The Wallabies: Secrets of our success
Australia, who play England tomorrow, are the great overachievers of world rugby. How have they done it? Their former national coach Eddie Jones reveals all
Friday 14 November 2008
1. Identify your talent early
The Wallabies have won two world titles and beat one of the best Lions teams to leave the British Isles in living memory. They have never lost to the All Blacks in a global tournament, they regularly defeat the Springboks and are comfortably in credit against all four home unions. Yet they have a tiny pool of players and precious little money in the bank. How do they do it?
"We'll always finish second when it comes to the numbers game: we're really not in the same world as the vast majority of major Test-playing nations on the resources front. In Australia, there are four professional teams [until pretty recently, it was three], each offering 30 or so full-time contracts. It means there are only seven or eight possible candidates for each Wallaby position, including first-season rookies, the majority of whom aren't really in the running.
"To be competitive at the highest level, we have to be smarter than everyone else. I'm not being arrogant about this: I'm merely pointing out that we have to think differently, manage our players more effectively, and constantly come up with ways of outplanning and outpreparing our opponents. It's all about rugby intelligence. We don't sit around intellectualising about the game for the fun of it, as the French do about politics. When we get around the table to map out the way forward, it's for completely practical reasons.
"We tend to identify good talent earlier than most other countries, because if we get the development right – and we pride ourselves on this aspect of our rugby – we can select earlier, too. When I was coaching the Wallabies, we played Matt Giteau (pictured) in a Test match before he'd played a single game in the Super 12, as that tournament was then known. To all intents and purposes, he was an amateur. Can you imagine that happening in England? I don't think so.
"There are some advantages to having a smaller pool of players. There tends to be a good deal of clarity when it comes to selection: apart from the George Smith-Phil Waugh contest for the open-side flanker's jersey and the battle for the full-back position between Mat Rogers and Chris Latham at the time of the 2003 World Cup, it's pretty rare to have two players of equal stature contesting a single place."
2. Play as many big games as possible
All very well. But in the professional age, money talks louder year on year. Can the Wallabies continue to thrive in a domestic market place dominated by rugby league and Australian Rules football?
"There's a concern there, for sure. Queensland used to be the union state in Australia, but the success of the Brisbane Broncos league team, allied to the growth of the Lions Aussie Rules side, who pull in full houses of 38,000 spectators, has changed its sporting profile. Union is struggling in Queensland now, to the extent that the youngsters coming into the game come almost exclusively from the private school system. All the other kids are being chased by league scouts – from the Broncos, from the Gold Coast, from the northern districts.
"It's why John O'Neill [left], the chief executive of the Australian Rugby Union, is desperate to drive the Wallaby brand as hard as he can. I reckon the Wallabies will soon be playing 15 or more Tests a year. We've already seen them take on the All Blacks in Hong Kong, and there's talk of a similar match at Wembley Stadium. Why go to these places? Because big events generate big revenue. That revenue can be used to finance more teams, which in turn will mean more opportunities for players to sign professional contracts.
"There are 16 elite teams in Australian rugby league and 18 in Aussie Rules. In union, there are four. Below those Super 14 teams, there are possibly five clubs who might play at the standard of the Second Division in England. If you were a keen young sportsman, where would you concentrate your efforts? In England, if you fall short of expectations or fail to fulfil your potential at one club, there's always the chance of a contract elsewhere. In Australia, that chance doesn't exist.
"How do I see the future? I think the Wallabies will continue to produce very good teams, but the periods of success will be shorter and the down times will be longer. Fewer peaks, deeper troughs."
3. Prioritise some positions (which we didn't do with the front row)
Right, be honest. What the hell happened to Australian front-row play? In 1999, the Wallabies won the World Cup on the back of an iron defence and a superb pack of forwards. Since when...
