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Talent makes up for perceived lack of depth


John Eales

Can the Brumbies bounce back from the injury to Christian Lealiifano?

Can the Brumbies bounce back from the injury to Christian Lealiifano? Photo: Getty Images

Sometimes there are moments in a game that set the theme, other times there are moments which completely turn a game on its head. Henry Speight's try right on the half-time siren was one of the latter in the Brumbies' 23-6 victory over the Waratahs in Canberra on Saturday night.

Up until that point the scores were locked at 6-6, with the Waratahs slightly up on possession stats. But the Brumbies, subjectively at least, were up on effectiveness with the possession they had. From that moment on, and particularly when punctuated by another Brumbies' try not four minutes into the second half, only one team seemed the likely victors.

Importantly, in the creation of both their tries, the Brumbies maintained possession for 12 and 16 phases respectively – and then grasped their slim opportunity when presented. And that was the difference between the sides, for whenever the Waratahs created tryscoring opportunities it was their looseness in contact that cost them, compared with the Brumbies' perseverance and expediency.

However, the Brumbies' joy at their two-game Australian conference lead was dampened when injury struck their star five-eighth Christian Lealiifano (after the siren). Having previously lost Matt Toomua for the season, it will be a good test of the Brumbies' depth to see how they recover from Lealiifano's absence.

If they can find a reasonable replacement and instruct him quickly in their style, they may recover well, as a lot of what they are doing will not change. Although Lealiifano was important, their recovery has been built on team rather than on any individual.

They will still strive for accuracy in the forwards, combined with speed and simple angle running in the face of the opposition through the backs. Success ultimately will be in the subtlety and simplicity: how easy can they make things for Lealiifano's replacement and how quickly the team can adjust to the subtle differences any personnel change brings.

The number of injuries does highlight the vulnerability of the Australian teams, as our already questionable depth is further stretched.

Debate continues about Australian rugby dissipating its stocks through the five teams in our conference, as there is no doubt that at times we have looked thin on the ground in talent. The adage, “if you spread yourself too thin you'll disappear” comes to mind. But while this may be true for now, it needn't be true forever. Indeed when viewing the Rebels' narrow 41-35 loss to the Bulls, the Force's unfortunate 17-13 loss to the Cheetahs, and the Reds' 15-11 heartbreak against the Crusaders, there is evidence to suggest the gap is not as big as some would suggest.

Further, although it may take the most Pollyanna of perspectives, there is a potential upside to this run of injuries and that is that more Australian rugby players are exposed to the Super Rugby stage.

Geniuses and freaks aside, often the only difference between a very good provincial – and even test player – and a very good club player is opportunity. In the past, one of Australia's biggest weaknesses has also been our greatest strength. We rarely had the depth of other nations, but what talent we enjoyed thrived in either the Waratahs or the Reds, and later the Brumbies, so they became weapons on the international stage.

Front-rowers Ewen McKenzie, Phil Kearns and Tony Daly played years together with the Waratahs and Wallabies, Tim Horan and Jason Little forged a memorable pairing in the centres for the Reds, as did George Gregan and Stephen Larkham for the Brumbies.

Once the top test team is established this season, it is possible there will be very few combinations that have regularly played together at provincial level. This means we must look to the positives of the current environment, while solving the problems it presents.

The goal must be to exploit the broader talent pool that has been given the gift of greater exposure.

To maximise such a potential advantage in the long term will rely largely on the ability of the Wallabies' coaching staff to quickly foster and integrate individuals within team patterns. It will be fascinating to see how Jake White and his team handle this problem after their bye round next weekend.

If they don't adjust accordingly it may be the negative turning point for their season.

16 comments so far

  • You know everytime I here people who should know better , declaring that Australia has a lack of depth /talent I have to laugh . Just looking at the ARU's own stats ; we have more than 200,000 players playing rugby , that's almost twice the number New Zealand has . The reality is that player development/rep selection is skewed massively towards the private schools , who themselves have individually little motivation to sacrifice their bodies/careers on the rugby field -as a result, our efforts at international competition consistency is mediocre at best .

    Matthew Skellett
    Date and time
    May 07, 2012, 6:41AM
    • So how do you explain all the non private school boys that were selected in last year's Australian schoolboys team?
      And twice the number of players is a big stretch.
      Your points are ridiculous.

      Date and time
      May 07, 2012, 1:27PM
    • Yawnnnnn......

      Capt Footlong
      Date and time
      May 10, 2012, 4:08AM
  • Well, we certainly lack depth regardless of whether there are more people playing rugby here than in NZ. I'd suggest that more than half our players in Oz are just running around for fun. There's far more competition among football codes here than there is in NZ and SA that's for sure.
    That aside, I wouldn't mind seeing the Brumbies back 3 - Mogg, Speight & Tomane playing for the Wallabies. They are dynamic with ball in hand and a constant threat to any opposition.
    If only we could find dynamic scrummagers then we'd be right up there.
    Lastly, the poor refereeing in S15 is really spoiling a lot of contests this season - it's damn annoying!

