Historically the All Black are knowledgeable, efficient and frequently ruthless. The Springboks are brutal. The Northern Hemisphere countries have become increasingly pragmatic as the last shreds of Gallic flair pass through the professional wringer. And so the rugby romantics among us tend to look to Australia for something to feed the soul. We may not get much bread of heaven any more, but the Aussies can usually be relied on for a few crumbs.
Before professionalism arrived Mark Ella would light a few torches along the side of a darkening road. Then came David Campese and Tim Horan and Stephen Larkham. There was always a mix of the sun drenched athlete and the larrikin about Australia. But after the debacle against New Zealand last weekend I am starting to fear for the future.
Rugby union already comes third to league and the ARL in Oz despite have an evidently wider international profile. But after the rubbish that Australia produced in their first test of the inaugural Championship, rugby might soon slip behind ping pong in the rankings.
In the previous year Australia has lost to Samoa, Scotland and Ireland. And they were mighty fortunate to scrape through a home series against Wales in which they were outplayed for most of the time. If you take away the weighting that guarantees a place in the top three, Australia’s Super 15 teams finished 6th, 7th, 11th, 13th and 14th. Many of their clubs, having absurdly dabbled with professionalism, are all but broke.
It is a bleak, bleak landscape. John Connolly called the last four years “the worst in the pro era for Australia.” It is hard to disagree. When Robbie Deans was appointed head coach in December 2007 he was given a victory target of 75%. It currently stands at 60%.
It is bad enough losing, but at least Aussie teams of yore would go down with a hint of swagger. Campo would blow up in our faces every now and again, as he did so famously against the Lions, but at least he had a go.
I am tempted to think of Australia’s current injury crisis as a terrible judgement on Deans for turning a talented team into the Dullabies during the 2011 World Cup. The Reds had won the Super 15 with the odd piece of outrageous counter attacking rugby. The Aussies are gifted the Tri Nations because South Africa were resting players. Then Deans turns them into fearful automatons at the World Cup. They were very fortunate to win their quarter against South Africa and were deservedly hammered in the semi as they played a cowardly kicking game.
Maybe Deans was haunted by New Zealand’s 2003 World Cup loss when they attempted to play fantasy rugby with Carlos Spencer. Deans was assistant coach of that team and as a former fly-half and full-back, had a say in how the backline was run. But whatever the reason, he now seems to have completely lost his way.
Some say Deans was always better at getting players to play for him than coming up with moments of tactical genius. That was evident last Saturday. Some of the defensive lines from Australia’s back row were beyond belief and the attacking policy was laughable. The Chiefs had given Deans a blueprint on how to take on New Zealand with their semi-final win over the Crusaders, yet it was as if Deans had never seen the match.
A big defeat this weekend against New Zealand and Deans would have to go and Ewen McKenzie come in. But such a decision, which should really have been taken after the World Cup, would rely on chief executive John O’Neill admitting that he had got it wrong. Sorry, was that a pig that just flew over Sydney harbour.