Even when you win, you lose. Last night’s victory was not flawless by any means but it was a victory nonetheless. Scott Higginbotham’s 55th minute try, ending a 178 minute Wallaby try drought, was particularly sweet and Ben Alexander’s charge down the blindside, with half the South African team on his back, to score the match winner in the corner was the pivotal moment in my Saturday night/Date Night communication breakdown. The ‘no clapping at the TV’ rule wasn’t just ignored; it was totally obliterated as I rode the horse (a popular sports appreciation move where the rider skips around slapping his/her buttock accompanied by a “yee-haa”), around the lounge room while my long-suffering better half evaluated her exit strategies. Life was good. Life was beautiful. Life has a shitty way of restoring the balance. Today’s news that captain Will Genia will be out with a busted knee for at least six months has only added to the celebration induced hangovers that Wallabies fans are experiencing today.
Losing James Horwill was bad. He’s an inspirational leader and would have played a significant role in nullifying the All Blacks’ domination at the breakdown but his replacement, Nathan Sharp brings even more experience and his form in the latter stages of his career has been inspirational. Losing David Pocock was awful. As Australia’s premier breakdown specialist, his loss was akin to the All Blacks losing Dan Carter or Richie McCaw such is his ability to single-handedly win games. Of all the positions however, the openside flanker is one in which we have considerable depth with Steve Hopper and Liam Gill having breakout Super Rugby seasons. Losing Will Genia? That’s an outright disaster. The backline attack has been our Achilles’ heel for several seasons. When it’s hot, it has the potential to orchestrate the kind of running rugby that can give even the All Blacks nightmares, but when they are low on confidence, they play a frustrating, disjointed kick-it-away style of rugby that has even the most strident fan contemplating a channel flick to the NRL. Genia was key to rediscovering and maintaining backline form. So what are our options?
Nick Phipps and Nic White are the obvious replacements. Both enjoyed solid campaigns with Phipps a standout in struggling team, and White instrumental in the Brumbies’ expectation defying season. Phipps plays a solid mistake-free football for the most part, while White’s excellent kicking game would be a plus, but neither shape as candidates to spark the backline in the manner that Genia is capable of doing. This means all the pressure would be on the Number 10 and Quade Cooper has not been consistent enough to be lumped with that sole responsibility, as with Kurtley Beale, while Berrick Barnes plays his best rugby as the foil to Cooper and Genia’s off-the-cuff creativity rather than as chief play maker. Forgotten star, James O’Conner would be pretty handy about now but apparently lacerated livers don’t have a standardised healing time (who knew?). No offence to White or Phipps but I’d strongly consider playing Cooper out of position at 9. His speed off the mark, vision and passing game could provide the spark and unpredictability the Wallabies need as long as he was instructed not to kook it up by going for hail-mary plays every 3rd phase.
Things are not about to get any easier. Facing Argentina next week will be a pain. Their dour, defensive based brand of rugby is just the type that has unsettled Wallaby teams in the past, just as it unsettled the Springboks two weeks ago, just as it frustrated the All Blacks last night. It’s not the ideal time to be creating new combinations. Then the Wallabies are on the road to South Africa and finish up in Argentina. It has the potential to be a horror run despite last night’s promise.
Lastly, spare a thought for captain-in-waiting Nathan Sharp. Three captains have been felled by the captain’s curse thus far. Is it coincidence or something more sinister? All Blacks voodoo or black magic aside, this next month shapes as a team defining period for the current crop of stars. It could break a few careers i.e. Robbie Deans, Cooper, Beale, or make a few careers a-la White, Phipps, Hooper, and Gill. I know one thing for sure, it’s too early in the season to return the horse to the stable.
Picture by Mark Kolbe at Getty Images