ahead of Beale, even when he’s in shape.
Horwill is an interesting debate. With the absence of Brad Thorn and Bakkies Botha from the international game, there is a gap in the market for the world’s best tight-head lock. But the emergence of the likes of Luke Romano and Eben Etzebeth means that Horwill would only be one of quite a few contenders, and certainly not a certainty.
Europe’s challengers had a poor June and must be considered again after the November Tests, while there are too many wobbles in the Argentina lineout to satisfy the criteria.
The only other Wallaby deserving of a spot among the world’s best is Digby Ioane, but he has been available for the Wallabies. Genia himself has only missed one game to date (although his absence will become increasingly problematic as the season progresses). In short, O’Neill’s argument is a difficult one to prosecute.
Of course, the absentees are having some effect on the national cause. Michael Hooper has been outstanding but eventually the physicality lost as a result of Pocock’s injury will become evident, and O’Connor’s quick feet have been hard to replace.
Experienced hardheads Wycliff Palu and Stephen Moore have also left gaps. But a lot of the missing names – such as Joe Tomane, Christian Lealifaano, Dan Palmer – are firmly in the potential category, while there isn’t a lot between the likes of Sekope Kepu and Ben Alexander, or Lachie Turner and Dom Shipperley.
For comparison’s sake, let’s look at the Wallabies’ rivals. Injuries and the lure of overseas deals – a much greater drain on South Africa and New Zealand talent than Australia – have also been responsible for a raft of unavailable talent, including a number of certainties in any World XV.
Dan Carter, Sonny Bill Williams, Jerome Kaino and Richard Kahui would have played in the past two Tests had they been available for the All Blacks.
For South Africa, the big names include Schalk Burger, Jaque Fourie, Ryan Kankowski, Heinrich Brussow, JP Pietersen, Bakkies Botha, Fourie du Preez and Bismarck du Plessis.
Chunks of talent are out of the reach of each coach in The Rugby Championship. The missing players have been one factor in the Wallabies’ uncertain performances so far, but probably not a defining one.
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.
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