AUSTRALIA enters next month’s World Cup rugby union tournament as one of the teams in with a chance — at least, based on the personnel and the strengths of the other teams involved.
But the Australian coach, New Zealander Robbie Deans, is resorting to a gameplan that has been tried before — when he was the understudy to John Mitchell, the coach for the All Blacks at the 2003 Cup. And Mitchell’s tactics failed that time.
In 2003, the Auckland Blues won the super rugby title. Mitchell based his national team for the cup on four players from the Blues – mercurial stand-off Carlos Spencer, wingers Doug Howlett and Josevata Rokocoko, and full-back Malili Muliaina.
Spencer was the dynamo but his spontaneous style of play meant that when he was good, he was very, very good – and when he was bad, the opposition would win. Mitchell went to the extent of getting rid of an All Black legend Christian Cullen to make space for Muliaina.
In the run-up to the 2003 cup, the All Blacks swept all before them. They hammered South Africa 52-16 in the Boks own backyard and humiliated Australia 50-21 in Sydney. The Australians scored a couple of consolation tries towards the end of the game and that scoreline makes them look much better than they deserve to.
Given this build-up, former All Blacks winger Stu Wilson was brave enough to commit himself to print during the 2003 Cup, saying that Australia could not beat New Zealand no matter what they did. The teams met after New Zealand had disposed of South Africa in the quarter-finals, with Spencer pulling off one of his characteristic bits of deception to account for one try via centre Leon MacDonald.
But, alas, in the semi-final, Australia did upset New Zealand. An expansive cut-out pass thrown by Spencer to Rokocoko was intercepted by Australian centre Stirling Mortlock who then sprinted nearly 90 metres to score. This happened early in the game and New Zealand never recovered.
The pictures in New Zealand papers next day were of Spencer sitting on the ground with his head in his hands, looking miserable. He never played for the All Blacks after that.
Australia has a similar set-up for the upcoming cup, with stand-off Quade Cooper being a clone of Spencer. He has been instrumental in the Queensland Reds winning the super rugby title this year. Cooper has a similar element of surprise to Spencer in his style of play and can often make an opponent look foolish. But when his tactics do not come off — as happened earlier this year when Australia played New Zealand in Auckland — his team runs a poor second.
Deans is gambling on the gains made by the Reds this year to a large extent – he has even appointed the Reds captain, James Horwill, as the national team’s leader, deposing Rocky Elsom who really hasn’t done too much wrong as skipper. It is a big gamble but one guesses that Deans can take it, as Australia’s tactics in the last two Cups have not paid dividends. And Deans has the security of having recently had his contract extended.
Surprisingly, nobody has mentioned this similarity in tactics. Or the fact that it failed in 2003. Oh, well, perhaps people will be wise with hindsight.