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There have been some stunning debut performances for the Wallabies over the years, but if we were to make a team of them, who could make the cut?
15. Roger Gould: Australia 13 def. New Zealand 9 (1st Test, 1980)
The safest and most secure fullback of all-time made his Test debut for the Wallabies in the first Test of the 1980 Bledisloe Cup.
Gould debuted as the best player on the field.
The All Blacks perhaps felt since Gould was a new fullback and their side was superior in the forwards, the best way to attack the Wallabies was through utilising the high ball and have a pack of All Blacks run over the top of him.
Bret Harris in Ella, Ella, Ella perhaps described Gould’s debut most aptly.
‘New Zealand’s most bewildering tactic was its insistence on kicking down Gould’s throat,’ Harris reported.
‘Perhaps the controversy over Gould’s selection suggested to the All Blacks that he was a weak link.’
‘But Gould silenced his critics with a grand display. He was icey cool under an avalanche of high balls and kept the All Blacks back-peddling with his thunderous punts.’
Gould’s kicking led to Michael Hawker scoring his first try in Test-match rugby.
‘The big Queenslander sent the ball soaring over the top of the New Zealand team where it was fielded by champion winger, Stu Wilson,’ Harris documented. ‘But Wilson lost his footing, spilling the ball and it was scooped up by Hawker who dashed to the line unopposed.’
14. Peter Grigg: Australia 24 def. New Zealand 10 (3rd Test, 1980)
Perhaps no other Australian rugby player had a more famous first touch than Peter Grigg.
‘We were standing in, of course, the Sydney Cricket Ground, those famous dressing sheds,’ Grigg recalled to Philip Derriman. ‘And Greg Cornelsen was standing in front of me. For whatever reason, he turned around to me and said, “Griggy, don’t forget the chip kick.” ‘
‘I think Griggy’s got it wrong,’ Cornelsen later remarked.
‘No, I mentioned in a team meeting prior that a lot of the wingers get barreled into touch when you’ve got all the forwards streaming through, and don’t forget the centre kick.’
But what happened during the Test, according to Cornelsen?
‘And we were screaming for Griggy for the centre kick, but he used the chip kick,’ he clarified.
‘Whether Cornie’s mention of the chip kick had something to do with it, I don’t know,’ Grigg later said. ‘Anyway, the rest’s history.’
In running rugby, Mark Ella highlighted Grigg’s chip over the top and re-gather as the start of a running rugby revolution in Australia.
‘Peter Grigg has come into the match on the wing, and from his first touch of the ball, a few minutes after the kick-off, he chipped over the top, regathered and scored,’ Ella wrote.
‘The crowd at the Sydney Cricket Ground went wild with excitement. It was a dream start, and we didn’t allow the All Blacks to recover from it.’
‘Suddenly the Australian newspapers were writing about the dawn of a new era in Australian rugby,’ Ella recalled.
‘They raved about the way we played the game, about our running rugby.’
13. Jason Little: Australia 32 def. France 15 (1st Test, 1989)
No other Test match in Wallabies history is more synonymous with awesome debuts than the 32-15 victory over Les Bleus in Strasbourg during 1989.
This match is perhaps the most underrated achievement in the history of Australian rugby.
Five players made their debuts in this Test – Rod McCall, Peter FitzSimons, Jason Little, Brendan Nasser, and Darren Junee.
Yet the Wallabies defeated the vastly more experienced French side.
‘But of all the rugby matches I have been involved with over a 30-year period, that Test goes down as one of my all-time favourites,’ former Wallaby assistant coach Bob Templeton later said.
‘It was such a courageous performance.’
Nick Farr-Jones would later call it the best memory he has of his entire rugby career, including winning the World Cup.
Unquestionably the most wonderful part of the Wallabies’ victory was that Tim Horan and Jason Little outplayed their French counterparts Franck Mesnel and Philippe Sella, then widely rated the best centre combination in the world.
The Wallabies were trailing 3-12 and France had complete control of the Test.
Michael Lynagh hoisted a high ball for Greg Martin to run onto and contest. Martin did brilliantly to catch the ball and he then popped a pass to Jason Little in support. Little was racing towards the line when Patrice Lagisquet brought him down. Without hearing a call, Little passed outside to Horan, sensing that he was there.
Horan sprinted on to score his first international Test-match try.
It was one of the first demonstrations of the partnership and the friendship that would go on to bear so much fruit for the Wallabies in years to come.
12. Tim Horan: Australia 12 def by. New Zealand 24 (1989)
Tim Horan made his debut in the sole 1989 Bledisloe Cup game.
