Right man for the top job? ... Wallabies captain James Horwill. Photo: Reuters
Wallabies coach Robbie Deans may have had his contract renewed last year, but he still faces pressure to prove he is the best man to steer the national side to the next World Cup in England, judging by the opinion of four leading figures of the Australian game.
The Sun Herald posed 10 questions on the state of the game to former Wallabies coach Eddie Jones, former captain Simon Poidevin and retired prop Al Baxter, as well as Sun-Herald columnist Matthew Burke.
But Deans, whose appointment as Wallabies coach was extended by two years before last year's World Cup where Australia was third behind New Zealand and France, is not the only senior figure under pressure - Wallabies captain James Horwill still has to prove himself.
Potential skipper ... Will Genia. Photo: Getty Images
Burke, disappointed by the Wallabies' World Cup showing, labels the ARU's re-signing of Deans before the World Cup in New Zealand as an ''oversight'' and said the Wallabies' ''performances have been below par''. He goes as far as to predict that ''someone else will be at the helm'' for the 2015 World Cup in England.
Jones, who coached the Wallabies to the final of the 2003 World Cup, is not as damming, but stresses Deans should keep the job ''if he starts beating the All Blacks'', which many rugby observers know is a demanding performance indicator, although within reach of the Wallabies.
Baxter believes Deans should be allowed time to settle in with the new coaching line-up that will be under him, but he is adamant that ''any decision'' on the Wallabies head coaching position with a view to the 2015 World Cup ''has to be made no later than the end of 2013 season''.
Whereas Poidevin, another who was disappointed by the Wallabies performances in the 2011 World Cup, warns the spotlight will be firmly on Deans, saying: ''Salvation for a run at the 2015 World Cup will be heavily scrutinised in what Deans can produce over the next two years.''
Horwill is clearly a captain who is popular, and while Burke and Baxter believe he is the ideal captain, Jones - despite admiring Horwill as a ''good young captain'' - believes Will Genia ''would be more inspirational and tends to play better with responsibility so I would hand the reins over to him''.
Poidevin thinks Horwill just needs more time in the role at Test level. The World Cup is a step-up for any captain and Horwill was less prominent as a player under its pressure. ''He can get there.''
It was clear too, by the panel's answers, the ARU should not think about a return to the NRL player recruitment drive of the early 2000s. ''Been there, done that,'' writes Burke. ''We need to spend more on developing more skilful players,'' says Jones. ''No, but I think we should make it easy for the other code's superstars to play union if they wish to,'' answers Baxter. Poidevin makes his point abundantly clear: ''There's loads of talent coming through our own ranks and I am not a fan of mercenaries as a general rule.''
THE 10 BIG ISSUES
1. Which team will be the top Australian franchise this year?
EJ: Reds or Waratahs … probably the Reds who have the greatest depth of talent of all the states. The Brumbies will fade but have done really well to re-establish themselves as a team with pride. Whoever did the Rebels' recruitment initially has a lot to apologise for - they have an incredibly unbalanced squad with a low team ethic; and the Force are a hard-working team.
AB: The Waratahs. It might seem like a big call as they have only won two from six games, but I think the team has shown enough impressive rugby in parts against the Reds, Highlanders, Sharks and Chiefs for me to pick them in the top spot. I also think an increasingly match-fit Wycliff Palu and a soon-to-return Rocky Elsom will make a significant difference in the close games later in the season.
SP: The Brumbies are set to humble their bigger spending, talent-heavy Australian cousins with a refreshing return to the basics of teamwork, hard work and expansive rugby. Jake White's recruitment has been a masterstroke. Look for a late-season revival from a Waratahs squad that, on paper, should be first and daylight second. Hard decisions lie ahead.
2. Should Robbie Deans be Wallabies coach at the next World Cup?
EJ: If Robbie starts beating the All Blacks in the next two years he should continue to the next World Cup. One gets the impression David Nucifora has a little too much power for a coach with a limited coaching record.
AB: It depends entirely on the Wallabies' performance over the next two years. Robbie will have a new set of assistant coaches and high-performance staff this year. The decision on whether he is the right man … can only be made once they have been given a chance to settle in. Any decision has to be made no later than the end of the 2013 season.
SP: Robbie orchestrated an excellent domestic season for the Wallabies, but the 2011 World Cup was disappointing, both in the style of game and a reluctance by Deans and the selectors to chop out-of-form players. Salvation for a run at the 2015 World Cup will be heavily scrutinised on what Deans can produce over the next two years.
3. Are rugby nations too obsessed with the four-year cycle of the World Cup?
EJ: Teams generally only prioritise the World Cup in the year of the World Cup and this is understandable - it means the other Tests have kept their credibility. One-off Tests in Asia [Tokyo and Hong Kong] for money stretch the credibility of Tests. They generally lack intensity and meaning.
