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Ten greatest Wallabies of the 2000s

The Wallabies need to remember their proud, winning history. (AAP Image/Dean Lewins)
Roar Guru
5th November, 2012
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11300 Reads

Here are the 10 greatest Wallabies of the 2000s and why they were chosen. Some brief thoughts on players who didn’t make my list.

I considered Benn Robinson the best Wallaby player in 2009, and arguably the best loosehead in the world, but he came along too late in the ’00s to make the top 10.

Joe Roff almost certainly would have been high in this list had he played in more Tests during the ’00s.

Ben Darwin was a fantastic player who had such a promising future before his neck injury that he could easily have made the top five had he continued to play.

Matt Burke made some incredible contributions to the Wallabies in the ’00s, such as his kicking during the Lions tour, and the Test-winning penalty against New Zealand during a windy night in Sydney in 2002. But he was often injured during the ’00s, and his peak years for me were 1996-1999, during which he was Australia’s greatest ever fullback.

So here is the top 10:

10. George Gregan

This spot was either going to go to George Gregan or Matt Giteau, who both were harshly criticised by the media towards the end of their careers.

Giteau stood a good chance of making the top 10 because he played eight years for the Wallabies. And while I preferred watching him as an inside centre outside Stephen Larkham than as a five-eighth, he made significant contributions to the Wallabies during the ’00s.

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Critics of Gregan have forgotten how vital Gregan was to the Wallabies during their period of dominance over the All Blacks from 1998-2002. And even in 2003 when people suggested Gregan was in a form slump, what happened?

In the estimation of All Black great Chris Laidlaw, Gregan was Australia’s best player during the World Cup semi-final and World Cup final.

His leadership was so crucial in order to galvanize the out-of-form Wallabies, who shocked New Zealand in the semi-final, and challenged England in the final.

Gregan must have infuriated Wallabies rugby lovers who were not Australian. He was so good at controlling referees. His back-chat was great to watch!

Yes there were times during 2004-2007 when his form was (rightly) criticised. But he remains one of Australia’s best players for what he’s accomplished.

What I remember about Gregan most is how much Australia misses his captaincy.

I thought Gregan was the best person to captain the Wallabies in the 2007 World Cup. It wasn’t to be.

Australia hasn’t had a captain who can control referees, marshal his team, and niggles the opposition like Gregan.

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9. David Giffin

Quite possibly the most underrated Wallaby of the ’00s. Michael Lynagh rated the best second-rowers of the ’00s. Giffin somehow came fourth!

Sharpe deservedly came number one. Vickerman’s hard-nosed play was desperately missed when he went overseas. Justin Harrison came in for an injured Giffin during the Lions Tour and entered Wallaby folklore, but on a consistent basis Giffen was better.

I believe a huge reason why Giffen is so underrated is because he played in a pack that included Eales, Foley, Kefu, Wilson, Smith, etc. He’d be more appreciated in the current side.

But for injuries he would have played a more prominent role in the 2001 Lions Tour and the 2003 World Cup, I think…

8. Nathan Sharpe

While I regard Giffin as a better second-rower, Sharpe played for longer in the ’00s and with such distinction. He’s now played over 100 Tests and won two John Eales Medals, something that only George Smith has done.

Australian rugby was being harshly criticized when Sharpe won his first, and very deserving, John Eales Medal. During a period where the Australian forward pack wasn’t performing at the standards required to really challenge New Zealand, Sharpe was Australia’s best forward by far.

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If there’s one Sharpe performance I enjoyed it was the demolition of England in 2008. The Australian forwards performed poorly in the 2007 World Cup quarter-final. But they came up against the English forwards in 2008 and trampled over them.

Sharpe was Australia’s best player that day.

7. Toutai Kefu

How important was Kefu? He’s important enough to say that we haven’t had a number eight as good as him since he retired. He’s important enough to say the last time Australia had the best backrow in the world was when he played with Smith and Finegan.

Australia desperately needed forwards like him and Finegan to get stuck into the All Blacks during 2005-2007.

I also think his retirement was part of the transitioning phrase that saw New Zealand starting to dominate Australia again.

We’ll never forget his Test-winning try in 2001.

6. Phil Waugh

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It will always be a phenomenal tribute to Phil Waugh that he forced Eddie Jones to consider playing George Smith, who was undoubtedly the world’s best openside flanker in 2002, in the blindside flanker position to accommodate Waugh playing the openside position in 2003.

