Big hopes rest on Larkham's left thumb

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As a front-row inhabitant of the Lansdowne Road press box that famous day in 1991 when my country barely escaped with a win in the World Cup quarter-final, I would never, ever say that Australia are certain of finishing top of their World Cup pool - especially if one of their opponents is Ireland.

For any Wallaby, playing in Dublin is a petrifying thought, as it can involve such heart-rending World Cup moments of losing the lead with just minutes to go, outright chaos on the pitch as hundreds of Irish spectators jumped the fence to embrace their hero, Gordon Hamilton, and then the most miraculous of comebacks, all inspired by a weird team talk conducted by Michael Lynagh under the goalsticks. This is life right on the edge.

So I'm edgy, even if the rest of Australia strangely isn't. Recent events back up my case. A few weeks ago, more than 2,000 people attended a Wallaby farewell luncheon in downtown Sydney. With the memory of the Bledisloe Cup conquest at the Olympic stadium still vivid, the lunch took on the air of a crazed American political convention. Endless songs of praise, never-ending bellowing of saccharinecoated nationalistic tunes, glowing speech after glowing speech. It was five hours of the ultimate Wallaby rev-up.

For those easily swayed, by the time they had to leave the convention centre, with evening approaching, they would have been convinced that all the Wallabies had to do was to turn up to win the World Cup. But for those with a more discerning view - well, basically, gnarled cynics like myself - there were a few give-away signs that everything is not as bright and beautiful as Australian Rugby wants to make out.

As the 30 Wallaby squad members walked single file into the room to be greeted by rapturous applause, one player stuck out like a sore thumb . . . purely because of his sore thumb.

Australia's prime playmaker is out-half Stephen Larkham. For the Wallabies to have any chance of repeating the success of the 1991 World Cup, Larkham must be involved virtually every step of the way, as his astute use of space and time is critical in turning the Australian back line into a viable attacking weapon.

However there are grave doubts whether Larkham will be available in time. As he headed to his seat, all in the room could see that his left hand was in plaster, the legacy of breaking his thumb two nights previously in a comeback match for Australian Capital Territories (ACT) against Queensland.

It has been a hideous year for Larkham. After missing the nonWorld Cup international season with a serious knee injury, Larkham was gradually getting back to the form required to indicate he would be one of the World Cup makers or breakers - until his thumb finished in the wrong spot in a tackle. The injury required an operation, and a pin was inserted to put the bone back in place.

The Australian medical staff believe Larkham will return in time for the Ireland match, but that assessment comes with the rider of "best case scenario". "Worst case scenario" is that Larkham won't be ready until at least the quarters or semi-finals, which as far as Wallaby rugby is concerned is far too late.

Until he recovers, his ACT team-mate Rodney Kafer, who made a faultless Test debut in the Bledisloe Cup decider in Sydney, will remain as Australia's pivotal player. A competent utility player, Kafer is still aware of his limitations, and is the first to admit he is no Larkham.

"It's no secret that I'm a fat, slow bloke," Kafer said before leaving for the World Cup. "And Stephen is going to be crucial to Australia. There's no doubt about that. As far as I'm concerned, he's the best player in the world in his position. I hope he's right."

So Australia arrive in Ireland with question marks, and a few frailties. What is of most concern is their recent inability to perform away from home. Despite the warmth of the Olympic stadium conquest over the All Blacks, only two weeks previously the Wallabies produced one of their most appalling efforts of recent times when they fell apart against a substandard South African Test team.

Although the Wallabies in Cape Town faced probably the worst Springbok line-up since their return from international isolation in 1992, they were unable to overhaul them, simply because of their own ineptitude.

Australia showed yet again that they struggle to think on their feet: in a swirling wind, they threw ridiculously-long loop passes, and deep lobs to the back of the lineout. The ball went all over the place, except to the Australian players' hands; moronic mistake followed moronic mistake, and the Wallabies suffered the indignity of their worst Test defeat since the disastrous tour of Argentina in 1997.

Thankfully, it all turned around against the All Blacks, but one should still not be bluffed into believing Australia are resting easy on top of the international rugby totem pole. While the resolve and purpose of the team in that final Test was exemplary, and their defence yet again shown to be second to none, the match again indicated the inability of this team to be frequent try-scorers.

Admittedly the wet weather did not help, but Australia had to rely on penalty goals, and not the solitary try, to sweep past New Zealand. This is a common trend. Since the 1991 World Cup victory, Australia have been held tryless in a Test five times. Three of those have occurred in the past 12 months.

This can only be turned around if Larkham has a speedy recovery. Adding to the concern is that Australia have already discovered the dangers of taking injured players away to World Cups.

For their successful campaign in 1991, Australia arrived in Britain with a fully-fit, fully-coherent, perfectly-balanced line-up - with the only major injury concern during the tournament involving their captain, Nick Farr-Jones. He was able to keep playing, but Australia was also relaxed with the thought that his backup, Peter Slattery, was then at the peak of his career. In 1995, Australia went to South Africa with a bunch of crocks. Training sessions were an embarrassment, with usually a dozen or more players on the sideline being treated for a multitude of injuries. It was like a scene out of General Hospital. Australia were gone by the quarter-finals.

The number of casualties is far less this time around, but there are still a few with niggles. As in 1995, the 1999 World Cup selectors were also unable to get the squad quite right. Taking three hookers away has been widely and justifiably criticised as a waste of a spot, and the abundance of speedy locks and back row players has seen an excellent scrummager in tight forward John Welborn being left behind.

On damp pitches that could be fatal: this was pithily expressed by former Wallaby coach David Brockhoff, who said, minutes after the announcement of the squad: "For a World Cup being played on wet grounds, there should be more tight forwards than back rowers. Give me the tight five every time. Give me the engine room first, and the seagulls later."

Thankfully, the late recall of lock Tom Bowman at the expense of the injured flanker Brett Robinson has improved the balance.

Whether the Wallabies will be drifting World Cup seagulls will depend on a few crucial factors. They are undoubtedly better than the 1995 World Cup contingent, and almost on a par with the 1991 variety. We are looking at prospective semi-finalists.

But whether the 1999 Australians can go the extra step and match the exploits of Farr-Jones and Co will ultimately depend on the date of a major development - when exactly that bandage disappears from Larkham's left thumb.

There is also a treacherous hurdle known as Lansdowne Road, which requires careful negotiation - otherwise Australia will take an awful tumble.

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