Familiar problems remain
October 27, 2011
Australia picked up the bronze medal but was it an underwhelming finish? © Getty Images
Congratulations New Zealand. The All Blacks nail-biting win over France to claim their first World Cup in 24 years was nothing less than deserved. They were the only team that consistently played well in a tournament where the other contenders struggled to find their rhythm often enough. This not least applies to the Wallabies, who do return home with a bronze medal in their swag, but also too many dreams of 'what if'.
The Wallabies tilt for the Webb Ellis trophy was crushed at the hands of a ruthless All Blacks who never gave their Tasman cousins a sniff. For Australians, the defeat has been reasonably easy to swallow given the clear gulf in class that exists between the two nations. The Wallabies thought they may have had the wood on the Kiwis after the Tri-Nations victory in Brisbane, but that win now seems to have been merely the battle, not the war. The Kiwis took all the spoils and that's nothing less than they deserved.
Despite the earlier than hoped exit there were some fine individual performances in this Wallabies squad. James O'Connor was outstanding all tournament and David Pocock enhanced his reputation as arguably the best open side flanker in the world. The IRB thought so too, nominating him for their Player of the Year award. Yet, Pocock's true value to the team is best seen when he's not there, as the Irish had a field day against an ineffective back row of Rocky Elsom, Ben McCalman and Radike Samo. His performance against South Africa was arguably the best individual effort by any player at the tournament as time and again he pilfered, or at least slowed down, the Springbok ball. That match also underlined the flanker's clear captaincy potential in a team that needs more onfield leadership in the big games.
The Wallabies fielded the youngest squad at the tournament and a third placed finished points to a bright future in 2015, but the final result masks the reality that the Wallabies were largely outplayed in the games that mattered. Ireland took advantage of a weak scrum and an absent back-row to send the Wallabies into New Zealand and South Africa's side of the draw. The Springboks absolutely battered the Wallabies and only a case of sheer doggedness in defence and poor attacking execution by the Boks gave the 'Men in Gold' one of the unlikeliest victories at a World Cup. However, New Zealand were, expectantly, far less wasteful and put the Wallabies to the sword.
The big games highlighted that the ghosts of 2007 still haunt the scrum. It's the Wallabies' Achilles Heel and the world knows it. Sadly, in four years Robbie Deans hasn't been able to do much about it as the depth in the front row is just not there. Admittedly, Australia's best prop, Benn Robinson was injured, but the Wallabies focus in the next four years has to be on rectifying the scrum's deficiencies. There's not much point in having the best backline in world rugby if the Wallabies can't secure their own ball at the scrum, and worse give the opposition cheap points through scrum penalties.
The other key factor in Australia's campaign was the downturn in Quade Cooper's form. Against Ireland he struggled and against the Springboks he became a liability through countless errors and poor decisions. He was also painted as the villain against the All Blacks, but after a nervous start, he played as well as he could behind a forward pack that gave him absolutely nothing to work with. Cooper was not the reason the Wallabies came home early, but his star power took a pounding over the last seven weeks in the eye of what seemed a never-ending storm. Sadly, a section of the New Zealand public's fear that one of their own could come back to haunt them, led to an over-zealous, and rather small minded, campaign to unsettle the fly-half. It's true Cooper didn't help himself by revelling in the 'Public Enemy Number One' tag, but the persistent booing and jeering, especially as he fell to a blown knee in the bronze final, does detract from what was otherwise a successful tournament.
The coaching team are far from faultless either. The decision to take only one specialist No.7 to the tournament spectacularly backfired, leaving the Aussies woefully short-handed in a key position, yet the Wallabies took three halfbacks. The curious selections continued through the tournament, not least in the centres. Leaving Berrick Barnes to warm the bench, while playing the defensively-minded Pat McCabe and Anthony Fainga'a, put far more pressure on Cooper to be the focal point of every attack. The poise and game management of Barnes is the perfect foil for the dynamism and sheer audacity of Cooper and the Wallabies looked far more frightening with the duo working in tandem. Leaving Nathan Sharpe out of the semi-final was also surprising, given he and Horwill were the best performing locks in the squad.
The result also brings increased scrutiny of the ARU's decision to sign Deans to a two-year contract extension before the tournament, given the coach's calls to be judged on his team's performance at the World Cup rather than several humiliating Test losses over the past four seasons. While Deans is a very good coach and Australia have improved under his tutelage, now should have been the time to ask the hard questions about the direction we're heading. After all, four years isn't that long away.
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