LONDON – Laughing at the state of Australian sport has become something of a, well, sport lately. Yet we should not indulge in the pastime without a certain degree of anxiousness.
There remains the feeling that we must do it while we can, make the most of a rare opportunity, because tomorrow they’ll probably be really good again.
Are they actually that bad anyway? This question might very well be asked of Australia’s rugby union team, as they don their tin hats and draw up plans in the bunker for the Lions Test series.
That’s Australia, the team who came third at the last World Cup, then second in the inaugural Rugby Championship last season.
Oh, and who have beaten Wales the past eight times they have played them, and 11 of the last 12. That’s Wales, who will likely provide most of the players to the Lions starting XV next Saturday.
The main reason we feel a chuckle coming on when we think of the Wallabies, certainly those of us in the north, is this feeling that they might be soft touches up front.
The idea has grown from some fearful poundings the Aussies took in the noughties from redoubtable English front rows, usually featuring Andrew Sheridan, Australian rugby’s arch nemesis. So humiliating were these capitulations that the legend of Wallaby wobbliness lives on.
But the Aussie scrum, when at full strength, is a far more robust unit these days. The loss of Tatafu Polota-Nau and Sitaleki Timani are blows to the front five, but their replacements will be solid and, in the case of Stephen Moore, highly experienced. The losses of David Pocock and Scott Higginbotham behind the front five are even more distressing for connoisseurs of fine rugby, but stocks are healthy in the Aussie back row.
If the Lions find an edge at scrum time, it will be because of their notable strength in that area, not because of Aussie weakness. Do not bank on too much of one, though. After the mismatches of the tour so far, expect nothing but the most ferocious exchanges for the next three Saturdays.
It is behind the scrum where Australia look the most unsettled just now – or at least unknowable. And therefore unpredictable.
On Australian rugby’s website, the squad for the Test series is listed, with each player’s position supplied by his name.
Or, in many cases, their positions. Nowhere can you find someone with the simple, stand-alone words “fly-half” next to his name.
They are so versatile, some of them, that they have a blizzard of positions listed, with fly-half but one of them.
But the land of Ella, Lynagh and Larkham cannot provide one player from its squad who can stand up and say: “I am a fly-half, pure and simple.” Most teams at this level like someone to be able to say, without qualification, that playing fly-half is what they do.
There has been much made of the omission of Quade Cooper, who could have been that man. But for all the brilliance and exquisite cut-out passes, his error count is so high that not many Test coaches would feel comfortable playing him, regardless of any personal history. When there is personal history as well, the decision is clear.
Berrick Barnes (listed on the website as fly-half/inside centre/full-back) might be considered at the other end of the spectrum from Cooper, or, at least, the furthest towards it, insofar as he is reliable and can tackle.
In other words, he is the most conservative option, all of which is relative. On his day, Barnes is one of Australia’s most accomplished players, but Robbie Deans has been playing him at full-back most recently, and his campaign this season has been disrupted by injury. He has yet to start for the Waratahs at fly-half this year. Indeed, he has started only twice – both at 12.
The man in possession of Australia’s No10 shirt is Kurtley Beale (full-back/fly-half), but Barnes’s disrupted season pales into insignificance against Beale’s.
He broke his hand early in the season, but not so badly that he could not get into a fight with two of his Melbourne Rebels team-mates on their tour of South Africa in March.
He was suspended and sought help with alcohol issues, then was brilliant on his return to the team in May.
But he had a drink that night and was suspended again. He has undergone further counselling and played only junior rugby since. Deans, however, is confident he is ready to be thrown in.
Another option is James O’Connor (fly-half/wing – if you can have such a thing), who has started six times this year at fly-half for the Rebels, but who is lethal – and more experienced – as an outside back.
Christian Lealiifano (fly-half/inside centre) has played all season at 12 for the Brumbies and is likelier to partner Adam Ashley-Cooper (full-back/wing/midfield) in the centre, if Pat McCabe (inside centre – at last, a specialist) – is deemed unfit.
None of it is ideal. Deans, who is seen as a conservative coach, must hope that the natural talents of these versatile ball players will enable them to perform without an established conductor at 10. It is at 9, where Will Genia operates, that the direction will come from.
His credentials are undoubted. As are the talents of those outside him. Nevertheless, Deans has little choice but to gamble with the deployment of so many ministers without portfolio. Indeed, if you were uncharitable, you might laugh at the predicament.
Laugh anxiously, though. If it clicks, they can beat anyone. – The Guardian