'Tis the season to be grateful
January 5, 2009
Winger Lote Tuqiri is arguably Australia's one real cross-code success story © Getty Images
Christmas is a time to reflect and be thankful and Wallabies supporters certainly had a lot to be grateful for in 2008, considering the annus horribilis of 2007.
Last year will be remembered as when the Wallabies took their first steps towards becoming a serious contender for the 2011 World Cup and most of that credit can go to a foreigner christened "Dingo". Any doubts of whether Robbie "Dingo" Deans is the right man for the job must surely now be dispelled (especially those who questioned whether a Kiwi could bring enough passion to the national team).
His first season at the helm saw the Wallabies smash the All Blacks in Sydney, break their away day hoodoo with a stirring victory in Cape Town and go within a whisker of recording their first unbeaten European tour in a decade.
While many point out that Deans' winning percentage is comparable to the John Connolly era, the style and purpose of the two Wallabies teams is a non-contest. The forward play is fast becoming a strength, while the performance of the 'department of youth' against the Barbarians points to depth and a promising future. Of course, there were some speed humps along the way, including that dreadful defeat in Johannesburg and not once but twice grasping defeat from the jaws of victory against the All Blacks in Brisbane and Hong Kong.
Deans still has work to do, not least sorting out the frustrating inconsistency that plagues the team, particularly the senior players. Only once last season could they win back to back Tests against top line opposition, with the breakthrough coming on the Spring tour against a disappointing England and a wayward France.
The other main area for concern is the centres, where in the absence of Barnes, the Wallabies lack midfield options. No doubt, Deans will be keeping a keen eye on the Super 14, particularly Quade Cooper, Kurtley Beale, Rob Horne and James O'Connor, to find a solution in time for the Tri Nations. Perhaps Deans could also offer his services to his old All Blacks colleague, John Mitchell at the Western Force, who found himself on 'restricted duties' (whatever that means!) after a player revolt.
Murmurs of discontent concerning Mitchell's authoritarian style have travelled on the winds for a couple of years already and it does seem a case of 'no smoke without fire' in the wild west. Whatever the reason for the furore, it will prove a distraction for the Force already reeling from the Matt Giteau contract saga.
Even before the kick-off of Super 14, talk of the 2009 international season has already begun with the announcement of a return match against the Barbarians in Sydney. With an underwhelming Test schedule against Italy and France to look forward to, this match will be the highlight before the Tri-Nations begins. There has been a lot of noise in these parts about the possibility of having league converts Mark Gasnier, Sonny-Bill Williams and Craig Gower line up for the Baa Baas.
It's an interesting characteristic of the Australian rugby landscape that we are infatuated with leagies. And it's even more bizarre as there is little evidence to suggest poaching them at high expense has benefited the game at all. Taking into account the signings have come at the expense of alienating grassroots rugby and youth development pathways, it is questionable whether the ARU has had any decent return on its investment into rugby league.
In truth, only Lote Tuqiri has proven to be a successful acquisition. Both Wendell Sailor and Mat Rogers had chequered Wallabies careers, while new recruit Timana Tahu has so far clocked up more hours on the physio bench than on the field.
Rather than Gasnier, Williams and Gower, why not allow the Australian rugby public to enjoy an exhibition of the world's best 'rugby' players (well, the best XV available after club commitments anyway!).
The ARU should send for true talents like Jonny Wilkinson, Richie McCaw, Carl Hayman and Brian O'Driscoll, among others luminaries that have been a thorn in the Wallabies rump for years. This would make the spectacle more credible in the eyes of rugby fans.
If the game needs spice, let's invite Ewen McKenzie to be the Baa Baas coach as surely he would relish the opportunity to return to his old Waratahs hunting ground and beat the man who pipped him to the Wallabies post 12 months ago.
The match is also an opportunity to highlight the abundance of talent in the region with selection of several players from the Pacific islands. This would show some solidarity with the region after the ARU's withdrawal from the next Pacific Nations Cup. Citing financial hardship for the decision, it is certainly a blow to Robbie Deans who successfully used the tournament to rotate his Wallabies squad through a busy winter schedule, whilst also experimenting with youth.
The Australia A program saw Lachie Turner, Hugh McMeniman, Peter Kimlin, Drew Mitchell and Richard Brown, among others, all getting valuable game time against international opponents rather than mothballing in the gym. From a regional perspective, the ARU's decision is a real shame for Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and Japan who now miss out on the opportunity to play meaningful matches against quality opposition.
Or is there something else at play here? Could the ARU's stance be seen as a little bit of John O'Neill brinkmanship? By crying poor, O'Neill may be testing the IRB's strong resolve to develop rugby in the Pacific and more specifically what they are prepared to give to get Australia A back in the tournament.