Wallabies have work to do
December 8, 2008
The Australian Rugby Union will be determined to hang on to their most-prized asset Matt Giteau © Getty Images
The Wallabies have returned home from their first European tour under Robbie Deans with plenty of cause for optimism.
With back-to-back victories over Italy, England and France and a thrilling encounter against the Barbarians, the Wallabies can claim the tour as a successful step forward in their development towards 2011.
However, news has come to light that Matt Giteau is the target of a A$9.6 million offer from French club Bayonne.
Who can blame Bayonne? The performances of Giteau in Europe again underlined his reputation as one of the world's top flyhalves, with former Wales pivot Jonathan Davies even suggesting that he was better than rival Dan Carter.
The ARU moved quickly to douse the flames, as they must. Allowing him to break his contract would create a dangerous precedent and open the floodgates for all Australian players to chase the ever ballooning euros on offer in France to the detriment of the local competition.
The Aussie Super 14 provinces have already lost Chris Latham, Dan Vickerman and Rocky Elsom to the north and the ARU would be loathed to lose the jewel in the crown.
With ARU finances unable to compete with northern hemisphere clubs, there has been a suggestion they may attempt to entice Giteau to stay by dangling the possibility of being the next Wallabies captain. If true, they need to tread carefully on what is very slippery ground.
The Wallabies captaincy is one of the greatest honours in Australian sport and should never be tarnished by being used as a bargaining chip in a contract bidding war. The question for the ARU to contemplate is whether they are prepared to allow the future captaincy to be a ransom payment.
Certainly, Giteau should be seen as a serious consideration for captain once Mortlock retires anyway, but the ARU must ensure the Wallabies captaincy is never allowed to be tarnished by the stain of being another commodity in a commercial world. One could only wonder what the distinguished list of former Wallabies captains would think if the honour of leading a proud country was cheapened in this fashion.
As for the tour itself, it can largely be judged as a good step forward, despite a concerning casualty list. The emergence of a world-class front row of Benn Robinson, Stephen Moore and Al Baxter, was the most evident improvement and left many of the stereotypical critics at Twickenham, including one rather red-faced English prop, to eat their own words.
Since Eddie Jones' team was pummeled in 2005, the Wallabies forwards have suffered under the weight of that humiliation and reputation. Even this year, referees continued to call scrum penalties on Australia's supposed weakness at the set piece, based on the adage that a leopard never changes its spots.
However, the performances at Twickenham, Padova and Hong Kong, despite one very noticeable aberration in Paris, showed the scrum is fast becoming a useful attacking platform for the Wallabies, rather than an opportunity to lose possession.
In fact the general forward play across the whole tour was impressive. George Smith and Richard Brown dominated the breakdown, while the renaissance of the seemingly departed Nathan Sharpe more than made up for the missing Horwill and Vickerman.
Add the breakthrough performances of Quade Cooper, who looked remarkably comfortable in the cauldron of Test rugby, James O'Connor and David Pocock and the Wallabies can boast a squad with depth. However, there were some worrying, recurring habits that are proving to be as difficult to remove from the game plan as the team's psyche.
Frustratingly, the Wallabies could only stutter to victory over England and Italy, and against France they were lucky David Skrela had put his boots on the wrong feet. The Wallabies also wasted a glorious opportunity to beat New Zealand in Hong Kong, despite several key decisions going against them.
Wales, on the other hand, were the stand out opponent of the whole tour. Warren Gatland has made terrific strides in just a short time in Cardiff and at this early stage looks the most likely to bring a challenge to the southern hemisphere in 2011.
Another area of concern is the Wallabies backline, which now looks disjointed and unsettled. The crux of the issue is the midfield and what to do without first-choice No.12, Berrick Barnes. It is no secret Deans prefers two pivots in his teams. The Crusaders used both Aaron Mauger, then Stephen Brett, as playmakers to assist Carter.
The problem for Deans is that he has no obvious replacement for Barnes. Timana Tahu, who also came home early, has proven to be a work in progress at best. Stirling Mortlock is only a stop-gap option and Adam Ashley-Cooper's kicking would need more improvement before he could seriously be considered.
Part of the problem is with the delivery of clean ball from the ruck. Luke Burgess is taking some time to settle into Test rugby, but with no real obvious alternative jumping out, Deans will have to persevere with the Waratah (who certainly has the talent). The team's wretched run of injuries is also worrying. Along with Barnes and Tahu, serious injuries for Matt Dunning, Sekope Kepu and Wycliff Palu cast a shadow on an otherwise successful trip.
One man who might not think the tour was worthwhile is new Waratahs coach Chris Hickey, who is now without two of his four props for the start of the Super 14. Adding to that both Palu and Tahu will also have interrupted pre-seasons. Not the start Hickey would have wanted in the toughest provincial coaching gig down under.