Coach Divides Experts Ahead of Must-Win Test

Rugby Union—Lions Tour
June 26, 2013 Updated: June 26, 2013

It will be life-or-death for the Wallabies when they meet the British & Irish Lions in Melbourne this weekend—already one-nil down, a loss will cost the Wallabies the 3-Test series.

Confidence is high, though, in Australia where fans are buoyed by the close first Test in Brisbane on Saturday (June 22), won by the Lions 23-21.

Most pundits expected an easy Lions victory in Brisbane, but the Wallabies would have won if fullback Kurtley Beale had not slipped taking a simple, last-minute penalty kick—missing the goal.

The Wallaby forwards were excellent, surprisingly. The backs were a mixed bag, as expected.

Star code-hopper, wing Israel Folau scored two trys—including the first try of the match—on his debut for the Wallabies, winning praise from all quarters.

However, there are negatives around Folau. Firstly, because of the nature of the game, his positional play was only tested once—and found wanting—so his understanding of the complexities of wing defence remains unknown.

Secondly, he was an obvious strike weapon, yet he hardly saw the ball in the second half. This reflects badly on the fill-in, Wallabies flyhalf, James O’Connor.

Thirdly, he has a 1-year contract with Australian rugby, which he signed this year after leaving Australian football’s AFL, where he signed after making a name for himself in rugby league, where he also played for Australia.

The underlying logic of his selection was: “If he’s good enough we need him against the Lions.”

But player selection remains a sore point with the Wallabies—or more accurately, with coach Robbie Deans.

He made the bold choice to select Folau and to pick several players who were returning from injury, including Berrick Barnes and Pat McCabe—both left the field after being injured.

Most significantly, he made the bold choice to drop the top Australian flyhalf, Quade Cooper, probably the most daring, Test flyhalf in the world.

Despite the poor performance of O’Connor, and despite calling three new players into his squad, Deans continues to snub Cooper.

But Cooper was backed by former, Grand-Slam winning Wallabies coach, broadcaster Alan Jones, who wrote: “The limited explanations for his [Cooper’s] omission don’t pass intelligent scrutiny.”

He said only Cooper could transform the Wallabies from a team that hopes “it won’t loose by much” into a team “that knows it can win”.

Coach Deans has said Cooper’s ad-hoc brilliance was at odds with the structured approach he wanted, but Jones wrote that Cooper’s brilliance was invaluable at Test level—to win Tests, players had “to take risks” in attack.

He praised Cooper’s attack, saying he “thinks if we can score on the first use of the ball let’s do it, rather than bother with going from phase one, to phase two …”.

Despite these problems, the Wallabies will have the advantage of playing at home … well, almost. The game will be in Melbourne, the home of Australian rules, where rugby is a minor code.

The game will sell out, but with sports fans, not with rugby fans—in saying that, the local rugby fans will be augmented by touring Lions fans, and fans from inter-state.

The Melbourne Test has many positives for Australian rugby. But it has two big negatives.

Firstly, as the Lions only tour once every 12 years, fans in the heartland of Sydney and Brisbane miss out.

Secondly, a hometown crowd in the rugby heartland would help the Wallabies on the field—an advantage that may be required come Saturday night (June 29).

The Lions coach, Warren Gatland, took off his courtly mask this week and started the psychological war, targeting Deans over his controversial selection of Kurtley Beale, straight from club suspension and rehab—to slipping and missing the match-winning goal.

Gatland said Beale was wearing dry-weather, moulded-stud boots, rather than boots with sprigs.

“As a professional you have got to turn up with the right tools. That is part of your job, to make sure you are prepared,” Gatland said.

“You have to ask why he was coming out on the field wearing that sort of footwear in those conditions.”

Even though fans know that Gatland is creating dissension, they also know he is right.

Was it footwear? Or fortune? Either way, it cost the Test.

This will affect the beleaguered Deans and the unstable Beale, as such questions cause nightmares—and they have no answers.

On Tuesday night (June 25) Beale’s Super Rugby Melbourne-based side, the Rebels, played a second-string Lions. As expected the Lions won, 35-0.

The Wallabies will be strengthened by the inclusion of veteran flanker George Smith, as well as centre Ben Tapuai and full-back Jesse Mogg.

For the Lions, Tommy Bowe and Manu Tuilagi are back from injury.

Peter Lalanabaravi is a rugby writer with over 30 years experience.