Wallabies' only consistency is their inconsistency
December 7, 2009
Wallabies skipper Rocky Elsom and coach Robbie Deans reflect on their recent victory over Wales in Cardiff © Getty Images
Six wins, one draw, seven losses. Not the scorecard Robbie Deans, the Wallabies, nor the expectant fans would have hoped for at the beginning of the year.
The rollercoaster 2009 season will unfortunately be remembered for more lows than highs, where the first firm questions about Deans' tenure were raised, including the dreaded death-knell phrase of "full support of the board" sending chills down the Cantabrian's spine during the end of year tour.
It was also, sadly, a year where the team's pride and passion for the jersey was questioned after shameful defeats in Wellington and Edinburgh as well as the self-made PR disaster of asking for a match fee to play in an intra-squad trial match.
From these debacles a media-led campaign has emerged to change the players' pay structure. At present, Wallabies' match-day squad members receive a set amount win, draw or abysmally lose. In essence, they got the same (large) fee for their very good performance against Wales as they did for that debacle at Murrayfield. Many are now (rightly) asking how conducive the incentive of actually winning the Test is, when you can get paid for just showing up.
I'm certainly not advocating a return to the good old days of amateurism, as these full-time athletes deserve a fair cut of the financial pie, but they certainly need to be more accountable for their performances. The time has come for the ARU to scale player payments based on results as then we might again reach a point where the passion and pride in the gold jersey matches that of the committed fans in the stands.
Or perhaps the players could take the initiative and regain some much-needed public credibility by following the lead of English Premier League side Wigan, whose players offered to reimburse their travelling fans after a 9-1 defeat. Surely, those hardy supporters who went to great expense to follow the Wallabies in Edinburgh (and Wellington for that matter) deserve no less?
It's the inconsistency from match to match that is the most infuriating, exasperating characteristic of this team. Just when you think they are lame marsupials and should never play in gold again, they go and produce one of the best spells of attacking rugby in years and blow away the Welsh just one week later.
How in the space of seven days can a team go from such utter mediocrity, where the sight of the try line transformed fulltime professionals into Sunday hacks, to blindingly brilliant? The answer to that question is the root of the problem and what the ARU will try (again) to solve in their post-season review.
Close to the top of the agenda items will be whether Deans is still the best man to take the Wallabies to the Rugby World Cup.
The short answer to that is yes, simply because there is no-one else better. Deans' pedigree and credentials are exceptional and the team has shown enough glimpses to confirm that they have the ability to beat any side, when they feel like it.
Also in Deans' favour is that his pay master, John O'Neill, has invested a lot of political capital in installing him as coach, above other local options, and will loathe having to admit he got the wrong man.
However, the Wallabies are certainly not as good as they can be and Deans' reported "my-way-or-the-highway" style has caused fractures within the squad. Central to this tension has been the souring of the relationship between chief playmaker Matt Giteau and the coach, which must be affecting the cohesion of the backline.
Whether the players use this inner angst as a motivator to prove the increasing number of critics wrong or fall into yet another heap is a good test of character. It is all well and good to have talent, but bucket loads of desire and mental toughness is what will be required to win the World Cup.
A strong benefit of his 18-months here has been Deans' ability to unearth and polish gems including Quade Cooper, David Pocock, James O'Connor, Peter Hynes, Lachie Turner, Ben Alexander and Dean Mumm. No criticism can be levelled that Deans has not investigated every playing option available. He has built as much depth to the squad as is possible in this country, without the ARU lifting the restriction of players having to ply their trade in Australia to be eligible for the Wallabies.
Forgetting the sour moments on-field, the sweetest victory this year for Australian Rugby occurred off-field with the naming of Melbourne Rebels as the 15th franchise in the expanded Super 14 from 2011.
The Rebels' inclusion, ahead of South Africa's Southern Kings, was a victory for both commonsense and the growth of SANZAR. Having a provincial team in Melbourne also gives rugby more credibility in declaring itself a national sport and will create some much-needed leverage at the current broadcast rights negotiating table.
The expansion is not before time as the current Super Rugby model is failing to attract attendances and TV ratings. The newly-configured conference format addresses the key issues of increasing the number of local derbies and guarantees each conference winner participation in the semi-finals, which given the performances in recent years by the Aussie teams is no small gift.
The challenge will be finding players to make the Rebels competitive. We've been told to expect some big overseas signings and perhaps a few expats returning home to avoid another Western Force-type episode where the provinces cannibalised each other for a small pool of players.
What we haven't been told yet is where the dollars will come from to compete with the northern hemisphere clubs for this elite playing talent? That's something to think about over your Christmas turkey this festive season.