ARU need not dust down trophy cabinet
July 22, 2013
Quade Cooper and Queensland Reds were bashed out of the game in Christchurch © Getty Images
Wallabies followers are well attuned to the "yo-yo" effect. Up and down. Round and round. Walking that dog. When expectations are high, so often the Australian team will let them down. When they are no chance, the Wallabies will achieve mammoth feats. Form wise, they're impossible to fathom: one week at the top of their game, the next riddled with gremlins.
It was there for all to see during the British & Irish Lions series. The Wallabies lost the first Test in diabolical circumstances; it was a game they probably should have won. They won the second Test in a similar dramatic vein, and that was a game they probably should have lost. And then they went to Sydney; buoyant because everyone was behind them and believing they had the "background" (one of then coach Robbie Deans' favourite sayings) to keep hold of the Tom Richards Cup. Instead, on the big night, they were gun shy.
The day after the Lions series loss, Australian rugby was for a long list of reasons in a serious state of gloom. If the Wallabies were so ineffective - especially up front- against a Lions outfit inferior to the 2001 tourists - what hope did they have against the All Blacks, especially if they continued to be led by a coach with a dreadful trans-Tasman record? Australian Rugby Union (ARU) officials, who constantly remind us they are in a precarious financial state, were understandably worried how all this would impact on already minimal interest in the Rugby Championship. The ARU can ill-afford half empty stands at the moment.
So the appointment of Ewen McKenzie to take over from Deans a few days after the Lions drubbing came at the right time. It raised hopes. New coach, different plan, and the inevitability of a revamped team list prompted optimism; there was again interest in the Rugby Championship. It didn't mean Wallabies followers suddenly started believing in the impossible dream - the sighting of the Bledisloe Cup in the ARU trophy cabinet for the first time in more than a decade - but it at least convinced many there might be some sort of revival.
That's why there was so much interest in the first Super Rugby qualifier. The Crusaders and Queensland Reds aren't exactly the All Blacks and the Wallabies - but in each team were quite a few players who will be tussling against each other in the national colours in August: Will Genia, Quade Cooper, Liam Gill, James Horwill, Rob Simmons, Dan Carter, Kieran Read, Luke Romano, Corey Flynn, Owen Franks, Israel Dagg, Zac Guildford, Richie McCaw … on and on. If a McKenzie-led Reds team could unnerve New Zealand's most successful province, the result may lead to a bit of instability in the Shaky Isles.
Instead, the lopsided contest confirmed the gap between New Zealand and Australia remains large, and that massive improvements are required if the Wallabies are to be serious Bledisloe Cup contenders.
The Reds were swept away by the Crusaders' intensity, power, precise game plan, mighty breakdown cleanout and effective targeting of important opposition players, such as Genia, who was never allowed any freedom to do anything. Wallabies and Reds captain Horwill also had little effect on the game. The Reds were basically bashed out of the contest.
The Crusaders bashed Queensland Reds out of the contest (video available only in Australia)
And McKenzie was reminded that Quade Cooper, if selected at No 10, must somehow learn to cope with the vitriol of New Zealand crowds. Cooper did not handle the pressure during Rugby World Cup 2011, and the New Zealanders know that - as shown by the endless booing whenever the Reds five-eighth was anywhere near the ball on Saturday night. Cooper wasn't dreadful in the pressure-cooker surrounds, but he was another unable to inspire; Kiwi crowds remain convinced they can undermine Cooper, and the noise and the abuse will only get louder.
A day later, the Brumbies were luckier - gradually overcoming early problems at the tackle area and at lineout time, while taking advantage of wayward opposition kicks to beat the Cheetahs in the second qualifier. The Brumbies, so obsessed with the territorial game, never really threatened the Cheetahs line, but they were reliable enough with their kicks at goal to win a madcap, scrambling game. The Cheetahs will be furious, having scored two tries to nil, knowing that penalty goals saved the Brumbies. And one should never assume that complete reliance on successful penalty shots will win you Bledisloe Cups or Mandela Trophies. Much, much more is required.
Even with the Brumbies still fighting - away from home for probably only one more week - it is certainly not yet time for the ARU to call in the carpenters to build a larger trophy cabinet.
© ESPN Australia / New Zealand