Stephen Larkham: Remembering Bernie

Garth Hamilton Roar Guru

By Garth Hamilton, Garth Hamilton is a Roar Guru

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    Brumbies Stephen Larkham looks for support - AAP Image/Alan Porritt
    In the post John Eales era there have been few players that Australia have relied more upon to deliver them success than Stephen Larkham.

    He has defined the way Australia play for the best part of a decade and for long periods of his career he set the standard internationally for fly half play. For a player who has influenced the outcome of so many games during his career it was tragic to see him retire without touching a ball after the ‘Miracle at Marseilles’.

    To look back on Larkham’s career is to look back on the rise and fall of the Wallabies at the turn of the millennium. If rugby indeed is played in cycles then Larkham’s career spanned a full one. From the depths of the 1997 defeat to Argentina to the highs of the 1999 World Cup and the first series defeat of the Lions in 2001, Larkham helped guide the Wallabies rise and fought to hold off the regrettable fall that resulted in the notoriously poor tour of the northern hemisphere in 2005.

    A superb playmaker who always attacked the advantage line, Larkham perfectly fitted the bill as the fly half to orchestrate new coach, MacQueen’s multiphase game play. A rugged and willing defender, Larkham was also the right man to step up to John Muggleton’s disciplined defensive structure. This defence famously held against all comers in the world cup bar the United States as the Wallabies marched on to victory and Muggleton’s work is credited with starting the world wide improvement in this area of the game.

    The first game of the 2000 Bledisloe Cup saw perhaps the best game of Larkham’s career. Having conceded 3 tries in the space of 7 minutes the Wallabies could have been expected to take in the shock that filled their supporters at the ground and in bars and lounge rooms around the world. Instead Larkham got down to business. With the first good ball the Wallabies had seen the fly half made a gap in the defence where there wasn’t one. Whatever the All Blacks could throw at them, Larkham refused to lose his head or concede an early defeat. As a playmaker this defiance was inspiring.

    Replays show there was only the slightest of misalignments in the All Black’s defensive line as Larkham loped towards them. With little more than a feint show of the ball and a shift of his shoulders he was passed the first line of defence and the game was alive. The play combined the two great traits that became synonymous with Larkham’s game; the ghosting run described above and the long flat pass, this time perfectly fed to a young Stirling Mortlock who raced away to finish the move with a try.

    That game, won at the death by a Jonah Lomu try, remains the best of the professional era and was arguably the last of its kind at an international level – when attack outweighed defence – before England made ten man rugby successful again. The 2001 Lions tour was the turning point for world rugby as phase play slowly gave way to the forward based game. Critical to the success of the British and Irish team was negating Larkham’s attacking threats. They set about achieving this with an aggressive attitude and a series of late challenges, memorably delivered through the elbow of Scott Quinnell, that took a heavy blow on Larkham and largely succeeded in taking him out of the series. Parallels were drawn with the bodyline tactics of yesteryear as attacking flair was sacrificed at the altar of success at all costs. Fortunately for Australia these tactics failed but the die was cast.

    At this point in Larkham’s career, with his importance to the success of his team so obviously acknowledged by the northern hemisphere teams, Australian rugby began its slow downward spiral. The departure of MacQueen and many of the team’s stalwarts was not well managed and nowhere was this more obvious than in the forwards. As the world rugby landscape changed Australia stood still, tenaciously clinging to the multiphase game plan as their opposition became bigger and stronger at the set piece.

    The criticality of Larkham’s role was further exasperated by Australia’s relatively small playing pool and lack of competition. By comparison, New Zealand, during the course of Larkham’s career, based teams around three vastly different world class fly halves; Carlos Spencer, Andrew Mehrtens and Daniel Carter. Snapping at the heals of these All Black greats were very competitive challengers like Tony Brown, Luke McAllister and Nick Evans amongst others. Larkham’s nearest competitor was the solid and reliable Elton Flatley, a player whose style was better adapted to the field position game preferred by England’s Clive Woodward and Flatley’s first Queensland Coach, John Connolly.

