With a little of a buffer now in place since those mad events in Sydney at the end of the Lions tour, it may now be time for a little reflection. Amongst all the talk of selection travesties, Justice for BOD campaigns and the lack of a Plan B the Lions came through spectacularly when the pressure was really on. Humble pie has been consumed by many, whilst others remain surprisingly quiet (I’m looking at you Stuart Barnes). In amongst this dizzying cocktail of redemption and reparation one of the overlooked questions (at least this side of the equator) is what the future holds for Australia. The inevitable departure of Robbie Deans after a crushing series defeat and some quite frankly bizarre selection decisions has brought his tenure to a disjointed conclusion. So the question remains, where next for Australia?
Ewen McKenzie, that’s where. Where that is, exactly, is something more difficult to define, but here are the areas which will need to be urgently addressed by the former Reds man if the Aussies are to remain serious contenders:
The Fly-Half Position
The James O’Connor experiment has been an abject failure. There are certain positions in rugby where a makeshift player can make do. International Fly-half is not one of them. This is not entirely O’Connor’s fault. He is not a bad rugby player – he is in fact an extremely good rugby player – but his skills are far more suited to the outside ¾’s than as the game’s conductor. He ought to be in the side – shoehorned in if necessary – as he is that good, but not at 10, for his benefit and that of the team.
McKenzie’s arrival could signal the return to the first team of Quade Cooper. Cooper has had a mixed season with the Reds, struggling for fitness and consistency, but he has shown flashes of the real quality that we have come to expect from the polarising Queenslander, and what has been most encouraging is that it has been mixed with a fair deal of maturity. Knowing when to play it safe, to keep it simple, to just put the ball in front of his pack and give them something to build upon have allowed the Reds to come through one or two tight games that in the past they may have lost. More performances like that could see him grow alongside Will Genia into a fearsome duo in time for the RWC in two years time.
However, my feeling is that Australia do not need a firecracker at 10. O’Connor and Beale can bring more than enough creativity and explosiveness to the side. With Genia controlling the tempo, the raw athleticism of Israel Folau and Christian Lealiifano offering a competent goal kicking option, there is a case that perhaps less would in fact be more here for Australia. This could well bring the talented Matt Toomua into the frame. Currently experiencing a breakout season with the Brumbies, his composure, assuredness with the boot and consistency of distribution and general tactical play may well be just what the team needs.
The Front Row
The Aussie scrum got destroyed. With legal, powerful scrummaging the Lions dominated and built a platform for victory. We all knew this was a possibility, but Australia have been the best in recent years at consolidating and hiding the fact that their tight five are possibly the weakest at tier one level. However, this is probably the only area where they could genuinely be considered weak.
The back five of their pack has a balance of skills and subtlety that can match and better anyone in the world. The emergence of Ben Mowen was a joy to watch in the six shirt, calling the lineout without a hint of nerves and proving imposing in the loose as well. Whether a slightly more powerful counterpart to James Horwill could be found would be the only real question mark in this area, as well as which of the plethora of open sides can stick their hand highest into the air. If he can stay fit for more than five minutes, David Pocock is still the best of the three, especially as he is more physical in the tight than either Hooper or Gill (something that Aus missed in the last test), although Gill as he matures looks the more likely of the two youngsters to add that gritty edge to his game.
Kepu’s introduction significantly improved the quality of the Australian scrum, although not quite enough to stop the Lions relentless march. If they can find a way to even gain parity in this area, something in recent times they have been perfectly capable of doing, by fair means or foul, they will not only be a difficult proposition for opponents but a serious contender for the next World Cup.
If Ewen McKenzie can make one or two very careful changes to the composition of the starting squad (as well as getting some injured figures back – Polota-Nau, Pocock – whose absence left the bench looking decidedly weak) then there is no reason why much of the damage of the Lions series defeat cannot be undone and indeed dramatically reversed. Whilst their stock has fallen as a result of a couple of poor days at the office, anyone underestimating the Green and Gold in the next two years will be in for a nasty surprise.
By Patrick Cheshire (@jpcheshire)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images