Away day blues
August 17, 2009
Robbie Deans will be grateful to be back in Australia given the Wallabies' poor form on the road © Getty Images
Disappointing, yet unsurprising is the best way to describe the Wallabies' fruitless visit to the Republic. Unlike Auckland where they were the masters of their own defeat, this time the Wallabies were merely passengers to their fate.
It was a match where the Wallabies knew exactly how their opponent would play, what tactics would be employed, yet they were unable to counter the aerial blitzkrieg unleashed by the Boks.
Again, questions are raised as to the Wallabies mental toughness to endure the adversities and win an away Tri-Nations fixture. Under coach Robbie Deans the Wallabies have now only won one of their six games on the road (including Hong Kong) and for the first time in his tenure there is mounting pressure to deliver a victory this week in Sydney against his country of origin.
There is only so long that "competitive losses" in the name of development for 2011 will be tolerated by the Australian public and certainly the vocal media. Thankfully, Sydney has been a fortress for the Wallabies, with only one loss there since the 2003 RWC final.
The only positive to pull from the Cape Town wreckage was that the Wallabies scrum, led brilliantly by Benn Robinson, scored a moral victory over the world champions.
This is no small triumph on the part of the Wallabies scrum doctors. Think back to 2007 where England taunted the Australian scrum both before and during their quarter-final humiliation of the Wallabies in Marseille. Now fast forward less than two years later and we have the much-vaunted Springboks pack, at home, electing to take a lineout rather than mix it with Robinson and Co.
The Wallabies certainly were not helped either by the inconsistent officiating of what is deemed interference of the kick chasers. In their two games in South Africa, the All Blacks employed the tactic, without penalty, of screening their back three to allow them to take the high ball without significant pressure from the Springbok chasers.
The Wallabies attempted the same, but referee Alain Rolland had no hesitation in blowing the pea out of the whistle for obstruction. In doing so the Wallabies lost their only defence against the effective, yet tedious, Springboks bombardment.
However, blaming the referee masks other flaws within the Wallabies ahead of the Test against New Zealand. Poor discipline again reared its ugly ahead and allowed the Springboks the opportunity to accumulate cheap points through Morne Steyn. Deans also has some personnel decisions to make, foremost at scrumhalf. Incumbent Luke Burgess continues to look unsettled and lacking in confidence and with the outside backs relying on better distribution it may be time to give understudy Will Genia the nod, after his impressive showing off the bench in Cape Town.
Boosting the squad will be the return of Rocky Elsom who, with George Smith and Richard Brown, will give the Wallabies a much more combative backrow partnership for the All Blacks to contend with.
Of course, a new captain also needs to be found after Stirling Mortlock's knee injury curtailed his campaign. While the selectors will most likely play it safe and give Smith the armband for the remaining Tri-Nations Tests, they are missing an opportunity to look ahead to 2011 and beyond. Smith is a reluctant captain and has previously said he'd rather lead by example on the field than take on the added off-field responsibilities of captaincy. With the next long-term captain needing to come from the Wallabies "Generation Next", Berrick Barnes must be the leading contender. Mature and articulate, he has already shown his strong leadership credentials for the Queensland Reds, which given their past two seasons, would have been a difficult job!
Softening the on-field woes, the announcement that rugby is very close to returning to the Olympic stage is a major boost for the code downunder. Increased national profile aside, the re-introduction of rugby as an Olympic sport would give the ARU much needed leverage to apply for government funding to support the Sevens program. As an Olympic sport, football has enjoyed steady government support despite boasting a professional league and television deal, whereas Rugby have often suffered for government funding, best seen by the reversal of support for the ARU's Centre of Excellence at Ballymore last year.
The great irony is that for years of showing little interest in the benefits of Sevens rugby, the ARU, sniffing the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, now champion the shortened version of the sport.
Last week the ARU also announced their intention to promote Melbourne as their preferred location for the 15th franchise of the expanded Super Rugby competition. It was not an unexpected choice and the ARU have simply played it by the numbers. The other bid locations, including the Gold Coast, Sunshine Coast and Western Sydney, all compete within the geographical framework of the existing franchises and would have exposed a minefield of issues for the ARU to contend with, even before the SANZAR politics kick off.
The stakes here are high for ARU. If the fifth team is based in Melbourne the number of regular season games will increase from 26 to 40 - an increase of 54%. With more content comes larger gate receipts and TV dollars, just the tonic for a cash-strapped rugby economy. However, there still must be reservations as to the competitiveness of a fifth Australian team. So far, the Australian player pool has failed to materialise into four competitive playing rosters, so adding a fifth will require a large influx of foreign players. But where will these quality players come from when they can earn much more in the English and French competitions?