Wallabies forced to eat humble pie
July 18, 2011
Can Wallabies skipper Rocky Elson conjure a turnaround in fortunes for his side? © Getty Images
'Queensland Reds -Super Rugby champions' has a nice ring to it, but it's nothing short of what the Reds deserved for their enterprising and entertaining style over the past two years.
The 18-13 victory over the Crusaders was perhaps the best final of all 16 years of professional Super Rugby and caps a remarkable turnaround for a province that had finished in the bottom three for seven of the past eight seasons.
It wasn't just a special result for those who waited 16 years of the professional rugby era for the Reds first major honour. No, the Reds heart-stopping victory over the Crusaders was seen as a win for all of Australian rugby and delivered a very timely morale boost in this Rugby World Cup year. A boost that was squandered the very next weekend in a comprehensive 32-23 defeat to Samoa, the biggest upset on Australian soil since Tonga overran the 1973 Wallabies.
That's not how it was meant to play out though. Robbie Deans, largely credited for building a Wallabies squad that was thread bare after 2007 must be wondering exactly how deep his squad really is, as his 'weakened' team were out-played, out-enthused and simply out-classed by the world's 10th ranked team. But to suggest it was a second-rate Wallabies team is far from accurate. The starting XV had names such as Elsom, Giteau, Sharpe, Ioane, Ashley-Cooper and McCalman, with Genia, Beale and Higginbotham coming off the bench. It was a team that was expected to humble the Samoans, but they were instead served the most humble of pies by a team that used the resting of the big-name Wallabies as fuel to their fire.
What should have been a momentum-building game, on the back of the Reds triumph the week before, is now a deadweight around the neck of the Wallabies and Robbie Deans will shoulder the bulk of the blame for not showing the Samoans enough respect. In the Cantabrian's defence he did lose Berrick Barnes (concussion), Drew Mitchell (leg), David Pocock (foot), Benn Robinson (knee) and James O'Connor (hamstring) to injury and the likes of Quade Cooper, Will Genia, James Horwill and Scott Higginbotham needed a rest after a long provincial campaign.
But simply, the Wallabies that took part were not up for the physical battle the Samoans presented. The ruck area was a sea of blue jerseys as the Wallabies back-row of Elsom, Hodgson and McCalman went missing in action, which prevented quick ball being secured at the ruck to keep the Samoans on the back foot in defence. On a day where a number of new faces were to be given a relatively easy introduction to Test rugby, instead turned into a nightmare as Nick Phipps, Rod Davies and Sitaleki Timani were all dominated by the opposition. Mark Gerrard had limited impact at fullback in his first appearance since playing against Japan in the last World Cup, while lock Dan Vickerman also looked short of a gallop after three years completing his studies in the UK.
But there were some positives from the wreckage. Digby Ioane showed his characteristic devastating power and broke the first tackle on nearly every occasion. Will Genia and Kurtley Beale gave Australia some urgency and speed on the ball when they were introduced in the second half, while Beau Robinson and Scott Higginbotham also made a strong contribution from the bench, including the latter's dazzling skills to set up Giteau's late try to give Australia a sniff of an unlikely victory.
One of the issues with the team Robbie Deans named was a number of the players were coming off dreadful campaigns with their home province. The Brumbies, Rebels and Force had a losing habit in 2011 and that confidence needed to win matches is now a scarce resource. Fortunately, the Wallabies get a chance to bounce back straight away against the Springboks this weekend. The scars of one of Australia's worst ever Test defeats won't hamper the players coming back into the team, while for those that did play they will have the chance of salvation against a Springboks team far from full strength.
This week is also a big test of Rocky Elsom's abilities as a leader and whether he can use the hurt and disappointment within the squad as leverage to inspire a better performance against South Africa. Simply he must lead from the front and bring the physicality that wins international contests, more so, as this is the area that the Springboks and All Blacks will target, believing it to be Australia's soft underbelly. Just ask the Samoans.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
As Scotland decides its future, Scrum Sevens looks at a group of players who transcended rugby both for country and the British & Irish Lions
Ahead of November's USA-All Blacks match, America's ESPN Magazine explains rugby to its readers who may not be familiar with the game
Tom Hamilton talks to World Cup-winning captain John Smit about life after rugby, his fears over the South African exodus and the World Cup