Australia will look back on this year as a pretty successful one for the Wallabies. We can look to the future with optimism and, although things can quickly change, we are heading in the right direction on the international stage. We managed to win three out of five Tests on the spring tour – plus the win against the Barbarians – which gave us a tally of nine from 14 for the year. The good news is that we’re a team on the way up and those stats could very well improve.
There is a lot of upside to the Australian team at the moment. Robbie Deans, Michael Foley and Jim Williams have done a great job. When I came into the job, the first thing that struck me was the lack of depth in the team. In the modern game, that’s a killer, particularly when players are involved in rugby for up to 10 months of the year. You have to operate on a squad system, something that has taken Australians a while to get their head around. It enables players to perform fresh, while the coaches can put some pressure on players who are competing for spots. We’ll continue to see the Wallabies team being tweaked from week to week in the years to come. Many people dub it the "rotation system" but it’s all about putting the best team on the field. There is little difference between some players and freshness, state of mind and form all come into the reckoning.
We’ve seen the likes of Drew Mitchell, Benn Robinson, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Hugh McMeniman and Stephen Moore all become genuine Test players after taking some time to settle in. The first-year success of Peter Hynes and Dean Mumm has been encouraging. Not everyone can be like John Eales, Jason Little and Tim Horan, who were genuine Test players from the moment they stepped into the international arena. In the modern game, for some it can take a year or two.
Our front-row stocks are stronger than ever, with the likes of Ben Alexander, Robinson, Sekope Kepu and even Al Baxter, who at the age of 31 still appears to have a good year or two left in him. One underrated player for us over a number of years has been Matt Dunning. He had a good year while adapting from loose to tight head. We should hope his recovery from his Achilles injury is swift.
In the lock position, it’s fair to say that Nathan Sharpe, at the age of 31, appears not to be one of Deans’s favourites. However, I think he’s had an outstanding year. When you’ve got guys like Mark Chisholm, McMeniman, James Horwill and Mumm if needed, it’s a good sign. All bar Sharpe and Baxter, they are not older than 27 and all have a number of big years left in the game. With David Pocock ready to take over from George Smith and Phil Waugh, and the emergence of Richard Brown sitting behind Wycliff Palu at No.8, our back-row stocks also look strong.
Our forward improvement has been out of sight. When we talk about forward stocks, we’ve still got the likes of Greg Holmes and Stephen Hoiles trying to force their way into the Wallabies squad. What has been required in the past few years has been a greater focus on technique and skill, which is happening.
There is also promise in the backs. With Sam Cordingley gone, Luke Burgess has come in. He is a talented young man who has struggled for consistency. He can produce a 10/10 performance one week and then throw in a 2/10 the next. He’s definitely more suited to the short-arm penalties of the Super 14, where his running game comes into play. But, at times, his kicking and passing have come under scrutiny at Test level. Like fellow 25-year-old McMeniman, he has had an outstanding first year in the big time after suffering a spate of injuries. If Burgess can string a couple of seasons together, he can be the Australian halfback for a long time. Deans will be scouring the Super 14 for Burgess’s back-up.
At five-eighth, Matt Giteau is still Australia’s best and most dominant back. His goalkicking this year has been magnificent under pressure. Still, I’m not convinced he’s as comfortable at No.10 as he can be but time will solve that. Deans also has Berrick Barnes, Quade Cooper and Kurtley Beale as back-up options. For 20 years, the Australian five-eighth scene was dominated by Stephen Larkham and Michael Lynagh. When one of those was hurt, it was always a struggle. We remember the agonising decisions Rod Macqueen had to make taking the punt on Larkham because of the lack of depth. It turned out to be a masterstroke. While depth is always an issue, that’s a position we’ve got covered now.
In the midfield, Stirling Mortlock and Ryan Cross are 31 but you would expect them to play for another couple of years. Cooper and Barnes are also comfortable at No.12, with Ashley-Cooper having an outstanding game against the Barbarians in that position. He’s an outstanding midfield option for the future. We always thought his best position was 13 or 14 but he showed in the Barbarians game that he’s more than comfortable at 12 and he’s playing with a tremendous amount of confidence. Another player on the way up.
Mortlock has grown tremendously as a captain. He fits the job at the moment. I remember talking to Eales about the captaincy and he said it’s something you have to work as hard at off the field as on it. Walking down the tunnel, Mortlock was always the guy you wanted to play with but he had some work to do away from the paddock. That’s something he’s worked at and he’s done a pretty good job this year.
With a good Super 14 season, Australian supporters can look positively to the future. We’ve got some good times ahead.