    As the trophies left the cabinet and the Wallabies lost their competitive edge Larkham slowly began to show that the years of wear and tear were taking their toll. The ghosting runs and cross-field passes were still their but they had lost their edge. Unfortunately, as his forward pack’s strength receded the tiring playmaker found himself under increasing pressure with less time to work the ball and no momentum to roll back the defensive line.

    Australian selectors foolishly positioned themselves between a rock and hard place. With a forward pack that were struggling to win possession it became more and more important that Larkham take the field to lead the backs but with Larkham always taking the field it allowed no opportunity for a successor to be trialled and a competitive environment at fly half to be established. The result was inevitable.

    The import of outside backs from rugby league did little to alter the downfall and was the equivalent of treating cancer with a handful of smarties. Bad ball became worse until finally, against Wales and England in 2005, the trickle was dammed completely and the Wallabies were humbled by teams with vastly inferior backlines but, more importantly, with vastly superior forward packs.

    The embarrassment of that tour prompted the events that led to the appointment of Connolly as Australian coach. This had the surprising flow on effect, given the Queenslander’s stated aim of focusing on the forwards, of reinvigorating Larkham’s rugby career.

    Connolly’s policy of creating competition for every jersey was to a large degree compromised by the pressure he felt to succeed at the world cup. The subject of much criticism, Connolly was however very successful in reigniting the careers of some of Australia’s older generation who had become too comfortable in their selections. Larkham and his long time partner in the halves, George Gregan, were perhaps the two Wallabies who benefited most from this competition within the team and both players went into the world cup deserving their selection on form and no longer just on reputation.

    Entering his last world cup Larkham looked to have risen for one last glorious push. A victory over clear favourites New Zealand earlier in the year gave Australia hope but such hopes rested on one qualification; “we can win” the punters said, “but only if Larkham’s fit”. The surprising rise of Berrick Barnes during the campaign, so happily received by the Wallabies and their supporters, feels in some strange way an inadequate substitute for the opportunity of seeing one of our greatest and most influential Wallabies leave the international stage without being able to play his last hand.

    Like the departure of Ian Healy from cricket’s international arena, Larkham’s exit leaves us with an empty feeling and has robbed his many fans of the opportunity to acknowledge his contribution to Australian rugby in a fitting manner. Not in a tickertape parade of victory or even the bested efforts of a hard fought defeat will we remember his last moments in the green and gold but as a mere onlooker like the rest of us.

    As clichéd and over hyped as it may be, I will always remember Larkham for ‘that’ drop kick. Like Shane Warne’s ‘Gatting Ball’, Larkham’s field goal against South Africa in the 1999 rugby world cup will remain forever tied to any memories of his career. Although not representative of what made him the great player he was, it was the play that made him.

    From then on he was and will always remain a great Wallaby.

    The Roar’s photo gallery of Stephen ‘Bernie’ Larkham

    Stephen Larkham is tackled - AAP Image/Photosport

    Brumbies Stephen Larkham looks for support - AAP Image/Alan Porritt

    Australia’s Stephen Larkham stretches to score a try - AP Photo/Rob Griffith

    Australia’s George Gregan, and Stephen Larkham acknowledge the crowd after playing their final match in Australia  - AP Photo/Rick Rycroft

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    The Crowd Says (67)

    • October 29th 2007 @ 9:27am
      stillmissit said | October 29th 2007 @ 9:27am | ! Report

      Sheek one more thing if Larkham had retired in 2000 4 years after starting in the Wallabies as did Mark Ella we would have, been denied some of the best of him ie both the Bledisloe cup series and the Lions tour in 2001 just before McQueen and Eales retired.

      BTW I got a list from the ARU librarian of all the Wallabies since 1946 with there starting year and number of tests. She said that she is working on this as it has never been on the ARU website. If you would like a copy let me know. 0411 266 144 and leave your email address.

    • October 29th 2007 @ 11:45am
      gforce said | October 29th 2007 @ 11:45am | ! Report

      I would agree Larkham is a great Wallaby and always will be.

      Up to 2003 he was the best going around. Beyond that , he was still very important for the Wallabies but started to not have the consistent impact on the game that we had gotten used to .