    World in Union
    Date and time
    May 07, 2012, 8:41AM
    • Matt's right the numbers don't excuse the lack of depth. As he says Aus has twice the number of registered players as NZ - AND has twice the number of senior male players.
      And Aus has FIVE times the population, so in theory should be able to support FIVE times as many football codes and still be competitive.
      I don't know what the answer is though. Something in the water in NZ? Tradition? Maybe they're just hungrier for it. Australian players often appear to me a bit pampered in comparison to their Kiwi counterparts.

      Date and time
      May 07, 2012, 1:38PM
  • Excellent article as usual John. Jake White and his coaching staff are showing the way to other Australian sides. Their coaching, as well as Christian Lealeafiino move to fly-half has transformed a team of no-hopers into a really competitive side, who play an exciting brand of rugby. Kurtley Beale's flair at fly-half also transformed the Rebels on Friday night. Australia probably does not have the same depth as South Africa, England or New Zealand, but have the player depth to be competitive, I believe. The real problem, in my opinion, is that we lack good coaches and imaginative and creative fly-halves. I agree with the previous writer in that I would like to see the Brumbies back 3 and number eight in the Wallabies side. I would also like to see Kurtley Beale at fly-half and Digby Ioane in the centres.
    Finally it was dissapointing to see poor and biased decisions spoiling the Reds vs Crusaders and Cheethas vs Western Force games on the weekend.

    Date and time
    May 07, 2012, 11:03AM
    • Wise and positive words, John Eales. Most dark clouds do indeed have a silver lining! I'm quite sure a decent replacement # 10 will step forward to fill the void caused by Christian Lealiifano's frustratingly late in the match misfortune at the weekend. The Brumbies' bye is at the right time. Given the indomitable team spirit and impressive discipline they have displayed so far this season, I'm sure they will rise to the challenge. I sincerely hope so, having helped myself to the very generous pre-season TAB offer of 16-1 to win the Aussie conference!

      Tony H
      Date and time
      May 07, 2012, 11:08AM
      • I missed Lealiifano's injury on the weekend, but it is very disappointing. However, of all the Australia teams I feel the Brumbies are best equipped to deal with it, as their performance seems to be based more on skilled coaching and playing style, rather than individual brilliance. Having said that, 10 is a position requiring a broad set of skills, with accurate decision-making the most important. I suspect Robbie Coleman has the physical skills, and I won't be the slightest bit surprised if we get to find out if he has the other attributes of a S15 flyhalf as well.

        Date and time
        May 07, 2012, 1:17PM
        • Firstly I want to handle the continuous comment that we don't have the required depth of talent to field five teams in Australia. This is rubbish - we have the depth of talent just not the required level of exposure for that talent to find out what they are capable of. If we actually settle down now with the five teams, without adding further ones, we will have the required depth within five years providing the coaching talent is there to bring it along - you heard it here first.

          In terms of the criticism of the private school backdrop that restricts the player pool at senior level, one would be amazed at how many talented junior rugby players from less advantaged backgrounds are given free scholorships to these schools purely because they are talented rugby players.I understand that Kurtley Beale is a beneficiary of such a program.

          Australia is about to enter a boom period, because in a few years we will finally have the depth where there will be competion for each spot in the Wallabies.

          I'm excited

          Date and time
          May 07, 2012, 1:57PM
          • Three cheers for Snowman!!!! Finally someone talking sense!
            Snowy, the only thing you got wrong is you weren't the first, but it's great to finally read an increasing number of commentors protesting against this ongoing nonsense that Oz rugby lacks talent depth, that the conference system unfairly advantages Oz teams, that 5 teams is too many to be sustained by a nation 5x the size of NZ, that an injury fuelled poor start to a SuperXV season is suddenly the catastrophic demise of Wallaby rugby, and that the root cause of this national disaster all hinges around private schools discrimination!... Please everyone stop!
            You and Get a Grip are absolutely right, coaching, player development and top level exposure is the key. The Aussie conference this season has in fact highlighted some exceptional positives: not only is the Wallaby front row no longer a joke, but it is actually now a competitive force. While Sharpie has been a stand out performer this season who will be sadly missed, thankfully the line up of young candidates to replace him is delightfully long. Just as important as the emergence of Pocock as the heir to the great George Smith, is the competition among the likes of Hooper and Gill for Phil Waugh's spot as Smith's great rival. Similarly the contest for the blindside flank- Higginbotham has gone up a gear and who rated Denis and Mowen last season? Etc, etc... True, the choice at #10 isn't clear, but really, the sky's not falling.

            Capt Footlong
            Date and time
            May 10, 2012, 5:13AM

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