Points of happiness in an otherwise unfulfilling season
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Wallabies coach Robbie Deans prior to the Bledisloe Cup match between Australia and New Zealand. (AAP Image/Dave Hunt)
Before my sporting focus moves into this wacky, conflicted time on the calendar where runs overlap with rucks, I thought it was worth giving the Wallabies domestic season one last poring over to find some semblance of positivity.
It was a season in which everything that could go wrong just about did, save for losing every game. But even then, those three Rugby Championship wins and the Bledisloe draw were all close-run things.
Happily, there were still a few things to like about the Wallabies in 2012, and here’s five things that were worth enduring all the angst, all the frustration, all the annoyance, all the head scratching, all the remote throwing, all the… well, you get the picture.
I generally find predictions about best-and-fairest winners to be a lottery, but I would think Hooper has to have established a healthy tally for the John Eales Medal already.
It has to be the ultimate compliment of Hooper’s first full season in the Gold no.7 jersey that suggestions now abound as to whether David Pocock could or should return on the blindside flank, or even at number 8.
Hooper’s speed off the mark often found opposition defenders having to act quicker than anticipated, and his ability to break the first tackle so regularly is fast becoming a feature of his game. His 70m dash off the back of a lineout in Rosario was a perfect highlight of just how quick across the ground he is.
He regularly tops tackle counts, and is always right up there with his metres run. If there’s one aspect he can improve on, it’s his pilfering numbers which, while still good, perhaps should be a touch higher considering he’s often first Wallaby defender on the scene.
He does, however have time on his side to rectify this, and it’s scary to think how good he could be in even five or six years’ time, never mind ten.
I’ve already admitted – and I was happy to do it – that my preconceptions about Sitaleki Timani as a Wallaby were off the mark. Credit to those who spruiked him as an option early in the piece while I could still only see questionable fitness and hands like feet.
I will say, though, that admitting you’re wrong about judging a player’s ability to take the next step in spite of the form he’d shown is actually a rather nice, fuzzy-tummy feeling.
Timani has just gone from strength to strength in the Wallaby jumper this year, and it’s certainly a welcome addition to have his extra size and presence in the second row. He presents a bulk that hasn’t been seen in an Australian lock for a while now.
As was the case with Hooper above, I still have one little gripe about Timani’s game, and that’s his lack of use in the lineout. I realise this probably isn’t something he has much say in, but you can’t help but feel the waste in a two-metre-plus lock being stationed in midfield on your own throw. It’s like leaving the V8 in the garage and taking a hybrid out for a Sunday jaunt.
Depth at Lock is still a concern for the Wallabies, and Robbie Deans’ suggestion to me back in July that the “locking stocks probably aren’t that flash” still rings true now, even with the likes of Hugh Pyle, Caderyn Neville, and co. in sight of the national side.
Kane Douglas got an opportunity against Argentina on the Gold Coast, where he had a belter on debut, and has already learnt the lesson in subsequent outings that this Test Rugby thing doesn’t always go your way.
Regardless, he’s quickly established himself as a genuine Test Lock and, with similar dimensions to his Waratahs teammate Timani, you can see the Wallabies having some good size in this department once James Horwill is back to full fitness next year.
More impressively, Douglas showed the likes of Pyle, Neville, and even Rob Simmons the benefits of making the most of any opportunity given.
Ben Tapuai and Nick Cummins
I could easily have separated these two guys into their own points of happiness, but their inclusion here is more about the future than of their performances themselves. Australian rugby depth can’t be all bad when guys like these two emerge.
Neither Tapuai nor Cummins looked out of their depth in their late-season outings, and both showed a preference to take the defences on directly wherever possible, which has made a nice change for the early tendency to kicking everything and anything.
Tapuai, especially, looks to be forming a nice combination with Pat McCabe in midfield, and while there are plenty of valid questions as to how or why it took so long for this union to surface, I see no concerns with the Wallabies going forward with this centre pairing.
Cummins, as an aside, also provided some of the funniest quotes to go to print this season. Do yourself a favour and find Cummins’ descriptions on what a honey badger supposedly did to a lion; genuine laugh-out-loud stuff in what is often a sea of cliché.
The last two Tests under Nathan Sharpe’s late-blooming captaincy have not only produced some quality displays of character and patience, but also a factor that all-too-many Wallaby supporters have been suggesting for some time has been missing: the Wallabies showed a bit of mongrel.
Aggression at the breakdown, intent in the tackle area, and some good signs of a scrum being able to hold its own against some of the best packs on the planet have all been noted. Scott Higginbotham, it should be said, also showed good quantities of mongrel in his last appearance, if perhaps not a whole lot of subtlety to go with it.
It’s all about what Michael Chieka talks about in his now-fabled quote of wanting to see “a bit of dog” in his Waratahs next year. It’s not about thuggery or dirty play (are you still with me, Scott?), but about showing the Wallabies won’t be intimidated by records or reputations, and will stand up to whoever’s in front of them.
And let’s hope there’s more if it, and other signs of improvement in Europe over the next month.
Brett McKay is a former non-tackling scrumhalf and not-quite-1st Grade middle order stalwart. A rugby and cricket expert for The Roar since July 2009 (having joined in Sept 2008), Brett has written for Inside Rugby and Cricket Australia, and is also PLAY Canberra's rugby correspondent. He tweets from @BMcSport
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