      One of the features of full blown professionalism is that it is human nature to hold on for one more season. When someone wants to to give you $750K to go around again, it is very easy to be convinced – especially if there is nothing pressing you want to get on with in your post playing career.

      The Aussie cricketers are in the same boat. – seeing guys in their mid to late 30’s still hanging around , even though their “special days” are getting fewer and less frequent makes you wonder how the next crop ever get the chance to have a go.

      This is where a strong coaching hand is required. Be very clinical, get the sentimentality out of it and move the past heroes on and make way for the next crop to really shine. It is a hard thing to do but it needs to be done. We now have the situation in Oz rugby where the next crop of 9’s and 10’s are 20 years old ( Holmes, Barnes, Cooper, Beale). We are going from 35 year olds to 20 year olds. It is a big ask and a credit to the young guys that they more often than not step up.

      Don’t get me wrong, Larkham was still very good and did some great things even towards the end, it is just that by perservering to the very end of a career leaves a huge whole and stunts the aspirations of many other prospects. I suspect though in Larkhams case, not many others really screamed out fo r a chance by their efforts in the S14.

      The AB’s seem less inclined to let sentimentality get in the way – but maybe the talent pool has got something to do with this.

    • October 29th 2007 @ 11:58am
      Chris Beck said | October 29th 2007 @ 11:58am | ! Report

      By the time I had been introduced to rugby union, Larkham had been playing at #10 for some time.

      Can someone who remembers please describe Larkham the fullback, in terms of how good he was at #15 when Macqueen implemented the switch, as well as how good he might have been had the switch never taken place?

      Either way, Larkham has always been my favorite player to watch. Even when I was just picking up the sport, it was always obvious to me that he was something special.

    • October 29th 2007 @ 1:07pm
      spiro zavos said | October 29th 2007 @ 1:07pm | ! Report

      Two statistics from Stephen Larkham’s career stand out for me. The Wallabies won 71 per cent of their tests when he was playing and only 56 per cent in the time he was playing when he was unavailable. And at the 1999 RWC World Cup he topped the tackle count for all the backs in all the sides in the tournament.
      In other words, he was a match winner, an attacker of courage and falir and a defender who rarely missed a chance to nail his opponents.
      I always thought that he played five-eighths like a running fullback/centre he used to be before Rod Macqueen had the brainwave of putting him at first receiver.
      Inidentally, Macqueen was well ahead of his time in this thinking. The Pumas did well at the RWC tournament because they moved their best ball-playing back Juan Martin Herandez from fullback to five-eights. I think Ireland would have done better in the RWC tournament is Eddie Sullivan had made the same sort of move with Brian O’Driscoll.
      Modern rugby requires the five-eighth who can handle the ball up to 40 times in a game to be the best ball-playing back in the side. Great players change the nature and perception of their positions. This is Stephen Larkham’s great contribution to five-eighths play.

    • October 29th 2007 @ 2:35pm
      sheek said | October 29th 2007 @ 2:35pm | ! Report

      Very wisely spoken Spiro.

    • October 29th 2007 @ 3:07pm
      Richard said | October 29th 2007 @ 3:07pm | ! Report

      Yes, good information Spiro, it counts for a bit more than some of these contributors’ hazy memories.
      I thought a couple of Larkham’s great assets were his ability to accelerate and change direction without apparently doing anything obvious, and his extraordinary ability to fire long passes using mainly his fingers and wrists. Consequently, he could maintain good pace right up to the defenders faces, and defenders never knew if he was going to throw a pop pass or a long pass until it left his hands, and he didn’t put his running off balance by big arm swings. Contrast that with the leaguie style of propping and passing (“shovelling it on” seems to be the commentators cliche of choice), or Sam Norton-Knight who does a 180 degree swing of his arms to pass long. Pity Sam plays under a coach who wouldn’t have noticed that…or noticed him at all!
      The issue of retirements is difficult. Of course the players want to stay in the game as long as possible, but gee, the administrators, especially from NSW have made some blunders cutting Matt Burke, Nathan Grey, Scott Staniforth and others, and replaced them with the ilk of the loyal Sam Harris.