There are certain people who you just do not argue with about certain subjects. You don’t argue with Stephen Hawking about theoretical physics, you don’t argue with Mick Jagger about rock ‘n’ roll and you don’t argue with Chuck Norris about anything. And you don’t argue with George Gregan about rugby either.
With 139 Wallaby Test appearances to his name, Gregan was the most-capped Test player of all time (until some smug Irishman overtook him earlier this year) and enjoyed a 15 year career which was characterised by his relentless determination and quick wit at scrum half. And it’s those traits which probably explain why George was a little more energetic than most when I caught up with him at 7am local time in Sydney, as the former Australia skipper continued his tour with the Webb Ellis Cup, partnered by Land Rover, to promote the global showpiece next year.
“We’ve just seen the sun pop up on the horizon, there’s not a cloud in the sky – I think the Cup is going to get a beautiful drive up into the Blue Mountains today”, says Gregan, who you can tell still breathes the game. “There’s a lot of excitement for the Rugby World Cup brewing under the surface, but when they see the Trophy up close it ramps it up to another level. There’s still a way to go, but after Australia get through this Test Series with France then people start to realise that we’re on the home straight – and that’s when the interest and buzz will really kick in”.
It’s a good point – all these Summer Tours and Autumn Internationals are very exciting (as they always are), but at this stage there is certainly an extra element felt across all the series, with the ‘big one’ looming around the corner. The question is, though, how much stock can you put into these matches when assessing various team’s chances for the World Cup?
“They’re important because you’re testing yourself consistently against the world’s best”, remarks Gregan. “From a Wallaby perspective, it’s great to be playing the French because they always have a knack at coming good at the World Cup, no matter how poor their other form has been. Then we’ve got England at Twickenham later on in the year which is a sort of a dress rehearsal, and before that we’ve got the Rugby Championship too – playing these sort of teams regularly is what gives you the best preparation in the build-up to the tournament”.
And Land Rover ambassador Gregan isn’t just pleased about the quality of the teams the Aussies are facing up to either – he’s pretty happy with the Wallabies themselves. After a slow start under the McKenzie era, the men in green and gold have begun finding their feet, complementing their traditional running game with new, harder edge up front.
“I thought we were great in the first Test against France, and it was great to see Nic White and Bernard Foley running the show so well”, says Gregan, commenting on an area of the game where he is rather knowledgeable. “But it was great to see us convert so much pressure into points and score some really nice team tries too. The second Test was a really dour affair, and we saw the best of the French back row as they really attacked the breakdown. I was down on the sideline and I can tell you it was pretty physical, but the Wallabies came through – it’s important that they learn how to overcome different kinds of challenge. That’s especially important in preparation for a World Cup, where the teams are a bit more cagey, the referees are a bit more nervous and whistle-happy, and the game is more stop-start.”
All roads lead to Twickenham, so it seems. There have certainly been plenty of positives arising already out of just two Test matches with the French – with Gregan pointing out the emergence and form of Bernard Foley and Sam Carter as particular highlights – and they should stand the side in good stead going forward. But there are concerns over a lack of leadership – with plenty of new faces, Horwill not guaranteed a start and Pocock, Genia and Moore all injured, captaincy duties have been passed to the relatively green Michael Hooper at a stage when he perhaps should be focusing on his own game. Gregan, though, reckons it’s water off a duck’s back for the talented flanker.
“He’s got that ability to churn out quality performances consistently which is what you want from a leader, and he’s got the full backing of his team going into the World Cup year”, says Gregan. “But the real benefit will be when some of the guys come back from injury and back into form – not only will there be some good, tough selection decisions to be made, but there’ll also be a great spine of leaders in the side. Look at England’s 2003 side, there were about 5 blokes who could be captain. My vote would be for Stephen Moore to have the ‘C’ against his name but whoever does will have a support of a bunch of other potential skippers next to him.”
Things are certainly starting to look golden for the Wallabies. A promising end to the Rugby Championship last year, a decent end of season tour and a promising summer series…things are starting to build quite nicely for a side who have won their last six Test matches. It’s all very ominous for England and Wales in particular, who will welcome the Wallabies in the ‘Group of Death’ next year – and that’s not a challenge that Gregan thinks will daunt the Wallabies.
“I’ll back the Aussies”, says Gregan with a grin. “I think England will get out of the group too, but Wales will be really tough – although we’ve got a good record recently at the Millennium Stadium. For the whole tournament, I think New Zealand will be favourites and the next obvious three will be England, South Africa and Australia. But I like Ireland, too, and they’re flying in under the radar a bit at the moment – they’ll be very dangerous. It’s looking like being one of the most open World Cups in years.”
We can’t argue with that, George.
By Mike Cooper
Land Rover is proud to be a Worldwide Partner of Rugby World Cup 2015 and a Presenting Partner of the Rugby World Cup Trophy Tour. Follow @LandRoverRugby on Twitter for exclusive video, imagery and insights from around the Rugby world.