A line in the sand
January 4, 2010
The Wallabies, and skipper Rocky Elsom, need to bounce back from a disappointing 2009 © Getty Images
From an Australian rugby point of view, the best part of 2009 was that it ended. Last year saw the Wallabies lose more Tests than they won, multiple unsavoury off-field incidents and the tragic passing of the Brumbies' Shawn Mackay. Really, it's a year we wish to forget.
Fortunately, the nature of sport also allows one to hope for a quick turnaround. There's always another season, another match to pin your hopes on, a revival of form and a return to the winner's circle. But will 2010 be that year for Australian rugby?
Perhaps some inspiration can be taken from a film I watched over the holidays, Cinderella Man, which tells the story of a professional boxer during the Great Depression and his remarkable comeback from near oblivion to be world heavyweight champion.
While certainly not a life or death scenario like James J. Braddock's in the 1930s, the Wallabies are now at their own crossroads. In one direction is their fulfillment of the potential that coach Robbie Deans has unearthed, while the other is to slip away in the history of time as yet another team which underachieved. The Wallabies are masters of their own fate, so will they allow themselves to fall to the canvas or, like Braddock seventy years earlier, land their own knockout blow?
There's no doubt the Wallabies have the talent, but there are certainly doubts whether they are mentally strong enough to beat the likes of the All Blacks and Springboks who, despite protestations from my friends in Europe, are the major contenders for the William Webb Ellis Cup in just over 18 months time.
They say rugby is a matter of inches and to a large extent the Wallabies have been desperately unlucky to fall short in the tight matches. Either way, there is no point dwelling on the past and to use a Deansism, the Wallabies need "to park" the disappointments of last season and move forwards.
Their first opportunity is at provincial level with the start of the Super 14 next month. To avoid a low-profile beginning, SANZAR has cleverly pitted the Australian teams against each other in the opening round with the Force playing the Brumbies, while the Reds and Waratahs will resume their Templeton Cup rivalry the following evening.
The clash in Perth will be compulsory viewing, not least because Matt Giteau returns for his first match with the Brumbies after three seasons in the west. This fixture has proven to be high scoring in the past and with the Force's marquee signing Andre Pretorius likely to take the field the battle of the fly-halves will have a major bearing on the result.
Giteau may be the jewel in the Canberra crown, but with the ELVs rewarding the defending team more often than not, the Brumbies can boast a world class partnership at the breakdown with George Smith now joined by Wallabies captain Rocky Elsom, who returns to Super Rugby after a very successful stint with Leinster.
It's a credit to CEO Andrew Fagan and Coach Andy Friend that the Brumbies continue to reinvent themselves by attracting leading players under the noses of their rivals in bigger, more affluent markets. Of course, the double edge to this is that nothing short of semi-finals football is expected from this team this year and an away win first up against the Force is vital.
The following evening in Brisbane also provides an interesting subtext with Ewen McKenzie coming up against the Waratahs in his first match as Reds coach. The Queenslanders have been perennial underachievers for what is more than a decade now and McKenzie has a tough job on his hands to make them consistently competitive. His cause won't be helped by the loss of Berrick Barnes who, if he can stay fit, may come back to haunt the Reds in his first match.
It's a different story for both Quade Cooper and Kurtley Beale, who were involved in separate off-field incidents since returning from tour with Australia. The incidents, now subject to legal proceedings, capped off what was a very ordinary year for player behaviour in Australian rugby, highlighted by the sacking of Lote Tuqiri in July and the asking of match payments to play an intra-squad trial.
The ARU are yet to take their position on 'laptopgate', but if recent history is anything to go by, John O'Neill will be taking a very dim view and Cooper's Wallaby career could be over before it really began. Regardless of the circumstances, the incidents involving two of the brightest rising stars in the local game is far from the ideal preparation the Reds and Waratahs would have wanted for their two starlets. Nor is it a good look for the ARU at a time when sports sponsors are questioning the value of their continued involvement in sport, post Tiger Woods scandal.