The Wallabies have now lost ten Tests in a row against the All Blacks. After the first nine of those ten Tests it frustrated and angered me when people would say things such as ‘Deans has them on the right track’.
Or ‘they’re a young side that will get better’, or the all-time worst that gets me angrier than anything, ‘We’re building towards the World Cup.’
I hate excuses and there’s been too many excuses made in defence of the Wallabies since 2008.
It may then surprise you that after the Wallabies tenth consecutive loss, which is a horrible record that should never have been achieved by the All Blacks, I actually do now get a sense the Wallabies are heading in the right direction.
It’s bizarre that I have some hope after another Wallabies loss (a game they should have won).
One of the biggest problems the Wallabies faced in 2008 was how to structure their backline. The retirements of Gregan, Larkham and Latham all left a lot of gaps in the Wallabies side.
At the start of this year the Wallabies problems didn’t seem resolved at all. It was difficult for me to see where the Wallabies had improved their backline in the three years Deans was coach.
Genia was a certainty to play for the Wallabies this year, but what about five-eighth?
Giteau was easily contained by the All Blacks last year, but he outplayed Cooper in the Brumbies v Reds game this year (admittedly he had a much better pack in front of him), however Cooper was the form player of the Super 14.
I was in a minority who wanted Barnes to play five-eighth because kicking was the Wallabies weakness last year, and Barnes has a vastly superior kicking game to any Australian five-eighth.
Now after the Tri-Nations my mind is completely clear on this matter. Quade Cooper is the deserved pick for Australian five-eighth. While I wouldn’t classify his play as ‘great’, it’s certainly been good – good enough that I can say there’s no doubt he should play for the Wallabies at five-eighth for a while at least.
You only have to compare how hard it was for Australia to get tries in the first two Tests against New Zealand this year, to how many tries Australia has gotten in the last three Tests to know that Cooper is a much better choice than Giteau at five-eighth.
Another problem for Australia was fullback. Back in 2005 there was some talk about Drew Mitchell being the heir apparent to Chris Latham, but Mitchell’s form hasn’t always been consistent, and his kicking game at fullback can be weak.
Adam Ashley-Cooper is the Shane Watson of rugby. I remember thinking Watson was nothing more than a solid cricket player, but through hard work he made himself one of the best cricketers Australia had.
I thought Ashley-Cooper would be dropped after his poor performance in South Africa in 2008 which led to an 8-53 loss to the Wallabies. But he was retained and by 2009 he made himself one of Australia’s best players.
Ashley-Cooper has always been solid at fullback. He’s one of the best players in the world at taking the high ball. He’s incredibly confident, and he does run good lines. In Europe last year he counter-attacked well. But for all that he always seemed to me like a very good solid fullback, as opposed to a ‘great’ fullback.
I guess it was hoped James O’Connor, with his awesome footwork, would make a great counter-attacking fullback. And he had glimpses of promise against South Africa last year. But he’s not a natural fullback. He’s an inside centre and always has been.
Now by sheer accident Kurtley Beale has come along and has completely re-invigorated the Australian backline. Kurtley has great instincts for counter-attacking and often beats the first man who tries to tackle him. He’s instinctual too; he doesn’t have to think about what he does, he just does it.
He makes mistakes. His tackling against New Zealand last night was good, and the way he slid past Conrad Smith was excellent. He maybe tried a few loose passes when he should have held on to the ball, and he’s not as good as Ashley-Cooper under the high ball, but the goods always outweighs the bad.
It’s amazing, a year or so ago I thought Beale would never make the Wallabies. When I saw him debut for the Wallabies this year I didn’t think he’d stay in the side much longer. Now I think it would be insane not to keep him at fullback.
I get the sense with Beale that he’ll be more interested in counter-attacking than even someone like Chris Latham was.
I think Australia has found the rightful successors to Gregan, Larkham and Latham.
What’s more I think Digby Ioane, if he can stay healthy, will be a regular on the wing when he comes back. His form in the Super 14 was excellent. And Drew Mitchell has shown signs he can counter-attack and keep-up with Beale.
