Turning back the clock
October 11, 2010
Van Humphries - soon to be a Wallaby? © Getty Images
How old is too old to embark on your international career? That's the hot question in Australian rugby circles after national coach Robbie Deans called up 34-year-old Queensland Reds lock Van Humphries for his 40-man November tour training squad.
Deans has placed his faith in youth for the past three seasons, meaning that any player with a birth date prior to 1980 would have considered their day in gold to be behind them. Now, it seems the previous adage of "if you're good enough, you're old enough" can also be read as "if you're good enough, you're still young enough".
While Humphries is not a long-term prospect, the Wallabies already have plenty of them, he is a man for the here and now. His strong performances for Queensland in Super 14 rugby this year would have earned him a call up for the June internationals, but a cruelly-timed injury robbed him of his chance of a Test cap.
While the Wallabies' backline is the equivalent of an international rugby crèche, a second-row combination of stalwart Nathan Sharpe (32) and Humphries (34) could soon be running the lineout. Yet no-one will pay any mind to age if the job gets done, least of all Deans who must want to build some momentum and confidence within the squad to springboard into 2011. While there has been debate in South Africa regarding the resting of senior players from the end of year tour, the Wallabies have no such luxury in their preparations. They will be playing for a clean sweep of their European fixtures.
Humphries' selection will also help address the dearth of on-field leadership which was a major factor in losses against South Africa in Johannesburg and New Zealand in Sydney, as well as a near miss after leading by 25 points in Bloemfontein. From a squad of 40, only five players - Sharpe, captain Rocky Elsom, Matt Giteau, Stephen Moore and Drew Mitchell - have more than 50 caps, so the selection of a man who has done the hard yards at provincial and club level could add the grit required.
Another on-field general is the currently out-of-favour Berrick Barnes. While his move to the Waratahs and the emergence of Quade Cooper has, to date, stunted his Wallabies career, there are few pivots in the world game with his range of strategic kicking and organisation of the backline. His match-winning 26-point performance for University in the Shute Shield final will not harm his cause either and will keep up the pressure on incumbents Giteau and Cooper.
With the front-row's deficiencies exposed during the winter season, the Wallabies gladly welcome both Ben Alexander and Sekope Kepu's return from injury and with the ever-present Benn Robinson holding up the other side of the scrum, the Wallabies are now more than a match at the favourite past-time of our northern hemisphere cousins. However, as has been the case for the past three seasons, when one player returns from injury another gets crocked and Mark Chisholm, Rob Horne, James Horwill and Digby Ioane will be spending their spring on the physio bench.
Unsurprisingly with any Deans squad there are also a host of new faces including Queensland Reds winger Rod Davies, who like Humphries would have been selected earlier in the year but for a torn hamstring, Australian Sevens representative Brackin Karauria-Henry (centre) and Western Force duo Nathan Charles (hooker) and Pat O'Connor (lock), currently turning out for Northland in the ITM Cup. The final travelling party will be cut to 36 players, which may seem excessive for what is only five weeks abroad, but given the frequency and severity of injuries that seem to curse Australian rugby, this may not be that many at all. The Wallabies coach clearly believes it better to have all his recruits attend basic training before he actually needs them on the frontline.
The tour will also see the introduction of a new assistant coach to replace the Western Force-bound Richard Graham. Who that coach is we still don't know, but the two names that keep bubbling to the surface are former Waratahs assistant coach, now at Japanese club Ricoh, Brett Louden and current national selector and head of the Australian Rugby Union's High Performance Unit David Nucifora. The latter, who of course missed out on the Wallabies job to Deans, is more likely to be given the nod as he is set to coach the Wallabies' midweek team against Leicester and Munster. Fortunately, this is the limit of the instability within the coaching ranks - a world away from the weekly sagas afflicting the Springbok camp. For that we must be thankful.
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