Australians put on a far from united front
Letter from Sydney
Ronan O’Gara of the Lions leaves the field bleeding after that infamous assault by Duncan McRae of the Waratahs on the 2001 tour. Photograph: Getty Images
Twelve years ago it felt like the Lions were taking on a nation, or at least the entire Australian Rugby Union.
It wasn’t just the Wallabies, who added up to more than the sum of their parts under Rod Macqueen anyway, the Lions were taking on. It felt the Brumbies, Reds and Waratahs, especially, under former Wallabies World Cup-winning coach Bob Dwyer, were all pulling with the Wallabies.
The Australian RFU, under their smart if brash CEO John O’Neill, co-ordinated a unified effort. Voluble, O’Neill was always being quoted and seemed omnipresent. The media were on board too, and you had the sense either Macqueen or O’Neill were in the background pulling the strings, with former coaches or players such as Dwyer queuing up to drive the campaign against the Lions – with the media behind them.
At the time, Australia had only three professional franchises to back up the Wallabies, yet still put together a 10-match schedule, which was buttressed by a strong Australian A selection, which actually inflicted the only defeat on the tourists outside of the Test series.
Badge of honour
Under Dwyer, Australia’s 1991 World Cup-winning coach, the Waratahs took it as a badge of honour to ruffle the Lions, no one more so than Duncan McRae, who was red-carded and suspended for seven games after pinning Ronan O’Gara to the ground and punching him 11 times.
Back in the world’s third most expensive city, yesterday’s Daily Telegraph ran an interview under a close-up picture of O’Gara’s badly swollen face, with stitches under his left eye, alongside the heading, “Just ask Ronan if the Tahs take these games seriously”.
But for all the revisiting of history, it oughtn’t to repeat itself, and for all Michael Cheika’s pronouncements about “anything in red that moves, we’ll have a crack at”, as Jamie Heaslip noted with a knowing smile yesterday, he wouldn’t expect anything less than a fired-up Tahs, but legitimately so, under his “passionate” former coach.
A dozen years ago, the Wallabies had won their second World Cup, in 1999, and followed that up by retaining the Bledisloe Cup and winning their first Tri-Nations title in 2000, repeating the feat in 2001 under Macqueen and captain John Eales.
Now, there are five professional franchises so, in theory, Australian rugby ought to be better equipped to stretch the Lions over nine games than they could over 10 back then. But, 12 years on, it doesn’t seem so unified.
The kernel of the problem appears to be Robbie Deans or, at any rate, a wariness toward the Kiwi coach compared to the popularity Macqueen enjoyed.
In situ since 2008, Deans is the Wallabies’ longest serving coach in terms of matches played under him (72). In that time, he has won one Tri-Nations but never won a Bledisloe Cup, and the Wallabies were blown away by the All Blacks in last year’s World Cup semi-finals after a gutsy win over South Africa partially atoned for the defeat to Ireland.