Rugby Union: Cap fits at last for the scallywag Slattery: Steve Bale on the scrum-half emerging from the shadow cast by Farr-Jones as he steps out for Australia against Ireland in the rugby union Test at Lansdowne Road today

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The Independent Online
In another time or another place Peter Slattery would have won enough caps to supply a milliner but in the age of the World Cup captain, Nick Farr-Jones, he has just had to wait, and wait, and wait. Having learned the virtue of patience, the new Wallabies scrum-half can't wait any longer.

In Slattery's case 'new' is a relative term. Now 27, he first made the Australian bench as long ago as 1985 when he was 20. He was Farr-Jones's understudy for all of the past three years. All told, 30 times a scrum-half-in- waiting, five times called on to replace his captain and only once - the World Cup game against Wales last year when Farr-Jones was injured - a starter.

'I feel I'm ready; if I'm not now, I'll never be,' Slattery said. 'I've been waiting a while and I'm nervous about the game but the experience I've had of Wallaby tours (this is his sixth) should see me through. I'd like to play the way Nick did but at the same time it's important to make sure people don't go around thinking it's a different team just because Nick isn't playing.'

And there, for Slattery, is the rub. Farr-Jones withdrew from international rugby after leading Australia to their triumph in South Africa two months ago. As the greatest scrum-half and greatest captain of his era, he is the nearest thing to irreplaceable. Slattery knows it, all too aware that already unfavourable comparisons are being drawn. It was bound to happen.

Ciaran Fitzgerald, Ireland's coach, is one of those who has been at it. 'Even though Peter Slattery is a very good player, it is hard to replace a man like Farr- Jones as both player and captain,' he said. Hard yes, but impossible? 'Nick, being captain and a great player, had a great influence on how the team played, and it will take years for me to become the player he was,' Slattery ventured.

'The way Nick played, he was close to the perfect half-back (scrum-half). He was good at everything. I'm sure people will say things are different now, but I can't stop that. I just hope people will not think that negatively about me. I'd like to be assessed on my own merits.' Which, as we shall see, are considerable.

Last season, Slattery became the Queensland captain when Michael Lynagh was playing in Italy. It was the culmination of a state career that had begun in 1985 when he was 20. He was swiftly elevated to the Wallabies bench but descended just as swiftly when Alan Jones, then Australia's coach, preferred another Queenslander, Brian Smith, as Farr-Jones's deputy.

While Bob Templeton, then Queensland coach and now assistant Wallabies coach, preferred Slattery for Queensland, Slattery could not even make his club side. Alex Evans, now coaching supremo at Cardiff but then coach of Wests in Brisbane and Jones's assistant nationally, selected Smith, who later played for Ireland and turned professional.

So Slattery joined Queensland University, struck up a half-back partnership with Lynagh which has endured hundreds of matches and has its ultimate fulfilment in today's Test. Finally, having recovered from a badly broken arm, he returned to the bench when the Lions were in Australia in 1989.

By this time Bob Dwyer and Templeton had long since succeeded Jones and Evans. Templeton never had any doubts. 'Peter is a fine player and becoming first choice for Australia is all the stimulus he needs,' he said. 'He is a very self-effacing young man who has had cruel bad luck at times, but he has always stuck at it and is a great bloke. He is a completely different character from Nick Farr-Jones, more of a zip-zap type of player. He's also a bit of a scallywag.'

This last is a reference to Slattery's reputation back home for indiscretion, though when you see that innocent expression face to face you would never realise this is a man famous (or infamous) in Brisbane for holding nude parties and teaching Japanese tourists on the Queensland Gold Coast how to ride surfboards. Doubtless his degree in leisure studies was the ideal qualification for both pastimes.

What, then, is it that Slattery has to do, how big is the hole he has to fill now that Farr-Jones - a sort of spectre at today's feast, where he is doing television commentary - is confining himself to club rugby? He is not to be envied, as Dwyer's book Winning Rugby, launched in Dublin this week, shows with its admiring reflection on Farr-Jones, captain and half-back.

'He set high personal standards for himself, and because of his maturity and strength of character he was able to set high standards for the team quite naturally and easily,' Dwyer writes. 'He understood from the outset when and how the team needed to concentrate and when and how it needed to relax. His influence on the team in all its activities on and off the field has been vital to its success. Without it, I am sure we would not have won the World Cup.'