"I'll put my hand up here and admit that some of us didn't prioritise the scrum as we should have done after the retirements of Richard Harry and Andrew Blades, who were superb operators at the set piece and played a central role for us in '99. But you have to remember this: in 2003, we lost four tight-head props. Ben Darwin, who was entering his prime and would have been an outstanding player, suffered a cruel injury in the World Cup semi-final against New Zealand and never played again. Patricio Noriega, who was a serious scrummager, hurt himself and stopped playing, as did Fletcher Dyson, while Glenn Panoho retired. That's a lot of talent to disappear out of one position.
"People have criticised Al Baxter almost since I brought him into the line-up for the World Cup final, but at that point he wasn't even in double figures at Super 12 level. Talk about fast-tracking. Under different circumstances, he might just be coming into the side now.
"Contrary to popular belief, we don't produce really big sportsmen in Australia. Blades weighed 102kg [16st] when he was anchoring the Wallaby scrum nine years ago. Would he survive now? Not a chance. Bill Young, who played 40-odd Tests for us, was once told that if he was a South African, he wouldn't have made the fifth-grade team at Stellenbosch. We tried to play smart at scrum-time by developing strategies to conceal our physical weakness, and we got away with it for a while because the referees weren't refereeing the set piece too hard. When that changed, we couldn't tweak it any longer and took some hidings as a result.
"It's taken us a few years to work our way back to something like parity, and we'll get there. But when we do, we'll need our best props to stay fit, because there won't be many of them. The loss of one high-class player, especially at tight-head prop, can have a massive effect. Ask New Zealand. They were the best scrummagers around when Carl Hayman was in their front row. Now he's gone, they're pretty average."
4. Our big successes were...
Some of the players you knew best were anything but average. Who were the pick of the crop?
"Tim Horan, for a start. One of the great defensive players in the history of the game, he was also a brilliant attacking strategist who won matches single-handedly – or as single-handedly as is possible in a genuine team game like rugby – for every side he represented. I'd also mention Joe Roff among the threequarters. I consider him to have been one of the most brilliant players of all time. He could find space in the tightest, most claustrophobic games – games so pressurised that they had an almost paralysing effect on all but the very strongest performers. Joe's contribution to the victory over the Lions in 2001 was immense. He pretty much won the series for us.
"Stephen Larkham [pictured], who played outside-half in the World Cup-winning team of '99 and was there when we reached the final four years later, was a player who transformed the way rugby was played from the No 10 position. He turned a kicking game into a non-kicking game, and was the only individual I ever saw who didn't need to slow down to throw a pinpoint pass. Everything was done in a single smooth movement. Extraordinary.
"Finally, I'd mention two forwards. Toutai Kefu was a real mongrel of a No 8 – a high-class player who was never afraid to get stuck in. I don't think we've replaced him, frankly. Then, of course, we have the great John Eales. He set new standards of leadership on and off the field with enormous charm, and proved that winners can be impeccably behaved. He also had the intelligence to change his game as he grew older and his physical powers began to wane. From being a freak of an athlete who could do it all, he found himself on the down slope towards the end to his career. What did he do? He cut back on the things he could not longer do and concentrated on those he could, quickly becoming the most dependable defensive forward in the world. It took pride, determination and a huge understanding of a complex sport."
5. Stick to Wallaby rugby
What about this Wallaby team, coached as they are by a New Zealander? How good are they, and what does Robbie Deans' appointment say about the state of the game in Australia?
"We always had Australians coaching Australia, some of them world leaders in the sport. Bob Dwyer was miles ahead of the game in applying sports science to rugby; Rod Macqueen set the benchmark in terms of professional organisation. Yes, Robbie comes from across the ditch, but by going out and getting him, the union sent a message that we still have ambitions to compete at the highest level and we won't settle for mediocrity. It was important to appoint someone with a track record of winning things. Robbie won more than most during his time with the Crusaders.
"If I have a worry, it's that we've moved too far away from what I'd call a Wallaby view of rugby. Historically, Australian Test teams have always been prepared to chance their arm, but we've become a pretty conservative bunch of late. There again, this is a young group of players who have some buzz about them – rather like England, who are at a similar stage of development. This coincidence gives the game at Twickenham its fascination, and I'd like to think one of these nations will kick on and challenge the New Zealanders when they host the World Cup in 2011."
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