Between a Rock and a hard place
October 12, 2009
Can new skipper Rocky Elsom get the Wallabies playing to their potential? © Getty Images
Berrick Barnes Robbie Deans Fourie du Preez Rocky Elsom Matt Giteau Richie McCaw Stirling Mortlock George Smith Phil Waugh
So, the Wallabies answer to rock-bottom is to appoint a captain named Rocky?
Time will only tell, but it's certainly been a stellar 12-months for the former Waratah, whose decision to play for Leinster has proven to be a masterstroke, both on and off the field.
Week-in, week-out competitive rugby has honed Rocky Elsom into one of the world's best flankers and his return brought some much needed passion and urgency in what has been exposed as a pretty timid and naïve Wallabies outfit throughout the latest Tri-Nations campaign. The decision to elevate Elsom may have been a surprise, but the need to change captain was obvious.
A big question mark hangs over Stirling Mortlock's ability to make the next Rugby World Cup. He is a good on-field communicator and revels under the extra pressure, but based in the outside backs he can't be as influential over the game as coach Robbie Deans would like.
The temporary skipper George Smith, albeit a world-class player, is not from a captain's mould. Sadly, modern rugby is now more akin to a running debate with the referee over interpretations and spotting infringements. Despite dominating general play, Smith had no impact in this sub-game and struggled to argue the Wallabies cause to the referee throughout the Tri-Nations, especially against the likes of Richie McCaw and Fourie du Preez.
The other likely candidate Phil Waugh has been dropped from the squad altogether. Injury has been cited as the official reason, but given Waugh has been on the outer for all of 2009, it would now seem his Wallabies career is all but over while Deans remains coach.
An interesting sub-plot has also emerged with Berrick Barnes pipping Matt Giteau for the vice-captaincy. Based on his CV, you would think Giteau surely should be picked ahead of Barnes, but Deans will still have memories of the Test against New Zealand in Sydney where Giteau, as playmaker, could not take control of the attack and missed the opportunity to take what appeared to the 80,000 odd in the stadium as an easy drop goal to win the match.
It was the lack of on-field leadership which led to the Wallabies inability to break out of their poor form and the Elsom/Barnes ticket will rely heavily on a good performance against the All Blacks in Tokyo to reaffirm their selections. The Tokyo Test will set the tone for the Wallabies' Grand Slam attempt. A heavy defeat for the Wallabies will undermine any renewed confidence and optimism the squad may have recaptured during camp.
Sitting at just one win from eight attempts against the Kiwis since Deans' arrival, the coach's patience and solidarity with his team has been admirable, but so too was the band that kept playing on the Titanic as it slipped under the icy waves.
The fuse finally ran out after that meek surrender in Wellington and Deans finally said what many wanted to hear - the team lacked pride in the jersey. The line in the sand has now been marked. The Wallabies must deliver during this tour as the excuses of experimentation and youth will no longer wash, especially with a grand slam in the offing.
It's now been 25 years since the grand slam triumph and the code could desperately do with a repeat dose in what has been a nightmarish season. Individually the Tests are certainly there to be won, but back to back victories, let alone good performances, have proven harder to find.
The flip side of the coin is the opportunity for the players to confirm their place in the 2010 squad with good performances. For the new faces, especially fly-half Kurtley Beale, centre Rob Horne and flanker Matt Hodgson the tour presents an opportunity to impress the coaches in positions that have under delivered this season.
With Nathan Sharpe injured, Dave Dennis (Waratahs) and Mitch Chapman (Brumbies) will play off for the right to be the understudy of starting locks James Horwill and Dean Mumm. Meanwhile, the race between Adam Ashley-Cooper, Drew Mitchell, James O'Connor and Lachie Turner for the fullback role will also have implications for the make-up of the back three, especially with Digby Ioane now back to full fitness.
Barnes and Giteau are likely to rotate the No.10 jersey, a move which Giteau, the highest-paid Wallaby, disfavours. The relationship between the coach and Australia's marquee man is clearly not smooth sailing and there's speculation that the playmaker may even consider his overseas options if the positional change occurs.
Whatever the make-up of the side for the opening tour matches it is attitude and urgency that need to be the main ingredients. A strong showing is a must for this Wallabies crop otherwise the tour may simply be regarded as rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.