One of the biggest decisions facing the Australian team prior to the upcoming tour of the Lions is who to hand the Number 10 shirt to, with three different players all having genuine claims to being the premier player in this position. They all have their weaknesses though too, meaning that whatever decision is made, it is likely to be a contentious one, with pundits, commentators and fans alike ready to jump on any decision should it turn out to be the incorrect one.
With 2 months to go until the first test versus the British and Irish Lions we take a look at the three main contenders for this position – Quade Cooper, Kurtley Beale and James O’Connor.
Cooper has done it all before, having been the first choice Australian fly-half until injury forced him out of the team in 2011. Since then he has returned to the team and suffered more injury woe – something that has allowed Beale to further assert his claim for the position. Cooper without doubt has talent – probably more natural ability than any of the other contenders – but his form has not returned to the scintillating heights he exhibited before the 2011 World Cup.
It also has to be remembered that Cooper, to use an understatement, has not always seen eye-to-eye with Australia coach Robbie Deans, which has already seen him left out of the initial ‘logistics camp’. No-one can forget his claims that the atmosphere in the Australian camp was toxic, and this willingness to speak out will make Deans worry that he will upset the team and cause unity to become compromised.
The answer to the question surrounding Cooper’s inclusion lies in whether Cooper can play so well that Deans is forced to include him – his recent form with the Queensland Reds currently shows that this might be the case. His almost telepathic connection with Will Genia, his compatriot at Queensland and the Australian captain, will certainly boost his claims for a starting place against the Lions. Doubters only have to look at their performance together in Hamilton last week for proof of this. Great partnerships are hard to find in rugby, so can Deans bring himself to turn his back on this one?
There is no doubting that Beale is one of the biggest talents in the Australian game, with his nomination for the IRB international Player of the Year in 2010 announcing him to the world after a highly successful year. Disciplinary problems have dogged his career since then though, and after playing in a huge loss to the Sharks for the Melbourne Rebels recently, Beale found himself in an ugly altercation with his own teammates – something that led to him being suspended by the ARU and facing an uncertain future in the game. Alcohol is cited as the reason for this indiscretion – as well as others in the chequered career of Beale – and Aussie chiefs are concerned that he simply can’t keep his off-field behaviour under control.
Beale’s fall from grace is a sad one, as without his indiscretions he would possibly be one of the biggest assets in the Australian squad. Just looking back at his early years as the captain of the Australian Schoolboys team it is clear he is a sportsman who has yet live up to his full potential at the highest level.
With the fact that a broken hand is currently keeping Beale out of the game as well, his chances of playing in the Lions tour seem to be diminishing. It is also the case that he will only have limited chances to prove his form and fitness before the tour, thanks to the suspension and injury. This means he could be, at best, Australia’s number three choice for the jersey. He will be attending counselling though to try to remedy his off-field issues, and this willingness to change could help him reassert himself in the Wallabies line-up, although this is unlikely to happen by the summer.
The third and final musketeer, O’Connor is looking like the prime candidate for the Number 10 shirt currently, thanks to both his personal attributes and the situations that have developed around him. His age is certainly something that works both for him, as at the tender age of 22 he has youth on his side, while also being able to point to 37 caps as proof of significant international experience.
O’Connor also hasn’t had any controversy surrounding him, unlike the other two candidates, which will calm the nerves of Deans. Injuries are a concern however, with O’Connor spending much of the 2012 season on the sidelines. His form prior to this though, especially during the Northern Hemisphere tour of 2011, is still fondly remembered by management and fans alike. The fact that O’Connor is part of the influential Wallabies Test-team leadership group – along with Genia, Horwill, McCabe and Pocock – could also work in his favour.
O’Connor is, essentially, the safe choice for the Australian team. With the recent controversy surrounding rugby – and sport in general – in Australia, a calming influence like O’Connor could be just what the team needs. He would, therefore, be a lot of people’s choice to take the position, but when Deans does come to make the call it is imperative he makes the right decision if the Wallabies are to repeat their success of the 2001 tour.
By Ilan Hurwitz
Ilan runs the Australian web site Football Jerseys Online where he provides rugby fans in Australia with Jerseys from the most popular teams including the British & Irish Lions & the Wallabies.