Horan’s biographer Michael Blucher documented how his debut performance made an impression on the great All Blacks centre Joe Stanley.
“‘Well done Tim, I thought you played very well,’ Stanley said, offering first his hand, then his jersey.’ Horan stood up – swapping jerseys – it was obviously a tradition. As much as he wanted to keep his first Test jumper, he thought he should do the right thing. He gestured to remove it but Stanley stopped him. ‘No mate, you keep yours, it’s your first Test. Congratulations.’”
Blucher continued to write that:
“Stanley’s thoughtfulness left a sweet taste in the mouth of an impressionable teenager. He believed it said a lot about the game. Horan felt he had just joined a very select club, an international fellowship of rugby players.
He thought about how wonderful life-long membership would be.”
11. Israel Folau: Australia 21 def by. British and Irish Lions 23 (1st Test, 2013)
What an incredible debut Folau made for the Wallabies in 2013 on the wing.
He scored two tries in a Test the Wallabies lost, but received the man of the match award for his efforts.
Perhaps the high point of Folau’s performance was his first try when he stood Johnny Sexton up and slid inside right past him.
In Behind the Lions, Sexton recalled Folau’s incredible try.
‘When I got one-on-one with Folau, I tried to show him one way – the outside – and he took me on the inside,’ Sexton said.
‘I thought there was cover coming across. I didn’t really identify who was inside me, which I should have, and I got stood up.
‘When you give someone of that size and speed the space that we gave him, it’s pretty hard to stop, and it was a great try he ended up scoring.’
10. Rod Kafer: Australia 28 def. New Zealand 7 (second Bledisloe Cup Test, 1999)
It would have been quite easy to select Mark Ella’s first Test in 1980 as the best five-eighth debut in Wallaby history, during which he landed a drop-goal on his non-preferred right foot and set Mick Martin up for a try.
There was also the option of being cheeky and selecting Stephen Larkham’s debut at five-eighth against England in 1998 – a 76-0 victory. However, that was his 13th Test for the Wallabies, albeit his flyhalf debut.
Berrick Barnes played very well at five-eighth during the 2007 Rugby World Cup pool game against Wales.
However, I’ve opted for Rod Kafer’s debut performance, in what is still the Wallabies’ largest victory over the All Blacks. George Gregan documented the influence Kafer had on the Wallabies in Halfback, Half Forward:
“Even before he was chosen in the starting XV, Kafe had been working on a strategy to change the way we played… Kafe was smart in that, when he presented his thoughts to Rod [MacQueen], he came armed with sheets of paper on which he’d drafted his proposals. The coach always liked that sort of detail, and he looked at and listened to the presentation and then said, ‘How good is this?'”
“It was agreed that we would use these tactics in the Test and train accordingly. I’ve rarely enjoyed the lead-up to a Test more. Kafe would have been in the side anyway, but when his plan was adopted so enthusiastically it meant he went into the game full of confidence.
“The final score was 28-7, a record winning margin for Australia in a Bledisloe Cup Test, achieved in front of a crowd of 107,042 at the new Stadium Australia in Sydney. Bomber [David Wilson] had a brilliant game, Kef might have been better.”
9. Peter Carson: Australia 12 def. New Zealand 6 (1979)
Mr. Perfect! Peter Carson is the talisman of Australian rugby. Whenever Peter Carson was in the team, the Wallabies simply didn’t lose.
Actually, he only played two Tests for the Wallabies against the All Blacks and won them both.
The legendary Wallaby halfback Cyril Burke rated Carson as having the best pass of any Australian halfback he had ever seen!
Trailing 3-6 against the All Blacks, it was a Carson bullet-pass to the 1977-78 Australian Schoolboys captain Tony Melrose, who kicked a drop-goal which levelled the scores for the Wallabies at halftime.
Jenkins in Wallaby Gold described Carson as providing “silver tray service at speed.”
History records that the Wallabies went on to win 12-6 – their first Bledisloe Cup triumph since 1949.
8. Steve Tuynman: France 15 drew Australia 15 (1st Test, 1983)
I have never seen Steve Tuynman’s debut performance. However, it was enough for Roger Gould to describe it as the greatest debut by a Wallaby he’s ever seen.
In 1981, the French rugby team toured Australia when they encountered the most ferocious, menacing Queensland pack one could ever encounter.
Queensland had defeated the All Blacks 9-6 in 1980 and Scotland 12-7 in 1982 and they wanted the scalp of the Five Nation champion French side.
