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When the 1981/82 Wallabies landed in England, skipper Tony Shaw perhaps unwisely suggested to the British press that he expected the Wallabies to win their Grand Slam against Ireland, Wales, Scotland and England.
Unfortunately for Shaw and his team, his comments were three years premature, and were used as a rod by the home nations against the Wallabies.
Yet two members of both the 1981 and 1984 teams – Mark Ella and Stan Pilecki – agree that man for man, the 1981 combination was more talented.
So why did a team that started the year so brilliantly, defeating Five Nations Grand Slam champions France in both Tests (France were led by coach Jacques Fouroux and skipper Jean-Pierre Rives), manage to win just one of four tests in Britain and Ireland?
To begin with, let’s briefly look at the four Tests.
1. Wallabies beat Ireland 16-12, with one try to none. It all started so well. It was a scratchy win, but a win nevertheless, and wouldn’t the Wallabies only get better? By now an apparent weakness in the scrum and lineout had been noted by Australia’s opponents.
2. Wallabies lose to Wales 13-18, scoring two tires to one. Early in the second half, the Wallabies led 13-6, and seemed set to win. But the inability of the forwards to control the game saw Wales reply with 12 unanswered points. Late in the game, Andy Slack intercepted only to be caught about a metre out. It was a lost opportunity.
3. Wallabies lose to Scotland 15-24, scoring three tries to one. To compound their lack of bulk technique in the scrum, and height in the lineout, the Wallabies now began to lose their discipline as frustration set in. The Wallabies actually led 15-12 at the break. Skipper Shaw decked opposite Cuthbertson as the Wallabies unraveled. Scotland’s only try came from a howling mistake by Roger Gould, who allowed the ball to bounce in front of him, just outside the tryline.
4. Wallabies lose to England 11-15, scoring two tries to one. Skipper Shaw was dropped, the captaincy passing to Loane. Australia’s inability to secure and control good quality ball cost them field position, and then provided easy penalty pots at goal for England. It had been the same story throughout.
So why did such a potentially great team perform so poorly?
1. The first and most obvious answer was Paul McLean’s atrociously poor goal-kicking. His loss of form was unexplainable. In 1975-76 he had been tremendously reliable, as he had also been throughout his career. Despite the tight-five problems, McLean only had to kick his goals for the Wallabies to have won all four Tests.
The Wallabies scored eight tries, converting only one!
They also kicked six penalties and one drop. Their opponents scored three converted tries, 15 penalties and two drops. McLean’s strike rate was as low as below 30 percent in the Tests.
2. The scrum was much weaker than anticipated. The props lacked both bulk and technique. Tony D’Arcy was the best of the props, big and strong, but also young and raw. Tight-head Declan Curran was strong but not a good technician.
Loose-head John Meadows was a great technician but awefully light. Stan Pilecki was a great character, but only a journeyman prop. Chris Carberry was an excellent hooker, but the scrum lacked the necessary power and technique to impose themselves on their opponents.
Back home Andy McIntyre, just turned 26, watched from afar.
Could he have made a difference to the Wallaby scrum one season earlier than his debut year of 1982?
3. The lineout lacked collective height and bulk. Steve Williams was the team’s tallest player and best lock, yet he only played the last international. Peter Mclean was a good, tall lock who played all four Tests, but he lacked support.
Skipper Tony Shaw played three Tests at lock, but he lacked sufficient height and bulk for the position, being a true flanker. Duncan Hall and Mick Mathers were both tigerish players around the paddock, but both lacked a vital 2-3 inches in height. It’s a shame the Aussies couldn’t get David Hillhouse to tour.
Then just 26, Hillhouse had retired to become a commercial pilot. He did have one great comeback year in 1983.
It’s a shame lifting in the lineout was allowed back then.
4. Bob Templeton is a great human being, but he was only an average international coach. He had an embarrassment of riches in talent, especially in the backline, but he lacked the nous as to how to effectively use this talent.
To make matters worse, he had been shown how he could do it the year before. In 1980 against the All Blacks, with McLean and Slack injured, and Mark Loane in South Africa, he let the young Wallaby backline run its own race.
Yet in 1981-82, he buckled under the conservative team leadership of Loane and McLean. It seems even Shaw was unwilling to go against his famous Queensland team-mates.
Faced with an ineffective scrum, lineout and goalkicking, the Wallabies should have used their glittering backline more often, especially in broken play and on the counterattack.
Would the wise Alan Jones have made a difference three years earlier?
5. Although a great player in his prime, skipper Shaw was no longer among the best 3 backrowers in 1981. The backrow used in all 4 tests was Mark Loane, Simon Poidevin and Greg Cornelsen. Shaw played the first 3 tests at lock.
This affected the balance of the scrum and lineout. Whether with hindsight the tour captaincy should have gone to Loane, is something we don’t know. But, again, it was a case of the tour management having too much talent but making the less desirable choices in most situations.
6. The midfield of Mark Ella-Mike Hawker-Mike O’Connor had been spectacularly brilliant against the All Blacks in 1980 and France in 1981. Yet on the 1981-82 tour, this combination was inexplicably discarded. Ella only came into the team for the last two tests, while O’Connor was shunted to the wing to accommodate Slack. McLean started the tests at flyhalf, but finished at fullback, also playing one test at inside centre.
While Mclean and Slack were outstanding players, they should not have broken the wonderful midfield genius of Ella-Hawker-O’Connor. McLean should have played fullback in place of Gould. As you can see, all good players and all difficult decisions.
But the inability of the management to make the tough calls contributed to the team’s demise.
Certainly 1981-82 was a tour of missed opportunities. Which, however, probably helped the 1984 touring team to develop more steel in their play.
The 15 players who made up the backline touring team are generally regarded as the greatest collection of backs ever assembled in a touring team.
A composite 1st XV backline might have read: Roger Gould, Mitchell Cox, Mick O’Connor, Mike Hawker, Brendan Moon, Mark Ella, John Hipwell.
A composite 2nd XV backline might have read: Glen Ella, Peter Grigg, Gary Ella, Andy Slack, Mick Martin, Paul McLean, Phil Cox/Tony Parker. Phil Cox was originally and surprisingly omitted, but quickly established himself when called over as a replacement.
How about a composite 22 from both 1981 and 84?
R.Gould(81/84), D.Campese(84), M.O’Connor(81), M.Hawker(81/84), B.Moon(81/84), M.Ella(81/84), J.Hipwell(81), M.Loane(81), S.Poidevin(81/84), G.Cornelsen(81), S.Cutler(84), S.Williams(81/84), A.McIntyre(84), T.Lawton(84), E.Rodriguez(84). Bench: A.Slack(81/84), M.Lynagh(84), N.Farr-Jones(84), S.Tuynman(84), D.Codey(84), A.D’Arcy(81), C.Carberry(81).
Selections are based generally on player’s form at the time period rather than overall career.
A clue to why the 84 team was successful, and the 81 team unsuccessful, lies in the fact that the entire tight-five from 84 are in the composite team.
A final footnote, at trials to select the touring team, the selectors were mightily impressed by a just turned 19 year old Canberra fullback/winger.
His name was David Campese.
After deliberating on his possible selection for quite some time, the selectors finally agreed it might be too soon to include him. Less than a year later, the great Campo made his Test debut anyway.