Australian sport is going through a rough time at present, something an ultra-competitive, sports-mad nation is finding difficult to come to terms with.
It hasn’t helped either that a series of off-field incidents involving players from a range of professional codes, and revolving mostly around alcohol abuse, has also had a negative impact on the public’s perception of their once-revered sportsmen.
Rugby union wasn’t immune from the cross-fire and I found it quite strange to see the rugby fraternity in the country almost welcoming a Lions victory in the recent series, once it meant the coaching tenure of Robbie Deans came to an end.
The fact that he was a New Zealander didn’t help his cause, while little notice was taken of the fact he introduced a raft of quality young players to international rugby over his tenure and did a decent job in difficult circumstances.
His one major blemish, however, was to allow indiscipline flourish in the squad and a culture develop where some of the younger brigade were perceived as being a bit blasé about wearing the famous gold shirt. That, even more than losing, was what hurt and annoyed many of the former Wallabies I spoke to over the course of the Lions tour.
My respect for former ARU chief executive John O’Neill increased immeasurably after reading a piece in the Sydney Morning Herald about the now departed James O’Connor and his pals Kurtley Beale and Quade Cooper. Not everyone’s cup of tea during two separate stints at the helm of Australian rugby, O’Neill was never shy in expressing his opinion on a range of matters concerning the game on a global stage.
Trouble was he had his own problems to deal with at domestic level, not least the antics of the self-described three amigos. In that excellent piece in the Herald, Andrew Webster quotes a senior ARU official who describes the trio thus. “Kurtley gets into trouble because of alcohol. Quade doesn’t know any better. O’Connor was the most cunning. He knew what he was doing. It was never an accident. He always escapes before the heat arrives. He’s usually the architect of the problem. The best result is not having the three in the one team at the one time.”
Webster also describes an incident at a World Cup match in New Zealand in 2011 after another disappointing performance when O’Neill was less than impressed. “The Wallabies climbed on to the team bus. O’Neill was among them, and jumped into a vacant seat. ‘You can’t sit there,’ Beale told him. ‘That’s Quade’s seat.’ O’Neill’s response did not come with a hashtag but it was loud and clear. ‘Get stuffed!’ I could never see his IRFU counterpart Philip Browne addressing an Irish player like that but you would hope the necessity wouldn’t arise. Then again, chances are you wouldn’t catch Browne on the team bus in the first place.
The big problem was Deans refused to address the elephant in the room and the players felt let down on more than one occasion, not least when Beale and O’Connor were out until 4am on the Wednesday before the second Lions Test and then missed the bus for training on the Thursday before the third Test. It cost Deans his job.
The net result is that 1991 Wallaby World Cup-winning prop Ewen McKenzie was handed control within days of the Lions series defeat and while positive results have proved hard to come by — one of the downsides of facing New Zealand and South Africa in four of your first five Tests — the former Queensland coach is addressing the issues that have held Australian rugby back in recent times.
O’Connor was released from his contract with the ARU after further disciplinary issues and is currently plying his trade in the Aviva Premiership with London Irish. Beale is back in Australia having transferred from the Melbourne Rebels to the Waratahs in Sydney where it is hoped that Micheal Cheika’s no-nonsense approach will aid his rehabilitation.
Cooper, who was omitted by Deans from the Wallaby squad for the Lions series, has now been made vice-captain of the tourists in a move McKenzie hopes will bring the best out of this mercurial talent.
Deans’ decision to select O’Connor at out-half against the Lions was daft and cost the Wallabies the series. I wrote at the time that after just two weeks in Australia, I had already seen three No 10s better than O’Connor in Cooper, Matt Toomua from the Brumbies and the Waratahs’ Bernard Foley. It is no surprise therefore that all three are on the current tour with Cooper and Toomua operating together in a New Zealand-style first five, second five-eight combination.
While Australia have managed only four wins from their 12 Tests to date this season, things are beginning to click. In their last four outings they registered seven tries against Argentina in Rosario, three against New Zealand in Dunedin and seven more against Italy in Turin last Saturday.
The one blemish was the backward step taken in their tour opener against England at Twickenham when neither side played particularly well.
The one issue that will vex McKenzie is the ongoing problems surrounding their scrum.
As a former international tight head prop, he knows more than most that the Wallabies are still incredibly vulnerable in this key sector. In the deciding third Test against the Lions, Ben Alexander was yellow-carded by Romain Poite after only 24minutes due to his complete failure to deal with Alex Corbisiero.
He was no better against Italy last weekend and I find it surprising that Sekope Kepu hasn’t been brought in by now.
The Wallabies were back to their old tricks last Saturday with practically every scrum requiring a re-set. To be fair, it was no different in Dublin or Cardiff where despite the new scrum engagement sequence, which seemed to be working fine to that point, it was back to square one with far too much time taken up by scrums. Alain Rolland eventually lost his patience at the Millennium Stadium, binning both Gethin Jenkins and Coenie Oosthuizen, who had just arrived on the scene off the bench, for constant collapsing.
The last thing we need is the Wallabies citing another global problem with the scrum and using that as a get-out-of-jail card at the Aviva next Saturday. Ireland need to dampen Australia’s renewed confidence in their back play by dismantling their scrum. They have the armoury to do so.
The only concern here is New Zealand referee Chris Pollock is unlikely to focus on the vagaries of the scrum with the same zeal as Monsieur Poite.
Irish teams may have had issues with the French whistler in the past, but he would have been more than welcome in Dublin by Joe Schmidt next weekend.
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