Race for Wallabies number 10 jersey heating up
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Wallaby Kurtley Beale speaks with teammate James O'Connor and coach Robbie Deans.
All the talk this week has been on David Pocock’s injury, which is a colossal blow for the Wallabies.
As professional coaches have to do in this day and age, Robbie Deans will not be afforded time to think of the ‘what ifs’ and will be moving forward with a contingency plan that would have already been put in place some time ago given the high-risk position of a number seven in rugby.
If anything, Deans won’t have to look too far to see the blueprint to overcoming the loss of a key player for such a big series.
Just a little under two years ago, New Zealand was facing a national crisis when a few weeks into the 2011 Rugby World Cup which they were hosting on home soil, when they lost their golden boy Dan Carter to a horror training-ground injury.
The All Blacks went on to lose both their two next choice number 10s and it was the discarded and often ridiculed Stephen Donald who famously stepped up to kick the penalty which ultimately clinched the All Blacks the tournament.
Speaking of number tens, I believe that the Wallabies chances of winning the forthcoming series hinge largely on who they select in this pivotal jersey.
There are three contenders, each of them well known to us. The contenders are the ‘three amigos’, the players who seem to have found themselves in the papers more often over the past few years for off-field indiscretions rather than on-field exploits.
The three players are of course Quade Cooper, Kurtley Beale and James O’Connor.
Cooper was the established pivot who has run himself into injury, form and Twitter problems during the past few years. Beale is the incumbent in the position, and O’Connor is the upstart.
Let’s start with Quade Cooper. Casting your mind back to the 2011 Super Rugby season where Cooper could do no wrong and was at his mesmerising best, masterminding the Reds to their maiden title and playing a key role in their famous victory over the Crusaders in the final.
At the time he was being hailed as the second best fly-half in the world and about to knock Carter off the perch at the top of that list.
As we know now, the good times were not going to last. We all know what happened 2011 in the Rugby World Cup, where Cooper who had by that stage become New Zealand’s Public Enemy Number One, stuttered through the tournament.
He had an absolute shocker in the semi-final before being put out of his misery in the third versus fourth playoff with a serious knee injury.
Cooper came back in 2012 only to be struck down with injury once again before then suffering some sort of brain explosion and tweeting then voicing his dislike of the ‘toxic’ environment in the Wallabies camp.
Beale, the precocious talent that he is, was arguably the best fullback in the world in 2011 before spluttering through 2012 and then stepping into Cooper’s shoes and making the ten jersey his own on the 2012 Spring Tour.
Finally O’Connor, ruled out for most of the 2012 season is perhaps the most talented of the lot.
A utility who can play virtually anywhere in the backline, O’Connor started on the wing or at fullback and has gradually moved his way in closer to the jersey he has openly admitted that he wants more than any other, the number ten.
So, who will Deans pick when he comes to choose his side for the opening test? Who will wear the jersey made famous by illustrious names such as Ella, Lynagh and Larkham?
Deans will look closely at all the options. He will know that Lions series are the biggest, most intense matches outside of Rugby World Cup games.
One need only look at the 2005 series in New Zealand, where the All Blacks played some of the most sublime rugby ever seen, or the 2009 series which was one of the most physically brutal, tough encounters witnessed in the modern era.
Deans will realise that big matches need big temperament players.
In my opinion, this will rule Cooper out. Too often has Cooper been found wanting on the big occasion.
In 2011, people will only recall his abject performances in the Rugby World Cup, highlighted by his showing in the Eden Park semi-final.
People forget how poor Cooper was at the same ground in the preceding Tri Nations game against the All Blacks, where he repeatedly made bad decision after bad decision and put his team under all sorts of problems at the wrong end of the field.
As Graham Henry mentioned in his recent book, whenever the All Blacks came up against the Wallabies, the All Blacks would target Cooper as the weak link.
There is no doubt the Lions would look to replicate this strategy if they find Cooper starting in the fly-half jersey.
On top of this, Deans is not a man to let bygones be bygones. His time as assistant coach of the All Blacks was blighted by strong decisions over players he thought weren’t right for the team, the famous names of Cullen and Merhtens are just a couple who spring to mind.
Deans will not have forgotten about Cooper’s indiscretions in criticising the Wallabies and is unlikely to want a player of his disruptive nature anywhere near the team.
O’Connor is the type of x-factor player the Wallabies need. He is the kind of player who can create something out of nothing and has an all-round game the Wallabies will rely heavily on come the test series.
His ability to run, distribute and kick will put him in strong consideration for the ten jersey but it is these traits which I believe Deans will employ at fullback rather than fly half.
This leaves Beale. The incumbent did enough on the end of year tour last year to have convinced Deans that he is the man for the job.
His experience, where he slightly edges O’Connor, and game management which is a tad more developed than O’Connor’s will mean that he is the answer and he will thus be charged with directing his side around the paddock trying to emulate some of those famous Wallaby names of days gone by.
Of course, I could have this all wrong, perhaps Cooper will prove his critics wrong, perhaps Deans isn’t as stubborn as some make him out to be, only time will tell.
One thing is certain, whoever is selected in that number ten jersey will be pivotal to whether the Wallabies win or lose the series.
The race is on.