Don't yet give up on the Wallabies
June 24, 2013
James O'Connor was the subject of Robbie Deans' greatest selection gamble © Getty Images
Not for the first time in the Robbie Deans era, the Wallabies were cruelly unlucky to lose a Test match. But another bout of ill fortune must not camouflage the fact that Deans made one almighty selection bungle. The decision to pick James O'Connor as the Wallabies No.10 backfired. After Deans caused so much division and rancour by placing all his faith in O'Connor in being Australian rugby's chief playmaker, ignoring Quade Cooper, the coach would have been praying for the Cocky Amigo to "give me something".
Instead, Deans got a night of the Invisible No.10. Most of the game you kept wondering where exactly was O'Connor, because he made little impact, often seemed out of position, and struggled to threaten the opposition when he occasionally wandered into view. In contrast, the Lions No.10, Jonathan Sexton, was poised, took his options well, and had breadth of vision.
Luckily for Australia, Will Genia, in an exceptional world-class performance, took up the slack, often taking over the dual roles of No.9 and No.10 to ensure proper structure to the Wallabies' midfield play; otherwise the home team would not have even come close to having a chance in the final seconds to win the Test.
You can't blame O'Connor entirely. While O'Connor is so self-confident, believing he can do anything, his lack of Test pivot experience worked against him. He was hesitant, appeared ill at ease, and so was unable to provide the required midfield authority. Adding to the pressure was the loss of Christian Lealiifano early on; and then in the second half having your openside flanker standing next to you at inside centre does restrict options. In such dire circumstances, this was when the team really needed a highly qualified No.10 - not someone still finding his feet in such a pressurised position. O'Connor did not lose Australia the Test match. Far from it. But it doesn't help if your chief organiser lacks presence, and is caught too often running across field.
The moment the Test slipped away from Australia © Getty Images
Robbie Deans was proud of the Wallabies' spirit
Now Deans has an enormous dilemma.
In a squad gutted by serious injuries, especially in the backline, he can be dogmatic and persevere with O'Connor, let bygones be bygones and bring Cooper straight back in, or switch around those few still standing.
The most likely Deans option - as the anti-Cooper feeling within the Wallabies camp is still apparently high - is for Kurtley Beale to be the Test No.10 in Melbourne with O'Connor returning to an area of the field where he is far more accustomed : the back three, either wing or fullback.
Elsewhere there are other concerns: fullback Berrick Barnes, before being stretchered off, appeared decidedly short of match practice; winger Digby Ioane sometimes looked lost; and No.8 Wycliff Palu took a long time before he reminded anyone he was on the field. Palu did play better in the second half, but he is nowhere near his peak career form, reminding all how much of a loss Scott Higginbotham is to the Wallabies back row.
Still, one can comprehend why Deans was effusive in his praise of the Wallabies after the game. In trying circumstances, where they continued to lose key attacking players through injury, the Wallabies' focus did not wane. They showed heart, and two of the newcomers - Ben Mowen and Israel Folau - acquitted themselves brilliantly. The third Test debutant - Lealiifano- sadly did not get a chance, disappearing after just 50 seconds.
One television network might have been pushing it a bit by running a match poll asking viewers whether Folau's debut was the greatest of all time. But it was still right up there among one of the best in recent memory, because what will be remembered most about this compelling Test match will be Folau's attacking ingenuity and zeal in beating numerous hapless Lions defenders when scoring both tries.
The Wallabies will feel demoralised by the Brisbane loss, but they head to Melbourne in a bitter and twisted state of mind - which usually works in their favour. The Wallabies are renowned for excelling when everything appears to be collapsing around them. And this is one of those moments. So don't yet give up on the Wallabies. However, it would be handy if in a week's time they can find a reliable goal-kicker in the Leigh Halfpenny, Jonny Wilkinson, Dan Carter mould.
© ESPN Australia / New Zealand
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