The Queenslanders belted the French side to within an inch of their lives, but incredibly, France hung on to win 17-15.
To say that relations between France and Australia took a dive would be an understatement.
On one occasion, Andrew Slack asked Jean-Pierre Rives where both teams would be celebrating following a match. Rives ignored Slack completely.
Retribution for France would come in 1983. It was during the Wallabies’ tour of France in 1983 that Mark McBain was hit so hard in the head that he began leaking brain fluid.
It was also on this tour when Steve Tuynman nearly has his ear torn off from a severe rucking during a provincial game.
The great French eight-man Laurent Rodriguez would later miss the two-Test series against the Wallabies after breaking his hand on Steve Tuynman’s head.
Tuynman survived this baptism of fire and then made his debut as the Wallabies’ man of the match in a 15-15 draw.
7. Ray Price: Australia 6 def by. New Zealand 11 (1st Test, 1974)
The Australian coach Dave Brockhoff approached Ray Price with the utmost seriousness. Price was about the make his debut for the Wallabies, and Brockhoff was about to deliver some serious news.
‘Ray… I’m giving you Kirky,’ said Brockhoff. ‘You’ll be marking Kirky in your first Test.’
‘Who?’ Price responded.
‘Um… Ian Kirkpatrick, the best player in the All Blacks, the best flanker in the world,’ Brockhoff responded.
‘What’s the matter with you? It’s Kirky! Kirky! You’ll be marking Kirky!’
Years later Price would tell rugby writer Peter Jenkins in 100 Great Rugby Players that, “It just didn’t mean anything to me. It was my first Test and they had people that to me were only names.”
“I never followed the game that closely as a youngster, I was too busy out looking for matches to play. I never believed in auras when you were playing against someone.
“They all cut and bleed the same. And if they were good at anything it was only because some other bastard was letting them be good.”
The 72-kilogram Price went out, made his debut, irritated the 100-kilogram ‘Kirky’ so much the famous All Black forgot to play the ball the entire Test, and then Price scored a try in the eighth minute of play chasing down a Paul McLean penalty attempt that was held up in the howling wind and rain.
6. Ilie Tabua: Australia 28 def. South Africa 20 (second Test, 1993)
Ah! Uli Schmidt and Wallaby blindside flankers! It’s a beautiful love affair! Uli picks up the ball, he runs with tremendous power and ferocity, and he selects the best tackler in the Australian team to absolutely wipe him out!
Uli did it against the Wallabies at Cape Town in 1992 during the 73rd minute of the Test. The Wallabies were holding onto an 11-3 lead, but South Africa had some momentum as the Test entered its final stages.
Schmidt picked up the ball and went on a powerful run, straight into Willie Ofahengaue.
However, Uli Schmidt was not satisfied with his effort in 1992. He toured Australia in 1993 with the Springboks looking for another Wallaby to run into and tackle him senseless!
Has any Australian made a better debut for the Wallabies than Ilie Tabua did in 1993? I don’t think so. Ilie Tabua made the greatest debut for the Wallabies in history.
‘South African hooker Uli Schmidt still has nightmares about the Tabua tackles that buried him in 1993,’ David Campese recollected in My Game Your Game. ‘When you can hurt the opposition like that, in a fair way, players earn instant respect. It also inspires your teammates.’
How good was Tabua’s performance? Good enough that on a day when Jason Little scored the two best individual tries of his international career, Tabua was named the man of the match.
(Actually, Little threw a pass that was intercepted by Springbok five-eighth Joel Stransky for a South African try, so he was only plus one. Not plus two.)
5. John Eales: Australia vs Wales (1991)
John Eales winning the Australia Society of Rugby Writers man of the match award for his debut performance against Wales – you would expect nothing less from a man nicknamed ‘nobody.’
In a Test with 25 line-outs, the Wallabies won 20, with John Eales winning 13 of these.
At one point of the Test, while standing at two in the line-out, Phil Kearns threw the ball to him.
Eales palmed the ball back to Phil Kearns, who in turn, ‘plonked’ over the try-line for one of his two tries. Eales didn’t catch the ball, he merely manipulated it with his palm, and handed it back down to Kearns as he re-entered the field of play.
Nobody’s perfect on debut, except John Eales.
4. Justin Harrison: Australia 29 def. British and Irish Lions 23 (1st Test, 2001)
What on earth was Austin Healey thinking? You never give your opposition a team talk.
He did just that!
