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The Golden Wallabies - Australia's best ever XV

The Wallabies need to remember their proud, winning history. (AAP Image/Dean Lewins)
Expert
15th May, 2014
197
19094 Reads

The Roar and the ARU have asked me to name our greatest ever Wallabies team. It’s a big task, so I’m going to get the ball rolling with my own selection, then we’ll leave it up to you guys to sort out who belongs in that golden dream team.

Before you can pick your best Wallabies XV, you need to define your parameters. I stress that these are my parameters – you go with whatever you want to.

Is it the best XV of all time or is it only in the time you’ve been watching the Wallabies play? If it’s all time you have to make decisions on players like legendary halfback Ken Catchpole without having seen him play. That makes no sense to me so I’ve gone with players I’ve seen play.

Is it based on longevity or on the quality of the player regardless of the number of Tests played. If it’s based on longevity that would rule out a player like Mark Ella who only played 25 Tests before retiring far too early. I’ve not limited myself by setting an arbitrary number of Tests before I considered a player.

Should winning percentages come into it and if so, does that rule out some truly great players who weren’t surrounded by other greats? I think results are something that needs to be taken into consideration but is only part of the equation.

And when do you start from? For some the starting point will be the time of the first Rugby World Cup in 1987. For others it will be the advent of professional rugby in 1995.

The starting point for many others could be 1984 when the Wallabies made their grand slam tour of Europe – that’s probably the first time the masses started to take notice of the Wallabies.

For me it’s 1979 which is the first year I remember taking a real interest in the Wallabies which coincided with them winning the Bledisloe Cup for the first time in 35 years.

In my team there are only three players who I think are automatic selections without peer – John Eales, Tim Horan and David Campese but I’m getting ahead of myself.

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Here’s my full team and below that are details of the players considered, their statistics and the reasoning behind my selections.

  1. Tony Daly
  2. Phil Kearns
  3. Ewen McKenzie
  4. Rod McCall
  5. John Eales
  6. Simon Poidevin
  7. David Wilson
  8. Toutai Kefu
  9. Nick Farr-Jones
  10. Mark Ella
  11. David Campese
  12. Tim Horan
  13. Daniel Herbert
  14. Joe Roff
  15. Matt Burke

Read on for the detail behind my selections.

#1 Loosehead Prop
The only player I considered in the last decade was Benn Robinson. Despite already playing 66 Tests and being a big fan of his I think his current performances no longer warrant Wallaby selection and there are two other players who were well ahead of him in my considerations.

Richard Harry played 37 matches, starting in 36 from 1996 to 2000 with a winning percentage of 74.32%. He was the starting loosehead over Dan Crowley in the 1999 Rugby World Cup final, and although he only played for five years he was consistently selected as the starting loosehead during a golden period for the Wallabies.

However the player I’ve selected is Tony Daly. He played 41 Tests from 1989 to 1995 and started all of them with a winning percentage of 75.60%. He was the starting loosehead prop in the 1991 Rugby World Cup final and was a real key in the Wallaby scrum. Who can forget his practice of tearing his left sleeve off to give the opposing tighthead nothing to grip on? Not me.

#2 Hooker
There are only two players I considered here – Tom Lawton and Phil Kearns.

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Lawton played 41 Tests from 1983 to 1989, starting 40 of them with a winning percentage of 62.19%. He was an absolute beast – as big as an Ox and as strong as one too. He was a fearsome scrummager and was at the heart of the famous 1984 front row on the Grand Slam tour when they achieved a push over try against Wales. While he wasn’t part of the most successful Wallaby teams he was a big factor in the Wallabies elevation to become one of the top nations.

Kearns played 67 Tests for the Wallabies from 1989 to 1999 starting in 65 of them and achieved a winning percentage of 74.62%. He was good in the set piece and was very strong in open play. He was the starting hooker when the Wallabies won the 1991 Rugby World Cup final and probably would have been again in 1999 but for injury. He captained the side ten times.

I’ve gone with Kearns, although he wouldn’t make my First XV of rugby commentators!

#3 Tighthead Prop
The first candidate I considered was Andy McIntyre who played 38 matches between 1982 and 1989, starting all of them and finishing with a winning percentage of 60.52%. He wasn’t a big tighthead prop but he was technically excellent. He was the tighthead prop on the 1984 Grand Slam tour including when that famous pushover try was scored.

