Wallabies arrive with eye on the next World Cup

Click to follow
The Independent Online

It was not so very long ago - two decades at the most - that the Wallabies were habitually dismissed as half a team by the people who really mattered in rugby: the granite-faced All Blacks, the out-sized Springboks, the fancy-Dan Welsh and the perfectly groomed air commodores of Twickenham. But in the years since Mark Ella struck his ground-breaking, Cathy Freeman-style blow on behalf of his Aboriginal brethren and David Campese became the first Australian to establish himself as the most celebrated union player on the planet, the balance of power has shifted towards Sydney. Nowadays, the Wallabies can leave more than half a team at home and still scare the pants off everyone else.

It was not so very long ago - two decades at the most - that the Wallabies were habitually dismissed as half a team by the people who really mattered in rugby: the granite-faced All Blacks, the out-sized Springboks, the fancy-Dan Welsh and the perfectly groomed air commodores of Twickenham. But in the years since Mark Ella struck his ground-breaking, Cathy Freeman-style blow on behalf of his Aboriginal brethren and David Campese became the first Australian to establish himself as the most celebrated union player on the planet, the balance of power has shifted towards Sydney. Nowadays, the Wallabies can leave more than half a team at home and still scare the pants off everyone else.

John Eales' millennial vintage play the first game of their European tour at Stade de France tomorrow night, a re-run of last November's disappointingly one-sided World Cup final in which the green-and-golds steadfastly declined to concede a try for the third consecutive match - they leaked only one all tournament - and beat the French 35-12.

The centres Tim Horan and Jason Little, the props Richard Harry and Andrew Blades and the flanker David Wilson, five players central to Wallaby fortunes that day, are now in Test retirement, and others are missing through injury: George Gregan, Steve Larkham, Ben Tune. Nevertheless, very little of the smartest money is being invested in an Australian defeat in Paris.

A glance at the team sheet is explanation enough. Matthew Burke, among the most complete rugby players of his generation, has been given Tune's place on the right wing - a positional switch that permits Rod Macqueen, a coach in a million, to retain the services of both Chris Latham and Stirling Mortlock, who made such significant contributions to the Wallabies' Tri-Nations success in the summer. (An interesting aside: this new line-up boasts no fewer than four top-of-the-range goal-kickers in Burke, Mortlock, Eales and Joe Roff. There are not four such marksmen in the whole of England, let alone the England team.) Up front, Macqueen is backing a 20-year-old dreadlocked Sydneysider by the name of George Smith to play the Wilson role on the side of the scrum. The diminutive Smith is said to make Neil Back look like a clodhopper.

But there is rather more to the Wallaby success story than some smart selection by Macqueen. According to John Connolly, who coached Queensland for many years before moving to Europe at the start of this season for a spell in Paris with the Stade Français club, the structure of the game in Australia creates the optimum environment for sustained achievement at Test level. "I'm now seeing just how great the difference is, having just arrived in France," he said after watching his new charges dump Wasps out of the Heineken Cup last weekend.

"My international players now have less than a week in which to prepare for a match against the world champions, having spent the last couple of months thinking about winning club games. In Australia, the players go into Super 12 camp, play Super 12, move into Test camp and then play Tests. They are together as an international unit for months, not days. There has to be a better structure for European rugby than the one in operation right now.

"Don't ask me what that might be, because I can't tell you. All I know is that there must be a more beneficial way forward."

Of course, non-international rugby counts for so little in Australia that the Test contingent have a clear run at things: forgetting Europe for a second, the Wallabies are miles better off in this respect than either New Zealand or South Africa, where the National Provincial Championship and the Currie Cup satisfy an appetite for week-on-week rugby that simply does not exist in Sydney or Brisbane. Little wonder, then, that the Aussies travel more confidently and competently than their fellow southern hemisphere big-shots.

Their recent record on the road is on the frightening side of astonishing: two World Cups on British soil - no one else has won one away from their own mudheap - and no Test defeat in these islands for 12 years. The last time they lost a Test series in France was in 1983, although the Tricolores managed to square memorable home rubbers in both 1989 and 1993. More worrying still from a European perspective is that the Wallabies appear to have discovered the "tempo giusto" of international rugby: they are on the perfect World Cup cycle, a cycle that has eluded the All Blacks from the moment they won the inaugural tournament in 1987.

If you have to forfeit players of the supreme calibre of Horan, Little and Wilson, it is best to do it when you can spend three and a half years constructing a fresh side capable of defending the Webb Ellis Trophy. Smith is barely out of nappies - it is only two years since he toured Europe and North America with an Australian Schoolboys side who, needless to say, won all five internationals on the trip - while the new loose-head prop, Bill Young, is, at 25, an obvious contender for the 2003 World Cup. Of tomorrow's starting line-up, only the hooker, Michael Foley, and the outside-half, Rod Kafer, are unlikely to make it that far.

Sure, the tourists will be more than usually vulnerable on this brief gallop around the old continent, which features Tests at Murrayfield and Twickenham as well as in Paris. England, in particular, will be mortified if they fail to maximise the momentum initiated in the thin air of Bloemfontein five months ago. But Connolly, every inch the realist his nickname "Knuckles" suggests he should be, believes this latest breed of Wallaby has what it takes to move onwards and upwards. "It goes without saying that an Australian side without Gregan and Larkham at half-back is very different to one with those two guys in place," he agreed. "But for all that, I can see them sitting on the French this weekend and forcing them into mistakes. When those mistakes come, they'll capitalise."

You get the feeling that the French, shorn of Benazzi and Dominici, think so too. And if the Wallabies reach these shores with a sixth successive victory over Les Bleus safely stowed in the boot of their luxury team bus, they will fancy their chances of going the whole hog once again. Tim Horan or no Tim Horan.

Comments