Twelve months out from the inaugural Rugby World Cup to be held in New Zealand and Australia during the winter of 1987 and things were pretty bloody good for the Wallabies. After a somewhat demoralising period in the 70s, the Wallabies were finally considered a rugby force in the 80s.
Our achievement of winning the Bledisloe Cup in 1986, the first time doing so in New Zealand, was as significant as our Grand Slam win two years prior. The fact we had unearthed some young stars to replace some of the older ones who had moved on since 84 was an excellent sign. We were legitimate contenders for the 87 World Cup!
Whilst the IRB Rankings were not in effect yet, we can utilise the excellent site “Pick and Go” and see that Australia would have been ranked 2nd in the world, behind New Zealand, around a year out from the RWC.
Having been appointed Wallaby coach in 1984, replacing Bob Dwyer, Alan Jones almost immediately led the Wallabies to their first ever Grand Slam victory. Understandably enough, Jones was still the coach in 1986 and things were still relatively rosy. Sure there were the rumours that Mark Ella retired following that 84 tour because of his dislike for Jones, but that theory has never really been proved true.
Andrew Slack was still skipper, as he was in 1984. Well, when I say ‘still’ I ignore the fact that Slack effectively took 1985 off (or retired before making a comeback). So Grand Slam lock Steve Williams was skipper in 85, before he himself retired and Slack reclaimed the position in 86. With Slack missing a couple of games, the combative Simon Poidevin skippered Australia in his absence and was still a vital part of the Wallaby outfit.
The holy trinity, meanwhile, of Michael Lynagh, Nick Farr-Jones and David Campese were all there and there abouts, now with a few more seasons of international rugby under their belts. All were now team leaders and much of the team’s performances were based around this trio.
So far that year:
There was a definite Gallic feel to early 1986 as the Wallabies prepared for their World Cup campaign. An early win against an Italian team not yet able to compete on the international stage saw Campo score two tries in our 39-18 win at Ballymore.
Stronger competition would follow as France visited Australia and played a single test at the SCG. The Aussie pack dominated and Noddy Lynagh controlled the game and picked off points whenever available, to finish with 23 points as we beat the Frogs 27-14 in an excellent performance.
Things were looking good as we took on the Pumas in a couple of tests, again coming out victors 39-19 at Ballymore and 26-0 at the SCG. New star Brett Papworth was particularly dangerous scoring two tries in the first test to go with another 23 points for Lynagh. The star in the 2nd test was that man Campese as he scored two tries from fullback.
As a point of comparison to where we start now compared to where we may be come RWC 11, let’s look at that Wallaby team as it lined up against Argentina on the 12th July, 1986. The test was our fourth test of that year, and our last before embarking on our tour of New Zealand for the Bledisloe Cup.
15 David Campese, 14 Brendan Moon, 13 Matthew Burke, 12 Brett Papworth, 11 Peter Grigg, 10 Michael Lynagh, 9 Nick Farr-Jones, 8 Steve Tuynman, 7 Simon Poidevin [c], 6 Bill Calcraft, 5 Ross Reynolds, 4 Bill Campbell, 3 Enrique Rodriguez, 2 Tom Lawton, 1 Andy McIntyre. Replacements: Damian Frawley.
As you can see, there is a fair base of the successful Grand Slam team there. Roger Gould was injured so Campo moved to 15. The test would be Wallaby legend Brendan Moon’s last test, as well as flanker Bill Calcraft’s. Andrew Slack had been at 13, but was unavailable for this test, allowing Grand Slam winger Matt Burke (no, another one) a start. The brilliant Papworth was effectively Ella’s replacement, with Lynagh moving from inside centre, where he played on the Grand Slam tour, in one spot and Pappy inheriting the #12 jersey.
The year ahead?:
As mentioned above, the rest of 1986 would pan out rather well. We’d win the Bledisloe Cup in New Zealand for the first time ever, to the tune of two tests to one. In reality it probably should have been three zip but for a dodgy ref’s call disallowing a try to Australia in the 2nd test.
Interesting were some of the unheralded kiwi names playing with a number of regulars unavailable due to their participation on a rebel tour to South Africa. Names like Joe Stanley, Franco Botica, Mike Brewer, Terry Wright and Sean Fitzpatrick were all test match rookies at this stage.
Moving into 1987 and there was minimal lead in to the RWC that year. Just the sole test (no pun intended) against South Korea. As you would expect, we did it easy winning 65-18 at Ballymore. Was there any value to it? Probably not. It was no more than a semi-opposed training run as the tournament started in earnest just one week later.
New Faces to come:
I think it is interesting to see what new faces were brought into Team Wallaby in the 12 months or so leading up to the RWC to see what sort of impact they had on the Cup and perhaps what the coach was looking for in their selection. Following on from that 2nd test v Argentina in 1986 the following players made their debut.
- Mark Hartill was brought in v New Zealand in 1986 and added great depth to front row stokes. Hartill only played one minor game v Japan at the 87 RWC, but added strong squad depth in a crucial position.
- Jeff Miller played the 2nd test v New Zealand in 1986 (in a dual flanker role alongside Simon Poidevin) and played exceptionally well. He would play the same role come the RWC against Japan, Ireland and France in the famous Semi-Final loss.
