It’s funny that none of the rugby scribes around wrote a single word about the selection of 34-year-old Matt Giteau, 32-year-old Adam Ashley-Cooper and 28-year-old Will Genia in the Australian side to face New Zealand in the first of the annual internationals.
In the normal course of things, one would assume that the coach of any team that has a chance of winning the World Cup would like to start aiming for that target right at the start of the four-year cycle. Australia made it to the last World Cup final and have won the Cup twice, so they are one of the nations that can reasonably entertain hopes of winning again.
But you can’t do that with a 38-year-old centre which is what Giteau will be in 2019 when the next rugby World Cup rolls around. And you wouldn’t want a 32-year-old scrum-half either. Neither would you want a 36-year-old winger for the 2019 team – and that is what Ashley-Cooper will be in four years’ time.
Is one to believe that Nick Phipps, who performed the job at the base of the scrum adequately in the last World Cup, was not good enough for the Australian coach Michael Cheika? Indeed, Phipps showed his prowess by coming on and playing on the right wing after Australia lost three backs, including Giteau, to injury and also scoring the lone try that the home team got as it suffered a big defeat against New Zealand.
Is one to also believe that among the five teams that do duty in the Super Rugby tournament there is not one individual who can fit in as a centre and that Cheika’s only option was to call in a 34-year-old with injury issues to face up to what is arguably the fittest and strongest rugby team in the world? Or that Australia does not have a single decent wing three-quarter in its five Super Rugby teams?
From the moment that Cheika announced these selections, it was obvious that he was more interested in pleasing his masters at the Australian Rugby Union than building a team for the next World Cup. New Zealand has held the Bledisloe Cup since 2003 when Reuben Thorne’s side won it back from Australia, and winning that trophy would have pleased the local big-wigs.
Of course, Cheika is not the only one who is looking to the past when trying to fill the ranks. His South African counterpart Allister Coetzee displayed similar thinking by playing Bryan Habana on the wing against Argentina on the same weekend. Habana is 33 and I am yet to see a 37-year-old winger play in a team in the World Cup. South Africa is also a team that would be in contention in any World Cup, having won the Cup twice, once admittedly under rather dubious circumstances. So why Habana? South Africa has one of the largest pools of players to pick from and someone like Courtnall Skosan would have benefitted from the exposure.
On the other hand, Steve Hansen, the coach of New Zealand, has brought in new players instead of depending on any old hands. He lost much more experience compared to the others because Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Ma’a Nonu, Conrad Smith, and Keven Mealamu all ended their international careers after the last World Cup.
Hansen has retained two older players in Kieran Read and Jerome Kaino; the latter will be 37 when the next World Cup comes around but is one of the fittest and strongest players in world rugby and is unlikely to be a liability in the team. Remember, he is a forward and does not have to be a strong runner – even though he does a fair bit of scoring in internationals.