It was Chris Whitaker who gave us one of the better quotes of recent times. When asked in February 2006 who the new Wallaby coach would be, he quipped: “I suppose Steven Bradbury. He’s the only one left standing and you’d have to assume he’ll get it.”
Whitaker was referring to John Connolly in the wake of Ewen McKenzie and David Nucifora withdrawing from consideration.
The irony of this statement is that Whitaker himself spent the best part of a decade waiting for George Gregan to fall over, but it never happened, because the iron-willed little general was far too clever to offer his understudy even a sniff at the top job.
This presumably is why Whitaker’s nickname, according to Wikipedia, is “Anthem”: singing it is as much as he was ever allowed to do in “playing” for Australia.
Events in Europe in recent months raise the issue of whether Whitaker should be given further opportunities to blow his lungs singing “Advance Australia Fair”.
I refer here to Leinster’s Heineken Cup success. According to many reports, Whitaker’s masterful direction of play was a major contributing factor in this triumph.
Of course Rocky Elsom is drawing plaudits all around the rugby world for his back-to-back man-of-the-match performances in Leinster’s stunning accomplishment. These have Australian rugby fans positively clamoring for Elsom’s return to the gold Wallaby jersey.
But what’s good for the goose should also be good for the gander: if Elsom’s play for Leinster warrants him immediately returning to the Australian fold, then doesn’t it follow that Whitaker’s form for Leinster should also count in terms of Wallaby selection?
At this point I need to declare that I am raising this issue more as a point of logic than one based on intimate observation of Whitaker’s form.
In total I would have watched less than 5 minutes of the entire Heineken Cup competition (but gee, Whitaker looked pretty sharp in those 5 minutes!). So if all you HC experts want to tell me that Whitaker’s form sucked, then please, you are welcome to do so (politely!).
For now, let me assume that Whitaker’s form was good.
That being the case I would firstly note that he never received an extended opportunity in the Australian jumper, so how do we know how good he really is?
Secondly I would note that Australian rugby still has no solution at half-back. Yes, Luke Burgess can do special things, but he does so irregularly, and at other times he does not exactly inspire total confidence – and that is being polite.
The other current Wallaby-squad half-back is Josh Valentine. Admittedly he’s had a good season for the Force, but playing inside Matt Giteau is rather a luxury that many half-backs would die for. (It rather recalls the words of Barry John to a nervous Gareth Edwards on his Welsh debut: “Just throw it anywhere lad, and I’ll catch it.”)
Indeed, one has to wonder if Whitaker’s service might really add to Giteau’s already world-class game.
Thirdly, there is the issue of Whitaker’s age: 34.
No disputing it, this is getting on. However, one could point out that this is the age at which Fabien Galthié masterminded France’s 2003 World Cup campaign, at which point in time many considered him the best half-back in the world.
So these are just some points in favour of Whitaker’s consideration.
Above and beyond this are some broader issues that are raised: if European form can earn one player (Elsom) selection in the Wallabies, then shouldn’t all Australians playing in Europe have this path open to them?
And I fully realise that under current ARU regulations Whitaker is not eligible for Wallaby selection, because he is not contracted to an Australian Super-14 franchise (let’s ignore this complication in discussing whether his form is good enough).
But should the ARU’s rules be changed in this regard?