In 2011, New Zealand hosts the biggest global sporting event of the year, the Rugby World Cup, which, it saddens me to say, Australia's young warriors have not won since 1999.
The World Cup is expected to generate over $1 billion in economic activity, with more than half that figure being pumped into New Zealand's ailing economy. It is, therefore, a big financial deal.
Rugby is also the only truly ‘international’ football code outside of soccer, and a favoured marketing destination for corporations in Australia, New Zealand, the UK, continental Europe, South America, Africa and the US.
But success in sport, and in a global game like rugby more particularly, also has ramifications for our national identity. And, no, I don't agree with all those pansies who think that the nexus between sporting accomplishments and our national sense of self is a bad thing!
Alongside South Africa's Springboks, Australia is the only nation to have held the Web Ellis tournament trophy twice (in 1991 and 1999). Interestingly, New Zealand's infamous ‘All Blacks’ have prevailed just once – way back in 1987 – in six attempts, despite possessing the most consistently successful team in the world.
Australia should have won a third time in 2003, but were pipped by the old enemy, England, in a nail-biting final in Sydney. The Wallabies were lucky to make that final, having edged out a good All Blacks side in a very chancy semi. Australia's undoing in the contest against England, and in almost every major international event since, has been its weak scrum.
As a rather parochial Aussie, the Wallabies' apparent inability to compete in the single most physical aspect of rugby, and in one of the most viscerally confronting encounters in any international sport, is galling, to say the least. The humiliating consensus around the world has been that Australia does not currently produce brawny enough men to succeed in these ‘up-front’ battles. It is difficult to reconcile this failure with the popular image of the notoriously resilient and tough-as-teak Aussie male, and the wealth of empirical evidence substantiating Australia's hard-won sporting success in so many disciplines over the years.
For what it is worth, my own view is that Australia's shortcomings in the gladiatorial scrum domain have been almost exclusively attributable to poor decision-making on the part of the national selectors. It is simply inconceivable that Australia cannot find three barrel-chested, twenty-something grunts to grind out some degree of parity in the scrum's front-row. (This is the so-called ‘set-piece’ skirmish that takes place when two ‘packs’ of forwards comprising eight men apiece slam together in what looks like regulated warfare.)
While the game of rugby is sometimes described as a highly cerebral chess-match, coaches, who are more often than not ex players that haven't transitioned back to the real world, tend not to be distinguished by their intellectual endowments, but rather by their cauliflower ears. This is despite the fact that they exercise significant influence over the outcome of any game via their selection of key personnel, and the scripts they compel players to follow.
Having been a fanatical rugby supporter since my time as a toddler, and played a bit myself (I was vice-captain of my state schoolboy side, and also represented the South of England in the UK), I could not bear the agony of watching the mad-cap management of former Wallabies coach, Eddie Jones, in the lead up to the last Antipodean World Cup in 2003.
In the name of some misplaced notion of coaching creativity, Jones would make strategically absurd decisions, like playing two sub-six foot openside flankers in the backrow (at least one of these players is normally very tall, and often both are). This meant that the Wallabies' ‘line-out’ – the area where both sides leap into the air to catch a spinning ball – was in turn deprived of crucial jumpers (most sides have four), which placed enormous pressure on the two second-rowers, who are typically the tallest men in a team. They were inevitably overwhelmed by oppositions at vital junctures in a game.
Jones was also fond of making random substitutions in the middle of a contest and selecting players out-of-position. One especially frustrating choice was placing the otherwise talented Matthew Rogers into the pivotal five-eighth role – arguably the most important player in a team – notwithstanding that he struggled to pass the ball off his left-hand-side after years of playing in the non-distributing wing position in rugby league.
I was delighted when the ARU hired the New Zealander and former All Black, Robbie Deans, to oversee the Wallabies. Deans was the first foreigner to ever do so. It engendered hope of more thoughtful approaches to running the ‘group’, which has supplanted the word ‘team’ in rugby’s lexicon (group encompasses the reserves). But while I think Deans has done a generally sound job, he has failed to resolve Australia's scrum woes, which, I fear, will persist and knobble the national side's prospects at this year's World Cup.
Deans took far too long to accept Al Baxter's fundamental scrumming deficiencies, which became a major liability for the team. And I have been increasingly concerned by Deans's decision to play two young Queensland props, James Slipper and Ben Daley, alongside the lithe Queensland hooker, Saia Fanga'a, which cost Australia a credible scrum during parts of the 2010 season.
Here the hard facts are telling. The Queensland Red's scrum, which is powered by these three players, and Rod Simmons and James Horwill in the second-row, was utterly destroyed by New Zealand's Canterbury Crusaders at Suncorp Stadium a few weeks ago.
Perhaps more worrying, however, was the demolition of a full-strength Reds' scrum by a no-names Western Force front-row last weekend.
The fact that the Western Force could so easily eviscerate Queensland's forwards, including winning one of their opponent's scrums (called a ‘tight-head’), must be a serious concern for Deans. It was also revealing to see the Reds' forwards overpowered by the Force's pack at the periodic melee known as the ‘breakdown’ (this is the clash that resembles a bunch of blokes jumping on each other).
On the basis of this and past form, one can arrive at the following conclusions:
The concern I have is that Deans et al will become enamoured of Slipper and Daley's fleet-footed ‘loose play’ (this is the fancy but non-crucial work they do around the park, rather than in the scrums). It is a statement of the obvious that this is irrelevant if at every set-piece your scrum emerges as an enormous vulnerability, as it did with Queensland on the weekend. And, crucially, we know that our three main threats at the World Cup – England, the All Blacks, and South Africa's Springboks – all have formidable forward packs that have publicly stated that Australia's scrum is its biggest weakness.
Amazingly, one of the Queensland props who was turned into mince-meat by the Western Force over the weekend managed to make it into the Sydney Morning Herald's ‘team of the week’, which graphically illustrates the trouble even informed commentators seem to have identifying these problems.
If securing a reliable scrum means using comparatively slow plodders that contribute little dynamism around the field, then so be it. Australian rugby cannot afford – practically or commercially – to make this same mistake again. It is incumbent on the ARU's management and the Wallabies' coaching staff to learn from the failures of the last decade, which have been mostly a function of the national team's inability to compete upfront.
Finally, if Deans wants to leverage off some independent analytical horsepower, I am prepared to offer my services gratis!
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