Nic White puts boot to ball during the second Test against France. Photo: Getty Images
Not long after the Wallabies 6, France 0 kickathon at Melbourne I received the following email on my laptop: “Over the past 10 years I’m sure I’ve seen Wallaby halfbacks do well over 500 box kicks. I cannot recall seeing a single one that produced an advantage for the team. Have I not been watching closely enough?”
This was the mood, too, among the 27,000 or so at Etihad Stadium watching the game. They became extremely restive and then lapsed into a state of boredom as the kicking went on and on and on. It was a particularly knowledgeable crowd, too. How do I know? Because they applauded vigorously when Melbourne Rebels (Luke Jones and Scott Higginbotham) players and a former Rebels (Nick Phipps) ran on to the field. When Kurtley Beale finally decided to run the ball back to the French the crowd exploded in supportive enthusiasm. More importantly, the Wallabies looked slicker and more dangerous on attack. More like the Wallabies, in fact, that scored seven tries against France two weeks ago.
In the third Test of the series on Saturday afternoon (a splendid reversion to a tradition going back to 1899) at Allianz Stadium, the hope is that the Wallabies play in their Brisbane style and not their Melbourne lack of style. Ewen McKenzie needs to be beware of the Ides of 2006. At Brisbane that year John Connolly’s Wallabies defeated the Springboks 49-0. They scored six tries, restricted the Springboks to nil points for only the second time in that team’s history and inflicted the second-biggest loss they have ever suffered.
This was one of the greatest Wallabies victories. The next time the two teams played at Sydney, three weeks later, the Wallabies won 20-18 in a Test that created kickathon records. Connolly had imposed a kicking game on his brilliant running No.10 Stephen Larkham. The Wallabies lost three (New Zealand, South Africa, Ireland) of their next six Tests for the year, drew one (Wales) and won two (Italy and Scotland).
What this salutary history tells us is that the incessant kicking game can become a habit, a bad habit, that smothers like lantana the flowering of the smart, ensemble, attractive and try-scoring style the Wallabies side achieved at Brisbane.
One of the imperatives of the professional era of rugby is that teams have to be successful, on the scoreboard and in the eyes of their beholders. Why are the All Blacks, with their 16 straight Test wins, currently regarded around the world as the iconic rugby side? They fulfil these modern requirements. The Wallabies at Brisbane looked to be on this road, too. They will record their seventh successive Test win if they defeat France. The last time this was done was in 1999/2000 when Rod Macqueen’s Wallabies recorded 10 straight Test wins. It is the Macqueen success not the Connolly failure McKenzies’ Wallabies need to emulate.
The professional era began in 1996. It is creatively destroying the non-government schools control over the rugby game here. Money talks. The flow of “converts” is now from rugby league to rugby union (think Israel Folau). As rugby becomes a vocation (pay) as well as an avocation (play), players with a Pasifika background are putting their weight and ambitions into the game. George Smith, a Wallaby legend, first represented in 2000. Smith had a Tongan background. Digby Ioane (2007) was the first player with a Samoan background to play for the Wallabies. And now we have the exciting Wallaby debut of Will Skelton, the biggest player (203cm, 135kg) in the history of the Wallabies. Skelton is the prototype of the new Wallaby. He was born in Auckland. Like Ioane he has a Samoan background. Like Folau he grew up playing league. Last year, aged 21, he started his Super Rugby career for the NSW Waratahs.
“Prayers work best when players are big,” a coach of the Notre Dame gridiron side noted. That is the very big future of the Wallabies, starting from Saturday afternoon, with Tevita Kuridrani, Israel Folau, Sekope Kepu, Tatafu Polota-Nau, Wycliff Palu and Will Skelton leading the charge.