Topo Rodriguez was another potential candidate but my choice came down to two others – Ewen McKenzie and Andrew Blades.

McKenzie played 51 Tests from 1990 to 1997, starting 50 of them and finished with an excellent winning percentage of 76.47%. He anchored the scrum in the 1991 Rugby World Cup final and was a very good scrummager. While not the quickest mover around the field he was still a really good contributor and was the rock which the Wallabies built their pack around.

Blades played 32 Tests between 1996 and 1999, starting 28 with a slightly higher winning percentage than McKenzie of 76.56%. He was part of the team that Rod Macqueen took to the 1999 Rugby World Cup and was the starting tighthead in the final. Another ‘smaller’ tighthead prop he was technically very good and a solid performer around the field.

I attended a scrum coaching session with Blades a couple of weeks ago and he led the session by doing all the exercises himself and with the aid of the microphone was able to talk us through what he was doing with angle changes etc. from the middle of the scrum as he did them – it was a fantastic session.

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I’ve gone with McKenzie as my choice just ahead of his fellow Wallaby coach in Blades.

#4 Loosehead Lock
As I’ve already alluded to, there was only one choice for me in this role – John Eales.

Although I’d have to let him wear his famous number five, he was the ideal loosehead lock – a dominant lineout operator and a tireless worker around the field. The fact that he had skills better than most backs and could kick goals as well just adds to the legend.

He played 86 Tests from 1991 to 2001, starting all of them and finishing with a winning percentage of 77.90%. He captained the team in 55 Tests winning 76.36% of them and is one of a select group of players to have won two World Cups.

#5 Tighthead Lock
For this position I considered three players – Rod McCall, David Giffin and Nathan Sharpe.

McCall played 40 Tests between 1989 and 1995, starting all of them and finishing with a winning percentage of 72.50%. He was nicknamed ‘Sergeant Slaughter’ and was a genuine tough man. He was the hard man of the Wallabies pack that won the 1991 Rugby World Cup and captained the team in one Test.

Giffin played 50 Tests between 1996 and 2003, starting 43 with a winning percentage of 70.00%. He was part of the most successful Wallabies team during the Rod Macqueen era and was usually the go to man during that period. While not one of the big names of the team he was nevertheless a vital part of it. His combination with Eales was a very good one during this period and he was the starting tighthead lock in the 1999 Rugby World Cup final.

Sharpe played 116 Tests between 2002 and 2012, starting 109 of them and captaining the team 10 times. He finished with a winning percentage of 61.20%. He was a fantastic lineout operator and his form continued getting better right up to the end of his career. He must be considered due to his longevity.

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However, it came down to McCall or Giffin for me and I’ve gone with McCall which means my tight five are the tight five that started the 1991 Rugby World Cup final.

#6 Blindside Flanker
I know many people will be surprised by this but Rocky Elsom didn’t make my short list despite being a fantastic player. I considered three others ahead of him.

Tony Shaw played 36 Tests between 1973 and 1982, starting all of them and captaining the team in 15 of them. The Wallabies were not one of the top rugby nations during that period and his winning percentage was only 55.55% but that shouldn’t detract from his qualities as a player or leader. He played in that famous 1979 Bledisloe win but as a lock.

Owen Finegan played 55 Tests between 1996 and 2003 starting 34 of them and winning 69.09%. He was big, strong and fast and he made a real impact as seen best when he came off the bench as he did in the 1999 Rugby World Cup final to score a barnstorming try. In my opinion his best impact as a Wallaby was made as a bench player rather than a starter.

My choice is Simon Poidevin, who played 59 Tests between 1980 and 1991, starting all of them and winning 65.25%. His mobility around the field was fantastic, bobbing up all over the place and in an era that featured a superb backline he was a real link player. He captained the team four times, never losing as captain – winning three Tests and drawing one.

#7 Openside Flanker
A position where Australia has always had fantastic depth. I did consider Jeff Miller, but he only played 26 Tests and although Phil Waugh played 79 Tests, he only started 44 because there was a better player ahead of him.

That better player was George Smith who played 111 Tests between 2000 and 2013, starting 93 of them and captaining the team in seven Tests. Despite his illustrious career he missed out on a World Cup victory and only won 59.45% of the matches he played in. He was, and still is, a fantastic player – if only the Wallabies could have enticed him back to Australia because I still think he’d be an automatic selection for next year’s World Cup.

