Rugby Union: Australia arrive on style trial

Mark Evans, director of coaching at Saracens, talks to his stand- off Michael Lynagh about strengths of the Aussies
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The Independent Online
With all the furore surrounding the arrival of the All Blacks, the casual observer could be excused for being unaware of the fact that two other world-class teams are soon to be visited upon us. The world champions, South Africa, will be here at the end of the month but first and foremost we have the Australians.

Remember them? The glory boys of '91 who have never been quite the same force since. In the 1995 World Cup they failed to fire and since then they have been consistently inconsistent. This time last year they toured the British Isles with a new coach amid much talk of rebuilding and "development". They finished the tour unbeaten but their performances left something to be desired. Twelve months on and not much has changed - new coach, unsettled team, uncertain commentators harping on about planning for the 1999 World Cup.

Always be wary of anyone who talks about some distant vision or who denies the importance of winning today. The fact of the matter is that you don't plan for any tournament two years in advance - there are far too many unknown factors over which you have no control. It's much better to get on with building a winning team now.

So can Rod MacQueen make the jump from being an innovative and successful provincial coach to a real force on the international stage? His record at ACT is outstanding and has been characterised by a willingness to listen and try out new ideas. Speaking to Michael Lynagh, Saracens' celebrated stand-off, who remembers him as a selector at the 1995 World Cup, these qualities are stressed. "MacQueen is the kind of guy who consults widely with his senior players and questions the orthodox. He always examines the traditional way of doing things in order to see if there is a better way," Lynagh says.

Certainly he created an environment at ACT in which players were encouraged to try things and as a result they caught a lot of the other Super 12 teams on the hop. Not bad for a side made up of supposed "rejects" from New South Wales and Queensland.

Indeed MacQueen's appointment received almost universal approval amongst the Australian press and rugby public. The biggest criticism levelled at his predecessor, Greg Smith, was that he was indecisive and far too prone to changing his mind on a range of issues. One of the results of this is that nobody seems to know which 15 players constitute Australia's best line-up (although MacQueen may well be keeping his own council on this topic). As an experiment, I asked Saracens' two other resident Queenslanders - Brad Free and Ryan Constable - to name their cast-iron Test selection certainties. They came up with the six names of John Eales, Brett Robinson, George Gregan, Joe Roff, Ben Tune and Steve Larkham - with some discussion over David Knox and Pat Howard. Great teams tend to pick themselves and thus are incredibly hard to get into (think of the current All Black pack for example). This must be one of the key aims of the tour - to discover at least four more "core" players to go forward with. The tight five, with the exception of Eales, has been chopped and changed about so much that no real esprit de corps has been developed.

"Consistency is the key element which has been missing in the Australian approach over the last few years," says Lynagh, "We need to have far more settled combinations within the team. If we can get that then we've got skilful half-backs and a very quick and powerful back three who will cause any sides problems."

Last year the unbeaten tour of Britain left the Australian public distinctly unimpressed - convincing victories are expected when they play northern hemisphere teams. Near wins against the likes of Ireland and Wales carry very little weight Down Under where success is measured in terms of wins over New Zealand and South Africa. To date the results on the Argentinian leg of the tour have been unremarkable - wins, but narrow wins, followed by defeat last night. Nevertheless, South America is an ideal place to mould a new side with little in the way of media attention to distract from the task in hand.

Twickenham on Saturday will be a different matter and the public back home want a new style and a return to the winning ways of the early 1990s - a tall order given the limited amount of time MacQueen has available to him. However, he will be encouraged by the fact that England are in an even greater state of flux - new coach, lots of injuries and eight months since they last played together (leaving aside the July debacle in Sydney). By rights it should be a messy, incoherent sort of game - which virtually guarantees it will be a classic.