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The history of selecting balanced back rows

Phil Waugh was one of Australia's best ever. (Photo: AAP)
Roar Guru
15th September, 2016
42
3195 Reads

Recent discussions about the utility of the ‘Pooper’ has got me thinking about the importance of selecting a balanced backrow for every Test.

It is an unfortunate fact that the best rugby team often doesn’t possess the best 15 individuals. Nowhere is this more evident than in selecting a backrow.

Former Australian coach Bob Dwyer once wrote that, “Selecting backrow combinations is like solving a Rubik’s cube. The permutations can be endless. In committee rooms around the world the sight of candles burning long into the night is an indication that selectors are wrestling with the backrow conundrum.”

Here are four examples of excellent Wallaby legends who couldn’t be selected more often due to the ‘balance of the backrow.’

4. Phil Waugh
The 2003 World Cup semi against New Zealand ranks among the ten greatest Wallabies performances I have ever seen.

Months prior to the World Cup, following a 21-50 defeat to New Zealand at Telstra Stadium, there was a newspaper headline that read “We can’t win the World Cup!”

The Wallabies were floundering.

Not helping matters was a narrow escape against Ireland in the 2003 World Cup quarter-final, which was almost lost to a drop-goal in the final moments.

How the Wallabies turned things around is inexplicable. Following this Test Justin Marshall asked George Gregan, “Mate, what was that?”

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Gregan responded, “I don’t know! We’ve been playing like absolute rubbish!”

But everything clicked that night, and the most pleasing aspect of the Wallabies success was the domination displayed by George Smith and Phil Waugh.

From 2000-2002, George Smith was unquestionably one of the five best rugby players in the world. Watch, if you will, the rugby DVD documenting the 2001 British and Irish Lions entitled Living with the Lions.

Footage of the halftime speech Martin Johnson gave to the Lions demonstrates the one player the Lions were focused on getting out of the Test – George Smith. “Smith is everywhere”, Johnson exclaimed! (The Lions, by the way, were dominating the Wallabies.)

Yet the form of Phil Waugh in 2003 was good enough that it forced Australian coach Eddie Jones to place him in the side, relegating the best openside flanker in the world at that point, to the blindside.

It worked wonderfully.

However, the combination of Smith-Waugh never succeeded following this Test. I believe Australia only won one more Test against New Zealand with the Smith-Waugh combination, and the All Blacks were able to make adjustments to counter this duo.

Richie McCaw once noted that when George Smith played as a blindside flanker, he tended to revert to hunting like an openside.

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The Wallabies may have had an advantage at the breakdown playing Smith and Waugh, but they had failure making headway through their ball carrying. What they needed was a ball carrier, and Rocky Elsom was the obvious choice.

Elsom soon replaced Waugh as a permanent fixture in the Wallabies side, and by 2008 Elsom had developed into a terrific player before leaving for Ireland.

Phil Waugh is seriously becoming underrated in Australia, though. I can recall a few Tests where he won man of the match for his performances.

I can also recall at the beginning of John Connolly’s reign in 2006, people debating about whether Waugh or Smith should be in the side.

George Smith is arguably Australia’s greatest ever openside flanker, and possibly one of the ten greatest Wallabies of all time.

That Phil Waugh didn’t play for the side more often was quite unfortunate for him, but balance in the backrow is paramount.

3. Peter Lucas

Peter Lucas was the shock omission from the 1984 Grand Slam Tour.

It’s unlikely that Lucas would have played a Test in the UK, as Australia possessed two players of exceptional talent in Steve Tuynman and Ross Reynolds. However Lucas was held in high enough regard that his omission came as a surprise to many.

What was the genesis of Lucas’ omission?

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Lucas played a tremendous role at eightman during the 1982 Tour to New Zealand. Australia were severely undermanned as a result of ten Queenslanders withdrawing from the tour.

Australia only possessed one way of attacking the All Blacks, and that was to run the ball at them. Australia did not possess the forward strength to win the series in New Zealand, and only a smallish backrow that could cover tremendous distance at speed, and possessed ball skills, could assist Australia in being competitive.

Watch, if you will, the greatest try in the history of Australian rugby in the second Test. Who was it that passed the ball to Duncan Hall, who then passed the ball to David Campese? Peter Lucas. His coverage of the ground was tremendous.

Despite losing the series 1-2, the 1982 Tour to New Zealand was a smashing success for the Wallabies, who scored more points on that tour than any other Australian side that had previously toured New Zealand.

But Lucas’ continuing presence in the side made little sense, given how similar Peter Lucas, Simon Poidevin and Chris Roche were.

Lucas fit well in the side when Australia had no option but to run the ball. But the backrow of Lucas-Poidevin-Roche did not have the size or strength to sustain itself.

Prior to the two-Test series against France in 1983, Australian coach Bob Dwyer controversially dropped Peter Lucas for Steve Tuynman, allowing Tuynman to make his debut for Australia.

Steve Tuynman is one of the greatest eightmen Australia has ever produced, and definitely the most dynamic.

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However, this was not the Steve Tuynman of the 1984 Grand Slam Tour, or the Steve Tuynman who may have been Australia’s second best player on the 1986 Tour to New Zealand (behind Farr-Jones).

In fact, Tuynman’s selection by Alan Jones in 1984 surprised many, given that Alan Jones (a former Manly coach) had one of his Manly players, on form, at his disposal – Ross Reynolds.