In a decision that I’m sure will attract plenty of comment I’ve selected David Wilson ahead of Smith after changing my mind many times. Wilson played 79 Tests between 1992 and 2000 starting 75 of them and captaining the team in nine Tests. He finished his career with a winning percentage of 76.58%. He may not have been as skilful as Smith and he wasn’t one of the big names in Rod Macqueen’s team but he was a key player in their success and was the openside flanker for the 1999 Rugby World Cup final.

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I’ve almost changed my mind again but it’s time to sign off and being part of the most successful Wallaby era seals the deal for Wilson.

#8
Mark Loane played 28 Tests between 1973 and 1982, starting in all of them and captaining the team in six of them. He had a winning percentage of 57.14% but he was a superb player, particularly with ball in hand when he was a very damaging runner.

Willie Ofahengaue played 41 Tests between 1990 and 1998, starting 29 of them and finishing with a winning percentage of 74.39%. He started the 1991 Rugby World Cup final as the openside flanker but he’s best remembered as a human wrecking ball when playing at number eight.

My choice is Toutai Kefu who played 60 Tests between 1997 and 2003, starting in 52 with a winning percentage of 67.50%. He was of course the starting number eight in the 1999 Rugby World Cup final and there are so many highlights of his career but the try in John Eales’ last match is the one that most people remember. He was almost the perfect number eight for me – big, strong, deceptively fast, hard as nails and very physical.

So my forward pack contains one player who started both the 1991 and 1999 Rugby World Cup final, five players who started the 1991 Rugby World Cup final and two who started the 1999 Rugby World Cup final.

Now to my backline.

#9 Scrumhalf
I think there are only two players I’ve seen who come into contention here – George Gregan and Nick Farr-Jones.

Gregan played 139 Tests from 1994 to 2007 and started 133 of them, 59 as captain. That’s an extraordinary record particularly when over that long career he achieved a 67.62% win rate. The win rate dropped to 57.62% when he was captain but that came after a number of key retirements from the team. His form from the time he started right through to the 2003 Rugby World Cup final was exceptional. He was the starting scrumhalf in the 1999 Rugby World Cup final and obviously went so close to a second win in 2003. His form did slip in the last few seasons he played but he was still clearly the number one player in his position for the Wallabies when he retired.

Farr-Jones played 63 Tests from 1984 to 1993 and started in 62 of those. He captained the team in 36 Tests and his overall winning percentage was 67.46% and as captain he achieved a 65.27% win rate. He was the scrumhalf on the 1984 grand slam tour and for the 1991 Rugby World Cup final. He was tough as teak, skilful and a great tactician and leader. He’s my selection at scrumhalf.

#10 Flyhalf
I considered three players – Mark Ella, Michael Lynagh and Stephen Larkham.

Ella is without doubt the most skilful of the three – he was just a magician. He only played 25 Tests between 1980 and 1984. He started in all 25 Tests, 10 as captain. His winning percentage was only 54.00% but he’ll be best remembered for that undefeated grand slam tour in 1984 scoring a try in each of the Tests on tour. And then he was gone, retired at just 25 years of age! The one question regarding a player who played so few Tests is whether his style in attack would have continued to work as defences improved. I don’t think it would, but I also have no doubt that he would have adapted.

Lynagh played alongside Ella in the number twelve position on that 1984 grand slam tour and then stepped into the breach at flyhalf when Ella retired. He played 72 Tests between 1984 and 1995, starting 71 of them, 15 as captain. He finished with a winning percentage of 71.52% and a points haul of 911. He was such an important player for the Wallabies and of course was the starting flyhalf in the 1991 Rugby World Cup final.

Larkham played 102 Tests between 1996 and 2007, the first 15 at fullback. He started in 97 Tests and won 68.13% of all Tests. For much of his career he looked as though he was held together by tape but he just kept finding ways to ghost through defensive lines or set up runners with his beautiful pass. He was the starting flyhalf in the 1999 Rugby World Cup final after kicking ‘that drop goal’ in the semi-final and his injury in the 2007 World Cup campaign cost the Wallabies dearly.

This is a very hard one to decide – I eliminated Lynagh from my reckoning first but then got stuck. In the end the pure genius of Ella wins out as far as I’m concerned.

#11 Left winger
I don’t believe anyone else can be considered beyond David Campese. There were always questions about his defensive capabilities and some of his decisions that backfired but his contribution to winning so many matches for the Wallabies is second to none.