An ‘ape’, a ‘plod’, a ‘plank’ – these are just some of the names he called Justin Harrison before he made his debut for the Wallabies in the third and deciding Lions Test of 2001.
‘They called him an ape,’ Chris Handy noted on commentary as Justin Harrison stole the first Lions throw-in of the Test, ‘And I’ll have one of these with arms as long as that in my side anytime.’
Justin Harrison absolutely got stuck into the Lions in this Test. At one point he infuriated Martin Johnson so much that Johnson grabbed him by the neck.
As soon as Johnson did that, ‘Googey’ Harrison was quick to point this out to the referee, and Johnson quickly released his grip!
He loved niggling the Lions throughout the Test and constantly doing things to frustrate them.
Matthew Burke narrated the ending to this Test in Matt Burke: A rugby life.
‘At six points clear, we still weren’t out of danger,’ Burke wrote. ‘And a late penalty gave them a chance to find touch and get some metres and go for a driving lineout – and maybe the try and goal that could steal it away.’
‘It was then that Justin Harrison intervened with his moment that would become part of Australian rugby folklore – stealing the ball away from Martin Johnson on our fifteen metres line with the Lions in a menacing position.’
‘The moment – photographed, framed and signed – quickly became a popular piece of memorabilia.’
‘I still think of him as the Lion tamer,’ George Gregan later wrote in praising Harrison.
3. Ewen McKenzie: Australia 21 def. France 9 (second Test, 1990)
‘Great’ is an overused word, but Ewen McKenzie was a great rugby player.
The Australian front-row completely outplayed the French front-row in the first Test of 1990.
However, that may have been due to French prop Louis Armary being asked to play the hooker position, which he’d never played before.
After Phil Kearns successfully stole three against the head on Armary, the French prop rose out of the scrum and head-butted Kearns as if to say, “I don’t usually play this position, don’t do that again!”
As fine a debut as McKenzie made, his second Test for the Wallabies would contain a pushover try.
He also had a role in Paul Cornish scoring a try on debut in the second Test, when he pressured the French winger Lacombe while he was taking the high ball.
McKenzie was a fabulously mobile front-rower.
2. Phil Kearns: Australia 12 def by. New Zealand 24 (1989)
‘What are you doing here, little fat boy!’ the All Blacks hooker said.
‘Huh?’ replied Kearns.
‘You want to go home to your mother, don’t you?’
His name was Sean Fitzpatrick and he didn’t mind giving Kearns a verbal or two.
Yet for all the sledging Fitzpatrick was giving Kearns, the Wallabies did better than people expected in the one-off 1989 Bledisloe Cup Test.
The All Blacks had been undefeated since 1987 and were 20-point favourites to retain the Bledisloe Cup, yet it wasn’t until late in the Test victory was sealed for New Zealand.
When the Wallabies arrived in Auckland, veteran Wallaby Simon Poidevin asked specifically if he could room with Phil Kearns so he could help him make his debut.
What was Poidevin’s impression of Phil Kearns’ Wallaby debut? He gives an account of it in For Love Not Money.
‘The young Australian players were under enormous pressure early, but as the game progressed they started to come good and the whole team responded to it,’ Poidevin related.
‘We could see cracks appearing in the invincible All Black armour.’
‘As the second half wore on we became more and more enthusiastic, our scrum was starting to make life very difficult for the opposition and it became a Test where a draw would have been a very fair result.’ (p 184)
However, one last magnificent rolling maul, late in the game, led to a try scored by Richard Loe and a final score of 24-12 – New Zealand victorious.
1. Chris Handy – Australia 30 def Australia 16 (3rd Test – 1978)
It has been well-documented that after the Wallabies lost the second Test of the 1978 Bledisloe Cup series, Wallaby coach Daryl Haberecht suffered a heart attack.
Faced with a difficult decision, the senior Wallaby players decided they would enter into the final Bledisloe Cup Test without a coach.
It was then that it was decided that Chris Handy would make his debut for the Wallabies and that he would have a crucial assignment for his first Test.
Wallaby author and historian Max Howell documented Handy’s role in Australia’s historic history in Wallaby Legends.
“It was decided that the 198-centimetre, 110-kilogram giant All Black Andy Haden, the world’s best lineout jumper, had to be ‘attended to’ and in his first Test, the squat Handy was given this assignation,” Howell documented.
“He pushed, pulled, even belted Haden in the game, and received double measure in return.”
The result speaks for itself – the Wallabies scored their first win over the All Blacks since 1964 and obtained what would be the first of three consecutive wins against their trans-Tasman rivals.