It mattered little. Lucas simply couldn’t be selected in 1983. Dwyer made the right decision. He also couldn’t be selected in 1984.

2. Chris Roche
Chris Roche is even unluckier than Peter Lucas.

While I wouldn’t call Roche an “underrated” Australian rugby player, he most certainly was unfortunate not to play more for Australia, as I’ve already stated.

Commenting upon the 1981-82 Tour to the UK, former Wallabies centre and wing (and Roche’s close friend) Michael O’Connor once stated that:

‘Right from the start there were two factions. It wasn’t NSW and Queensland, but you had the old school and the younger group.’

Players were selected more on reputation than on form. A prime example was utility Mitchell Cox, who according to several reports, demonstrated excellent form throughout the tour. And yet Paul McLean was selected at inside center for the Test against Scotland.

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In Michael O’Connor’s autobiography The Best of Both Worlds, writer Brett Harris documented that, “Michael observed some of the players who had missed Test selection becoming ‘bitter and twisted’. Chris Roche, Steve Williams and Mick Mathers drowned their disappointment by downing two and a half dozen cans of beer in a hotel room.’

Roche wasn’t selected, despite good form.

However, following a 45-6 victory for Queensland against Scotland, the entire Queensland forward pack (Roche included) was selected for the first Test against Scotland in 1982.

Roche quickly entrenched himself in the side, ascending to the role of vice-captain within two years.

However, prior to the 1984 Grand Slam Tour, Australian coach Alan Jones removed the vice-captaincy from Roche, bestowing it upon Manly second-rower Steve Williams.

His intentions were clear. David Codey was going to be selected as a flanker on the 1984 Grand Slam Tour, and the remaining flanker position would be a contest between the wonderful Simon Poidevin and Chris Roche.

Roche was arguably quicker and had better ball skills. Poidevin was taller and stronger. Jones wanted height and Poidevin possessed it.

Poidevin prevailed, and played a phenomenal and crucial part in Australia’s success on the 1984 Grand Slam Tour, playing some of the best rugby of his career, as I’ve previously documented.

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To his credit, Roche was selected for one Test against Ireland, and made a key contribution to Australia’s victory, in what was Australia’s toughest match on tour.

But Roche appeared to see ‘the writing on the wall’, and one of Australia’s best ever flankers was soon lost to rugby league.

1. Jeff Miller
In early 1991, Jeff Miller put in a career-best performance against Wales, which Australia won 63-6. Miller was the unanimous choice for man of the match, by all rugby critics.

Then Australian coach Bob Dwyer did something shocking.

The reigning Five Nations Champions, England, were touring Australia with a fantastic backrow containing names like Dean Richards, Mike Teague, and Peter Winterbottom.

Fearing the power the English possessed off the back of the scrum in attack, Dwyer controversially dropped Miller for Simon Poidevin, claiming that he needed Poidevin’s size and strength to combat the strength of the English backrow.

Forever to his credit, Dwyer got things right. Australia’s 40-15 win against England in early 1991 has been touted as the greatest performance by an Australian side in history.

Australia’s backrow was highly praised for establishing a continuity of play between forwards and backs.

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Who was Australia’s best rugby player in early 1991? Was it Nick Farr-Jones? No. Was it Michael Lynagh? No. Was it David Campese? No. Was it John Eales? No.

It was Tim Gavin.

Then disaster struck. Gavin suffered an injury, throwing Australia’s World Cup aspirations into a downward spiral.

Rather than bringing Jeff Miller back into the squad, Dwyer selected Troy Coker for the second Bledisloe Cup Test of 1991. Coker was one behind Sam Scott-Young in the Queensland side. However, Scott-Young was injured and so Coker made his Test debut against New Zealand.

In his autobiography The Winning Way, Dwyer notes that Coker, “had not been too impressive then… (p. 142)

What was the solution Dwyer sought to this problem of compensation for an injured Tim Gavin? In The Winning Way he explains:

One problem remained unresolved – how best to fill the number-eight position left vacant by Tim Gavin. We experimented in this match by putting John Eales there. Although Eales had played all his senior representative rugby at second row and had been excelling in this position, he had nevertheless played more often at number eight over the whole of his career. The experiment was not successful. Eales shaped up well in some respects, but he was certainly no Tim Gavin.

Following Eales’ stint in the number eight jersey, Jeff Miller was quickly returned to the starting line-up.

However, following Australia’s near escape against Ireland in the 1991 World Cup Quarter-Final, Australia’s selector John ‘Knuckles’ Connolly said to Wallaby coach Bob Dwyer, “If we choose that same forward pack, we will be presenting the match to New Zealand.”

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Jeff Miller must be ranked among the most unfortunate Australian players of all-time, because while his form dictated that he should be a starting player in the 1991 World Cup team, the simple fact was that the combination of Ofahengaue-Poidevin-Miller simply wasn’t a balanced backrow – it had neither the sufficient height nor weight.

On form, Troy Coker didn’t deserve to be selected. However, the first half of the World Cup semi was one of those days where everything went right for Australia. Coker put in a career-best effort. He played the game of his life.

Watch, if you will, just seconds prior to Campese’s famous diagonal run that turned John Kirwan inside out, Troy Coker absolutely launching his body into the ruck, allowing Farr-Jones clean possession to throw a bullet to Campese. Campese has the vision and the anticipation to slide into the five-eighth position and attempt a ridiculous angle to run at.

Coker gave the Wallabies the required balance in the backrow they so sorely needed. Australia went on to win the World Cup.