Inside and outside centre remain and issue for Australia. Ashley-Cooper should probably stay at outside-centre, but I think he might be a better fullback (where I want Beale to stay). Maybe he should stay there.
I think with another year under his belt Will Chambers could play for Australia. The thing about Chambers is he gives size a small Wallaby backline. His form was excellent this year.
Really it’s only inside centre that I’m unsure about. Giteau’s been okay in general play from inside centre, but I’m not sure he and Cooper will make a great 10-12 combination. Perhaps Deans will one day move O’Connor to his favour position – inside centre.
There’s a real sense in me that the Wallaby backline is starting to take shape. Halfback, five-eighth and fullback are crucial positions, and I think the Wallabies finally have those positions sorted out.
In the forwards Elsom and Pocock will remain there for a while. Pocock has been Australia’s best Test player this year. Bob Dwyer recently criticized him for his passing skills, but Pocock, right now, is better at pilfering the ball than Smith was in 2009.
People used to say George Smith was better than Richie McCaw because of his ball skills, but how many times did McCaw outplay Smith?
A lot was asked of Pocock in 2010 and he’s delivered. He’s an absolute rock over the ball.
Elsom’s been good recently, although I doubt he’ll recapture his form of 2008 just before he went over to Europe, which is a shame.
Eightman remains a problem for the Wallabies. Palu played well there in Europe last year, and the Wallabies might be able to get by with him playing at eightman. ‘Good’ might have to do.
One of the real stories of 2010 has been Nathan Sharpe. His Super 14 form was excellent, and he’s played well for the Wallabies this year. He might be a good dark horse pick for the John Eales medal.
Sharpe hasn’t always had a good second-row partner, but perhaps Dan Vickerman could return to help out. That would be a solid pairing.
Personally I think Sharpe would make a better Wallabies captain than Elsom, who’s starting to remind me of Stephen Hoiles’ captaincy this year!
The Wallabies front row is worrying me a little bit. Benn Robinson, I don’t think, has quite recaptured his form of 2009, and the Wallabies scrum is just scraping through as acceptable.
That said, the Wallabies are missing Alexander and Polota-Nau, who will strengthen the scrum.
The Wallabies still have problems. They’re having trouble closing out games, which may be conducive of the fact they’re a young side. I think they need a different captain too as Elsom seems to be having trouble managing referees.
Worst of all these Wallabies can’t play consistently for a full 80 minutes. Why I don’t know.
The Robbie Deans Wallabies have been the most erratic rugby side I’ve ever seen. They’re capable of losing games they should win. But they show glimpses of putting something good together every so often, like the first 30 minutes in South Africa last week, which was probably the best I’ve seen the Wallabies play since the second half of the 2nd Lions Test in 2001.
If the Wallabies can put a few performances together where both backs and forwards can play well, I think the Wallabies will take a step forwards.
They’re not yet there where they need to be, and I agree with Ken Catchpole that these Wallabies aren’t yet good enough to win the World Cup next year, but the point of this whole column is: they’re starting to take shape.
In 1991 Bob Dwyer had his World Cup side settled by the start of 1991. Deans should make this his goal too. Right now there are still a few positions that haven’t been filled properly.
I’m not saying the Wallabies can win the World Cup (I hate it when people say that too soon). I’m not saying they’ll beat New Zealand soon. I’m not saying they’ll be a great side one day (I don’t worship Robbie Deans blindly).
But what I am saying is they look like a team that has finally figured out how they want to play. They look like a side that has finally filled some positions with promising players who can actually get better. And they look like a side taking shape.
It’s bizarre I could feel this way after yet another Wallabies loss, but they’re improved in some areas, despite not beating the All Blacks.
I think this sense of relief comes from the fact that already we seem to know about nine of the players that will play in the World Cup next year: Benn Robinson, Nathan Sharpe, Rocky Elsom, David Pocock, Will Genia, Quade Cooper, Digby Ioane, Kurtley Beale.