And it’s a nice fact of history that Australia beat New Zealand in the World Cup semi-final when questions were being raised whether playing two similar players would hurt Australia.

However, the competition between Smith and Waugh for the blindside position also created what’s known as the ‘McLean/Ella’ dynamic, whereby you had too much talent and you didn’t know what to do with it.

There were times playing Waugh and Smith together didn’t create the desired backrow dynamic. In truth the two opensides experiment seldom worked.

Unfortunately for Waugh, more often than not Smith was considered the slightly better player, if only by the slightest margin.

5. Owen Finegan

It’s a shame he never got the John Eales Medal. There were seasons where his form was almost good enough to win such an award.

Who doesn’t absolutely love Owen Finegan’s dockside brawler runs where he smashes a few people out of the way?

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A South African once told me how much he hated Finegan, and how he was a bundle of mongrel muscle that got stuck into the fiercest of their forwards.

Ohtani’s Jacket once told me that no player infuriated him more than Finegan. He regarded Finegan and Roff as the two most annoying Australian players during that period of Australian dominance from 1998-2002.

He also noted to me once that when Australia obtains a player as annoying as Finegan, then you’ll know when Australia will become the world’s number one team again!

Australian forward play went backwards at a rate of knots once he retired. We haven’t had a forward as intelligent as him since, either.

He’s the forward Australia hasn’t had since his retirement.

4. Chris Latham

There are several reasons why Latham should be this high up.

First off, look at how hard it has been for the Wallabies to replace him since his retirement. The Wallabies backline was puzzle under Kurtley Beale found form against South Africa in 2010.

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But now with questions over who should play five-eighth for the Wallabies, the backline again looks unsettled.

Welsh rugby writer Stephen Jones regards Latham as the greatest fullback to have played the game.

I don’t agree with that. But Latham’s array of abilities is very impressive.

He arguably has the best kicking game of any fullback in Australia’s history. Gould could kick a football like nobody else, but Latham was different – up and unders, grubbers, chip-kicks, skidders – he had an armory.

Some of my favourite memories include that incredible break down the line he made against Wales in 2006 – a brilliant individual try.

Or again against Wales in the 2007 World Cup where a poorly fielded high ball bounced into his hands – another amazing try.

Jonathan Davies regarded him as the best fullback in the world at that time.

As great as Latham was from 2005-2007, when many said he was possibly the world’s best fullback (with only Muliana to challenge him), I preferred watching him in 2000 when he attacked more and showed tremendous flamboyance.

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Latham got off to a bad start against the Lions in 2001 when Jason Robinson did a twinkle-step and burnt him off on the outside. Granted, Matt Burke didn’t do much better trying to stop Brian O’Driscoll!

But it was horrible that Latham wasn’t put back into the side until 2003. I sometimes think he became slightly more conservative after that.

And of course as well at Matt Rogers played in the 2003 World Cup final, many afterwards were thinking, “With his kicking game, would Chris Latham have made a better clearing kick than what Rogers did?”

I love Rogers. I thought he was one of the Wallabies most talented players of the ’00s. But Latham should have played in the 2003 World Cup final.

3. Stephen Larkham

There may never have been a player in Australian rugby history we’ve relied on more than Stephen Larkham… and unhealthily so!

So much of Australia’s success hinged on Larkham being injury-free, and when he wasn’t the Wallabies suffered huge consequences.

There was a period in 2001 when many Australian rugby commentators were positing the possibility that Stephen Larkham was Australia’s greatest five-eighth ever. Some would still claim that.

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We all remember him setting Mortlock up for a try in 2000 after a brilliant ghosting run that sliced through the All Blacks defence.

We remember his outrageous pass to Toutei Keft in John Eales’ retirement game that won Australia the game.

A forgotten part of the 2003 World Cup semi-final was when Larkham, tackling a player without the ball, copped a boot to the face and was briefly taken out of the game.

Australia was 5-0 up after Larkham’s kick led to a Tuqiri try, but when Larkham went off England went-up 14-5. Australia only regained composure when Larkham came back on the field.

That was such a tantalizing close and heartbreaking Test that it’s difficult to not reminisce about, “What if Flatley’s first kick didn’t hit the post?” Or, “What if Wilkinson didn’t make that tackle on Mortlock?” Or, “What if Larkham wasn’t taken off?”

We’ll never know.

Larkham was in incredible form in early 2005 when the Wallabies won their first four Tests of the year.

But once Larkham was injured the year turned into possibly the worst year the Wallabies have had in the last three decades.

