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

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.

Better equipped
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.

Even the Wallabies’ lengthy casualty list last year didn’t afford Deans much escape from increasing criticism. He is under contract to the end of this year but both Ewan McKenzie, head coach at the Reds, and Jake White at the Brumbies, are loudly hailed as contenders to replace him next year. Indeed, McKenzie openly covets the Wallabies job after four years with the Reds, during which time he guided them to their first Super Rugby title.

In all of this, it’s hard not to believe that in not releasing any of the seven Reds in the Wallabies’ squad for last Saturday’s meeting with the Lions – a full fortnight out from the first Test – Deans would not have wanted McKenzie’s team to take the tourists’ scalp before he had a chance to do so.

More determined
This in turn would only have made McKenzie, an assistant coach to Macqueen 12 years ago, more determined than ever that the Reds put their best foot forward against the tourists.

By contrast, two players apiece from the Waratahs and the Brumbies have been released for the next two tour matches. That said, all bar the injured Digby Ioane of the seven Reds might actually feature in the match-day 23 in the first Test.

Admittedly, in addition to the four players released by Deans yesterday, current ARU chief executive Bill Pulver has released players from the Australian Sevens World Cup training camp, yet it still doesn’t seem anything like the unified front of 12 years ago .

Even allowing for how Quade Cooper polarises opinion, it was striking to note how John Connolly and Brendan Cannon criticised Deans’ exclusion of the mercurial outhalf.

Thus far, there has been no demonising of the Lions this time round. Perhaps it helps the tourists are not so Pom-oriented. Furthermore, of course, Rugby League and the AFL do not want the tour to do well.

Admittedly, the Wallabies were unpopular under Eddie Jones and captain George Gregan when, in 2003, they defended the World Cup on home soil, before suddenly the media rowed in behind them for the semi-final and final.

Similarly, patriotism might yet take over as the first Test looms into view, or if the Lions win in Brisbane next Saturday. But it wouldn’t have needed that jolt a dozen years ago.