He played 101 Tests between 1982 and 1996, starting 100 of them. He scored 64 tries in those Test which is an extraordinary strike rate. He won 67.32% of all Tests he played in.

Which moment will he be best remembered for? Surely it has to be the over the shoulder pass to Tim Horan in the 1991 Rugby World Cup semi-final against New Zealand. He started in this role in the 1991 Rugby World Cup final.

#12 Inside centre
Like Eales and Campese I don’t see any other player can be considered for this role beyond Tim Horan. He is one of only a handful of players to have won two World Cups – in 1991 and 1999.

Horan played 80 Tests from 1989 to 2000 and started in all of them. He finished with a winning percentage of 74.37%. He also captained the team on one occasion, something I had forgotten.

He was a strong, direct runner – a powerful defender and his skills were sublime. He didn’t play as well when he was selected at flyhalf when Larkham was injured but he is right up there as a candidate as the best number twelve to have ever played the game.

#13 Outside centre
I considered four candidates for this position – Andrew Slack, Jason Little, Daniel Herbert and Stirling Mortlock.

Slack played 39 Tests from 1978 to 1987, starting in all of them, 19 times as captain. He was the captain of the 1984 grand slam winning team and finished with a career winning percentage of 61.53%. He wasn’t a spectacular player but he was so dependable and a great leader.

Little played 75 Tests from 1989 to 2000, most of them alongside his mate Horan. They played together at school in Queensland and formed a superb partnership together. However, Little wasn’t just part of a double act – he was an outstanding player in his own right. He started in 62 of his Tests, winning 77.33%. He also captained the team on one occasion, a fact I was not aware of previously.

Herbert played 67 Tests from 1994 to 2002, starting in 66 of them. His success rate was 75.37%. He was the starting player in this position in the 1999 Rugby World Cup final. He was a direct runner and a very good defender. The Wallabies were very lucky to have both he and Little as options during this period.

Mortlock played 80 Tests from 2000 to 2009, starting in 77 of them. Of course he played many of his Tests on the wing and took over the role once Herbert retired. He captained the team in 29 Tests winning 65.00% overall and 62.06% as captain. He started in this role in the 2003 Rugby World Cup final and will always be best remembered for his intercept try in the semi-final of that tournament against New Zealand.

I’ve gone with Herbert – he is the only one of the four to have won a World Cup and he was good enough to start ahead of Little and keep Mortlock on the wing. Mortlock would be my second choice.

#14 Right Wing
The left wing position is already occupied so the other wingers have to compete for the right wing position. There are so many possibilities but I narrowed my choice to Joe Roff or Ben Tune.

Roff played 86 Tests from 1995 to 2004 winning 72.09% of them. He started in 79 of those Tests and scored 30 tries. He started at number eleven in the 1999 Rugby World Cup final with Tune on the other side of the backline. He was big, strong, fast and had silky skills.

Tune played 47 Tests from 1996 to 2006, a number limited by recurring injuries. He started in 42 of those and won 64.89% of his Tests. He was fast and a great finisher scoring 24 tries, a much better strike rate than Roff. One of those tries came in the 1999 Rugby World Cup final. He didn’t have the size of Roff but he was still a tough player who we didn’t see enough of due to those injuries.

I think Tune was probably the more gifted player but Roff wasn’t far behind and we saw so much more of his great form in so many more Tests. For that reason he’s my choice.

#15 Fullback
Despite so many great players to choose from I came down to a choice between Chris Latham and Matt Burke. I almost included Roger Gould as a third.

Latham played 78 Tests between 1998 and 2007, starting 68 of those. I admit that I’d forgotten that he played so many but I won’t forget how skilful he was. He won 65.38% of his Tests and scored 40 tries which is a better strike rate than Roff or Tune. He was fast, elusive and had a massive boot on him. His defence was the only area where he could have improved in.

Burke played 81 Tests between 1993 and 2004, starting in 69 of them. He won 68.51% of his Tests including the 1999 Rugby World Cup final in which he started after coming back from a major injury. He scored 29 tries and 878 points overall. He was a very good player in all aspects of the game but his goal kicking tips the balance for me in his favour.

So my backline includes one player from both the 1991 and 1999 Rugby World Cup final, two from the 1991 Rugby World Cup final, three from the 1999 Rugby World Cup final and one who didn’t ever play in a World Cup.

There’s my best Wallabies XV – how different is it to the one you’ve selected?

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