There is more. 'As a player, Farr-Jones is supreme in his field. Unhesitatingly, I rate him the best scrum-half in the world today. . . Australia has always had good half-backs but until Farr- Jones came to the fore we had not had a great half-back for some time. For this reason, I believe Farr-Jones gave the side another dimension.

'He possesses a unique ability to orchestrate the team on the field - that is, to see the picture, assess the situation and spit out instructions. All through a match he shouts directions - 'Cover the right. Go out, go out. Move it up there. Break, break. Get off, get off'.' So follow that, Peter Slattery.

Note Dwyer's use of the present tense. Farr-Jones has been careful never to announce his irrevocable retirement and it is a commonplace among the Australians in Dublin that, having sat out this tour for reasons of rest and recuperation, he will seriously consider a comeback to Test rugby next year. Meanwhile, he has happily played on for Sydney University, leading them to the semi-finals of this year's Sydney Competition.

This would create a selection dilemma over the captaincy, now held by Lynagh, whose intention it is to keep it until the 1995 World Cup. And it would be desperate ill fortune for Slattery, who can hardly be unaware that his time may after all be short. On the other hand, he is at last the scrum- half in possession.

'It has been a long time in coming but I've never felt particularly frustrated,' he said. 'If I hadn't during all this time been playing rugby at a very high standard for Queensland I might have felt differently. I would probably have gone and played rugby league or stayed on the beach.

'Now that I'm there, I'd like to play as close as I can to the way Nick did. He had a better kicking game than mine but that's something I'm practising. I like to move about the field a lot and be close to what's happening.

'I still have a lot to learn but if I can approach Nick's standard and perhaps get around a bit more than he might have done, that would be a start.'

Having been the midweek inspiration on so many tours - and see how the dirt-trackers have missed him in Ireland - Slattery is relishing the upward adjustment to the first-choice weekenders.

'It's important for me to be having this run of Saturday games,' Slattery said. 'The pressure is on but when you are world champions people pull themselves up to play you. Everyone desperately wants to beat you, as was shown by Munster.

'The guys around me are tremendous players and I play off them. But we can play a lot better; we can certainly start matches a lot better than we've been doing. I'm thinking a lot about the Test match, trying to get a lot of positive thoughts. Following Nick Farr-Jones is bound to be a heavy responsibility but it's better that way.' Which is to say he would not have it - or have had it - any different.

--------------------------------------------------------------------- IRELAND V AUSTRALIA --------------------------------------------------------------------- (At Lansdowne Road, Dublin) --------------------------------------------------------------------- J Staples London Irish 15 M Roebuck New South Wales S Geoghegan London Irish 14 P Carozza Queensland P Danaher Garryowen, capt 13 T Horan Queensland V Cunningham St Mary's College 12 J Little Queensland R Wallace Garryowen 11 D Campese New South Wales P Russell Instonians 10 M Lynagh Queensland, capt F Aherne Lansdowne 9 P Slattery Queensland N Popplewell Greystones 1 D Crowley Queensland J Murphy Greystones 2 P Kearns New South Wales P McCarthy Constitution 3 E McKenzie New South Wales M Galwey Shannon 4 R McCall Queensland P Johns Dungannon 5 J Eales Queensland B Robinson Ballymena 6 V Ofahengaue New South Wales P Lawlor Bective Rangers 8 T Gavin New South Wales G Hamilton Ballymena 7 D Wilson Queensland --------------------------------------------------------------------- Referee: E Morrison (England) Kick-off: 2.45pm. --------------------------------------------------------------------- Replacements: 16 C Wilkinson (Malone), 17 J Galvin (Shannon), 18 R Saunders (London Irish), 19 K Leahy (Wanderers), 20 G Halpin (London Irish), 21 K Wood (Garryowen). --------------------------------------------------------------------- Replacements: 16 A Ekert (New South Wales), 17 T Kelaher (New South Wales), 18 D Smith (Queensland), 19 D Nucifora (Queensland), 20 M Ryan (Queensland), 21 T Coker (Queensland). ---------------------------------------------------------------------

(Photograph omitted)

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