- Andrew Leeds was selected as a specialist fullback finally, after we experimented with having Campo’s unreliability but undoubted brilliance there, v New Zealand in 1986 and scored an important try. Leeds only started two games in the RWC. One against USA, after Roger Gould was injured in the opening game, and once in the meaningless play off v Wales in Rotorua.
- Brian Smith debuted at fly-half v South Korea in the final test prior to the tournament. Come the Cup itself he started at scrumhalf against the USA and then was controversially selected at scrumhalf again v Wales with Nick Farr-Jones benched. Somewhat unbelievably Smith had originally been picked by Jones on the wing for this match, ahead of Peter Grigg.
- That South Korea test would also feature the debuts, off the bench, of Anthony Herbert and Steve James. Herbie got game time replacing Papworth in the French semi, whilst James came on for Gould in the first match v the Poms. It would be there only footy of the Cup.
- I always find it interesting when a player debuts in the World Cup. In this tournament it was Troy Coker who debuted in 1st match of the RWC at blindside. Coker was another who was thought to be a Jones-boy, like Brian Smith, and was probably a tad young for this Cup, despite his considerable size and talent. At least for Coker he went on to prove himself a worthy Wallaby, playing an important role in the 91 RWC. Smith? Well he switched the league and played for Balmain. Where Alan Jones was coach.
Those that missed the boat:
Similarly to seeing who the new faces were in the lead up to a RWC, it can be interesting to see who missed out. As it is, there was no one who’s Wallaby career ended in the lead up to the RWC. No dead weight, as it were, that Jones felt compelled to cut loose.
However there were two players who played their last test during the World Cup itself. Unsurprisingly it was a couple of Queenslanders who weren’t the biggest Jones fans. Roger Gould’s last test was the opening game v England, and he would eventually literally walk out on the squad labelling it the ‘unhappiest time of his rugby career’. Peter Grigg wasn’t so dramatic but tht 3rd/4th play off against Wales would be the last time he would be seen in test match footy.
The 1987 RWC:
I know you youngsters may find this hard to believe but the All Blacks have actually won a Rugby World Cup, and it was this one. They smashed the Frogs in the final to the tune of 29-9 and were dominant throughout the tournament.
In the end we came 4th, losing to Wales in a play-off in Rotorua, and it was a symbolic end to our Cup campaign as flanker David Codey became the first Wallaby ever sent off in a test match. Ironically he would be installed as Wallaby skipper one game later, against the All Blacks in Sydney. The Welsh game finished with Wales fullback Paul Thorburn kicking a conversion from the sideline to win them the game and send the Aussies home even more pissed off.
In comparison to that Wallaby team that took on the Pumas a year prior, this was the team that took on France in the RWC Semi-Final at Concord Oval on 13 June 1987.
15 David Campese, 14 Peter Grigg, 13 Andrew Slack [c], 12 Brett Papworth, 11 Matthew Burke, 10 Michael Lynagh, 9 Nick Farr-Jones, 8 Troy Coker, 7 Simon Poidevin, 6 Jeff Miller, 5 Steve Cutler, 4 Bill Campbell, 3 Andy Mcintyre, 2 Tom Lawton, 1 Cameron Lillicrap. Replacements: David Codey, Anthony Herbert.
Check out the famous finish to that test on this grainy video with French commentary:
Comparing the teams and there are plenty of areas of question. Combinations in the front row, at lock and in the back row were gone and we were still relying on Campese at fullback. Whilst talking of playing players out of position, young Troy Coker played three different positions during the tournament adding to the uncertainty surrounding the team, let alone his own position.
2011 RWC Learnings:
I reckon there is one main learning that Coach Deans can take from Australia’s 1987 RWC campaign and that is the importance of a happy squad. This 1987 one was anything but. To have a player actually walk out on the team, albeit prior to the meaningless 3/4 play-off, is indicative of how bad things had got. But it had started earlier with Jones’s unrealistic, and somewhat hypocritical expectations on his players.
Now I am not suggesting that Deans has unrealistic expectations on his players, but things don’t look happy in Camp Wallaby at the moment. Perhaps the most memorable element of our last test v Ireland was the, let’s call it a tête-à-tête, between Rocky Elsom and Matt Giteau. Let’s be honest here. Gits hasn’t looked happy for a few years now and one really needs to weigh up the value he gives to the team on-field as compared to the damage he may be doing off it (some might suggest on-field as well). Deans needs his Wallabies to be all pulling in the same direction. If there are some that aren’t then he needs to stamp it our pronto before it came impact our World Cup chances.
Distractions also need to be considered. One of the side effects of professional footy, it seems, that some of our young stars perhaps lack more worldly decision making abilities. In some cases it may just be a side effect of their greater profile and changing role of the traditional media, but players like Quade Cooper, Kurtley Beale and James O’Connor have found themselves in various degrees of trouble with various degrees of authority. Deans needs to be running a tight ship with a full understanding of all his players of responsibility and consequence. A happy team, all committed to the required outcome will be in the best position to take out the RWC come next year. For Deans this may require him to make the tough decision, but in the end if it is for the best of the team as a whole, it must be made.