Will Deans utilise Wallabies’ impressive depth?
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Could Robbie Deans save the Crusaders? (AAP Image/Dave Hunt)
The last time I was this optimistic about player depth in Australian rugby, John Eales slotted a last minute penalty goal to sink New Zealand in Wellington.
It was in the middle of a fantastic period of Australian rugby between 1998 and 2002, where Australia won eight of 11 Bledisloe Cup matches contested, won a Rugby World Cup, and finally prevailed over the Lions. True domination.
I was optimistic because Rod Macqueen had installed a sense of pride and privilege in the Wallabies jumper that was rarely seen before.
Every player knew they had worked hard to wear gold and knew that if they didn’t continue to work hard, the next cab off the rank would snatch that gold jersey off their backs. A prime example was the rise and fall of Wallaby Tom Bowman.
Flash-forward to the period between 2009 and 2012 and Robbie Deans, rightly or wrongly, has a select bunch of favourites who are marched into the Wallabies regardless of form or off field behaviour.
While Deans certainly does play favourites, I concede in some situations there just hasn’t been a viable option, ie. Wycliff Palu at number eight.
What the Brumbies, Reds and a smattering of players from both the Rebels and Force have shown throughout 2012, and now in 2013, is that Deans finally has those extra options.
Whether he chooses them is another matter altogether.
A perfect example is Kurtley Beale. His form at fullback at the beginning of the 2012 Test season was diabolical. I have never been so embarrassed regarding the performance of a fullback for Australia as I was that night against the All Blacks in Sydney.
But in all honesty, who else would you pick?
This year I don’t think we have to indulge Beale and the lack of responsibility he shows with regards to his own body and personal fitness.
We have Jesse Mogg who has kicked on from 2012 with an excellent start to 2013. He has the huge kicking game of Latham with the deceptive speed of Joe Roff, coupled with the ability to play the ball both sides of the body.
Sure his defence was suspect at times in 2012, but he has never ever been bad as Beale was that night against New Zealand.
Quade Cooper is another. I have defended this guy no end, and I believe he is still the best option for the Wallabies at 10, despite starting slowly this year.
But you cannot deny that the Brumbies player-makers, Christian Lealiifano and Matt Toomua are developing into true alternates.
This is only healthy for Australian rugby. It means Cooper has to pull his finger out and improve his decision making around the park, or risk being overtaken by the other two contenders.
On Saturday night, when the news came through that David Pocock would miss the Lions series, I was disappointed for him as a person, however I wasn’t too concerned about the open-side flanker replacements we have on offer.
This isn’t 2011, and we now have Michael Hooper, the indisputable form Wallaby of 2012, and Liam Gill, arguably the form player in Super Rugby this year so far.
This is before we even begin to speculate over George Smith, who made a triumphant home coming after stints in Japan and France.
Whichever way Deans decides to go, I think it would be hard to argue the impact on the Wallabies would be as great as it was in 2011 at the Rugby World Cup.
This situation is playing out in most positions across Australian rugby. The contenders in many positions are hungry and are putting in huge efforts to force Deans’ hand when it comes to selection.
Perennial starters in positions we formally lacked depth are going to have to lift their game to overcome other contenders who have been putting their hand up for a number of seasons now.
For example, Benn Robinson is no longer a guaranteed walk up, and he is going to have to work very hard to discover form we haven’t seen since 2009, and prove he is worthy.
It is nice to speculate on the depth, which I believe is developing in Australian rugby. However the question remains, will Robbie Deans have the ‘big ones’ to pick in-form contenders if the incumbents don’t lift their game?
After all, what’s the point of depth if you don’t utilise it?