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Suddenly we all realised how dependent we were on Larkham. It seemed as though the hopes of the Wallabies for the next two/three years hinged on whether he could remain injury-free.

A disappointing thing about Larkham is we never really saw a Test where Larkham and Carter played well against each other.

In 2005 Dan Carter reigned as the world’s best player, but Larkham was injured. And in 2006 neither played that great against each other.

I’d have loved to see both play at their absolute best. Carter himself put Larkham in his best XV of players he’s seen.

Watching the end of his career was painful. We all said that if Larkham stays healthy Australia could win the World Cup.

But such a reliance on Larkham was unhealthy.

Larkham didn’t play in what should have been the last Test of his career against England in 2007. He was injured.

Australian rugby paid the penalty for such a high reliance on one player.

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2. Sterling Mortlock

One of my all-time favourite players is Sterling Mortlock.

When he debuted in 2000 on the wing he contributed as much as any player in the Australian side that year, which included a Tri Nations winning penalty, and Australia’s last win in South Africa for what would be eight years.

But Mortlock at outside centre running from depth at petrified outside centres is how I’ll remember him.

What a beastly power running game he had!

And he knew the little nuisances of rugby – how to position his body to make the most impact, the ability to keep on his feet in the tackle, and just continuing powering on with leg drive. And there’s more…

What decisions to make when you don’t have the ball – run in support for the offload? Attach myself as a hammer and power on? Do I clear out the ruck? Mortlock had a rugby sense about him.

Mortlock himself attributes the tutelage of Alec Evans for his development into such an intelligent rugby player.

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At the height of his powers New Zealanders were requesting Mils Muliana, maybe the best fullback in the world, to be moved to outside centre to negate his power running.

New Zealanders loved him and respected him because he was tough.

My favourite Mortlock memory was his 2007 performance against New Zealand when he put Scott Staniforth over the line for the winning try. Mortlock skimmed past McCaw in cover, ran 30 metres, and offloaded to the right player in support.

Mortlock was the only Australian player who I felt played well against England in that quarter-final defeat in 2007.

Remembering his gutsy effort (coming back form injury no less), it’s a shame his final kick didn’t win Australia that Test. It was a difficult kick that great players would make maybe 25 percent of the time. He struck it perfectly, the way he wanted, but it just missed.

2008 was the first year Mortlock’s form started to slowly decline, but I remember one incident in 2008 when Australia won in South Africa for the first time since 2000 (when Mortlock kicked the winning penalty).

Mortlock was passed the ball back into his own 22, and kicked the ball on the full, resulting in a line-out for South Africa. South Africa scored immediately after that.

Mortlock’s mistake brought South Africa back into the Test.

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Four minutes later the Wallabies went deep in South African territory. Mortlock looked angry at the mistake he made. He took the ball from the five-eighth position, ran the blind-side, found a gap, and powered through a tackle for a try.

And I thought, “It’s as simple as that for a champion like Mortlock. He made a mistake, and fixing it is as simple as getting the ball and deciding, ‘I want to score a try’.”

I loved watching Mortlock play.

1. George Smith

George Smith is the Wally Hammond of rugby.

Who is Wally Hammond? He was the best cricketer in the world… if Sir Donald Bradman had never played cricket.

Who is George Smith? He was the best rugby union player of the 00s… if Richie McCaw had never played rugby union.

There was no Australian rugby player more dominant over New Zealand from 2000-2003 than George Smith.

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Judging from New Zealand rugby writers and journalists, he was the most important person to ‘take care of’ in order to beat the Wallabies.

When Smith reigned supreme, the Wallabies were supreme.

Watch the DVD ‘Living With the Lions’, which documents the 2001 British and Irish Lions Tour, and listen to Martin Johnson say, “We’ve got to get Smith out of the game!”

From 2005-2007 Richie McCaw exerted such an influence over the Tests New Zealand won that George Smith perhaps won’t be remembered by some for what he was when he first came along: a one-man revolution.

But even had one Richard Hugh McCaw never been born, during the periods McCaw was unquestionably the world’s best player, look at George Smith’s individual accomplishments:

• Australian Super 14 player of the year four years in a row between 2006 and 2009

• The first Wallaby to win the John Eales Medal twice, a feat which only Nathan Sharpe has achieved

• Nine times he was the Brumbies Player of the Year (eight of those won in consecutive years)

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• Super 14 Player of the year for three consecutive years

It may be a long time before Australia has a more decorated rugby union player than George Smith. He is arguably one of the 10 greatest Wallabies of all-time.