AB: Yes, I think they are. It is the Olympic Games of our sport, so rightly has the standing, prestige and popularity of such an event, and certainly is the biggest regular tournament in which many of the smaller rugby nations compete. But for the larger rugby nations, such as Australia, I think the great risk of being obsessed with the World Cup cycle is that you allow teams (and administrators) to look to the cup as a fix-all and excuse for poor performance.
SP: Unfortunately the administrators and coaches of many of rugby's world powers use the World Cup cycle as a lame excuse for underwhelming performances. Every Test should be taken as the opportunity for the best players of a nation to prove themselves against the best players of another, in fierce combat.
4. Is James Horwill the right man to captain Australia?
EJ: Horwill is a good young captain. Will Genia, I think, would be more inspirational and tends to play better with responsibility so I would hand the reins over to him.
SP: ''Big Kev'' was exceptional for Queensland and the Wallabies domestically in 2011. The World Cup is a step-up for any captain and Horwill was less prominent as a player under its pressure. He can get there.
5. How do you rate the standard of play in the Super Rugby competition this year?
EJ: I think the standard of attack is average - but the defence and breakdown work is of a good quality. The attack lacks shape and fluency and the indecision of the referees at the tackle has increased the amount of purposeless kicking. Teams that are doing well are teams with a good work ethic and high team cohesion.
AB: Generally good, with the top New Zealand sides such as the Highlanders and Chiefs the most impressive.
SP: New Zealand and South African teams have set the pace, with our Australian teams dragging the chain. The style of rugby played by most of our teams up to round four was a waste of time.
6. How do you rate the standard of refereeing in the Super Rugby competition this year?
EJ: Glen Jackson is the best referee I have seen for a long while. He is knowledgeable, clear in his communication and refs the tackle exceptionally well. When he has a game, it is worth watching. Apart from Glen, the referees are too lenient on the tackler and tackle assist. For rugby to be a good game, the attack must have a slight advantage.
AB: Similar to the players, generally good; although I think some of the interpretations at the breakdown have been a little harsh on the attacking team at times.
SP: As a whole, the refereeing in the 2012 Super Rugby to date has been of a good standard - with the exception of a handful of zealots who do the game no favours.
7. Should there be more afternoon matches at Super Rugby and Test level?
EJ: Yes, but the game is paid for by TV and therefore must be played when ratings are highest. Maybe one game a week should be a 3pm kick-off - back to the past - with retro jumpers and a leather looking ball!
AB: Yes. It is better conditions to play in and better conditions to watch rugby in. However, it is the broadcasters who contribute the most money to rugby. So until the funding model changes (through increased gate takings, merchandising or sponsorship) then the broadcaster will rightly still have the final say.
SP: I was a spectator at the Waratahs v Sharks afternoon game - an absolute cracker with a fully engaged crowd. Should be more of them.
8. What rule needs to be changed?
EJ: The injury rule - I think you play on if there is an injury. Unless it is a spinal injury, the game should not stop. Have 12 interchange from seven reserves. We must increase the speed of the game to allow attack to flourish.
AB: It would be nice to see rucking at the breakdown treated differently by the referees at the most senior levels of the game. The laws still allow for rucking of the ball at the breakdown, but the referees often rule on anything to do with rucking quick, narrowly. I think if more rucking was allowed, then the speed of the ball at the breakdowns would increase as there would be less people leaving their feet at the ruck or holding onto the ball on the ground.
SP: Local derbies across Super Rugby should see two bonus points earned for any team who scores four tries to discourage the ''mate versus mate'' arm wrestles.
9. Should Australian rugby recruit any more NRL stars?
EJ: No! That was done and very successfully. But we need to spend more on developing more skilful players. The second-best coach in Australia should run the ARU's junior national squad to ensure we produce skilful players.
AB: Actively recruit? No, but I think we should make it easy for the other code's superstars to play union if they wish. If the game has the financial capacity to do it and there is a genuine desire from NRL, AFL or soccer stars (players and coaches) to be involved in rugby, and not to simply use it as a negotiating tool, then I think it is good for the game.
SP: There's loads of talent coming through our own ranks and I am not a fan of mercenaries, as a general rule.
10. How do you fix scrums?
EJ: When you have contest, you will have problems. The scrums are pretty good. If you don't want problems, you go to league scrums (that's what league did) and we don't want that. Scrum defines rugby. Referees can be better educated for cues to problems.
AB: By simply shortening the call at the senior level to ''crouch, engage''. The call takes five to seven seconds, with players in a position similar to sprint athletes in the final set position trying to anticipate a long, slow call.
SP: Allow only one reset, then straight to a bent-arm penalty that does not give the option of a new scrum.