Where were we in 98:
Looking back to June-ish 1998 and using the IRB Rankings formula, via the Pick and Go web site, we disover that the Wallabies were sitting in 3rd spot on the ‘world rankings’. Above them were the All Blacks (1st) and Springboks (2nd).
The ranking should not come as any real surprise given the dominance both teams had over us the previous two years. In fact the last time we had played South Africa they smashed us 61-22. A humiliating loss, without doubt. It was also what we in the industry like to call a ‘turning point’. The Wallabies had reached the lowest of the low. The CEO was angry and the coach was sacked. A new coach was brought in and, as Rachel Hunter warned us, it didn’t happen overnight (on the end of season tour we were beaten by Argentina and drew with the Poms) but it did happen.
Rod McQueen, fresh from his success in creating an immediate positive culture at the Brumbies was the man to replace Smith at the end of 97. After a shaky start on the November tour he refined his method and was starting to leave his imprint on the national team. Part of that imprint was a team of off-siders in the form of astutely chosen assistant coaches and strength and conditioning aids.
John Eales had been appointed captain in 1996, to take over from Michael Lynagh, and still had the job under McQueen. The relationship started somewhat rockily, as McQueen’s player-power approach led to a strong ‘Brumbifying’ of the team. But the two worked it out and come 1998, the relationship was blossoming.
So far that year:
The year started pretty well. A 76-0 shellacking of a pathetic English side at Lang Park was a tremendous kick start to this ‘new’ Wallaby approach. Two further comprehensive wins over Scotland (45-3 in Sydney and 33-11 at Ballymore) had the team ready for the All Blacks.
The team for the last Scottish Test at Ballymore on 20th June,1998 which was our 3rd test of the year and last before we took on the All Blacks.
15 Matt Burke, 14 Ben Tune, 13 Daniel Herbert, 12 Tim Horan, 11 Joe Roff, 10 Steve Larkham, 9 George Gregan, 8 Toutai Kefu, 7 David Wilson, 6 Matt Cockbain, 5 John Eales [c], 4 Tom Bowman, 3 Andrew Blades, 2 Phil Kearns, 1 Richard Harry. Replacements: Dan Crowley, Owen Finegan, Nathan Grey,Jason Little, Willie Ofagengaue.
Still struggling to find a flyhalf to replace Michael Lynagh – Scott Bowan, Pat Howard, David Knox, Tim Horan and Elton Flatley had all been tried their with various degrees of accomplishment- McQueen took the plunge and moved promising young utility back Steve Larkham into the 10 jersey. Larkham had been covering at fullback for the Wallabies for the injured Matt Burke, and had starred there for the Brumbies. It was a risk and it was a master stroke.
A key component of the team McQueen had was that it was young, injury free and pretty experienced. He had a group of players with immense experience (Horan, Little, Wilson, Kearns and Eales all over 50 tests), as well as a band of talented stars with more than 20 tests (Burke, Tune, Roff, Gregan, Harry).
These were all players coach Dwyer had introduced to world rugby, but who happened to peak during McQueen’s reign. Or perhaps Rod was just able to get the best out of them. Regardless, one thing that is obvious is that there were not a lot of test match rookies brought in by McQueen.
One debutant was centre Nathan Grey who would debut from the bench in this match. Like the debutant from the previous test, Jeremy Paul, both would fill a vital role for McQueen’s Wallabies. Impact from the bench.
The year ahead?:
1998 was a killer year for the Wallabies as we thrashed the All Blacks 3-0 via test wins in Melbourne (24-16), Christchurch (27-23) and Sydney (19-14). In between we did fail to beat the Boks even once, falling 13-14 in Perth and 15-29 in J-Burg.
One thing often forgotten about that champion team is that they actually had to qualify for the 99 RWC after our failure in 95. The Pacific zone qualification games were played in Australia the end of 1998. We beat Fiji in Sydney (66-20), Tonga in Canberra (74-0) and Samoa in Brisbane (25-13) before heading to Europe. Up there we beat France 32-21 in Paris and snuck home on the boot of Eales, 12-11, against England.
Come 1999, it wasn’t all smooth sailing with a lot of injuries to leading players. Burke, Eales, Larkham and Finegan all had injuries which took them away from rugby for a considerable time. We managed though and had two comfortable wins over Ireland (46-10 in Brisbane and 32-26 in Perth) before a 22-15 defeat of England in the Centenary Test in Sydney. Our Tri-Nations was all too familiar. Good wins over the Boks (32-6) and Blacks (28-7) at home bookended two away losses (15-34 to the All Blacks in Auckland and 9-10 to the Springboks in Cape Town).
New Faces to come:
Not many of the new players McQueen introduced to the squad were starting players. A sign, in my eyes, of the settled nature of his team. Once the 98 Tri Nations started until the start of the RWC the following year, the below players made their debut.
- Glenn Panaho and Chris Whitaker both came off the bench v South Africa in the J-Burg test of 1998. If I remember correctly, Panaho was injured come World Cup time, whilst Whits fulfilled his bench duties admirably as well as starting v the USA.
- Manny Edmonds made his debut at flyhalf in the qualifier against Tonga. The thought process being to give Bernie Larkham a break.
- Chris Latham and Pato Noriega on the EOYT against France. Latham was a straight swap for the injured Matty Burke, who did his shoulder scoring a crucial try for Australia in the last Tri-Nations test v New Zealand. Noriega was finally able to play for Australia having fulfilled the required residency requirements imposed by the IRB.
- In 1999 Nathan Spooner would get his debut after a strong season for QLD, but was again covering for an injured Larkham v Ireland at Brisbane. The same game would see back rowers Jim Williams and Tiaan Strauss off the bench. Strauss, the former Springbok captain, famously scoring three tries when he got on the field.
- Once the Tri-Nations started, Mark Connors got his first cap off the bench v the Boks in Briso. John Eales was injured and the lock position was causing some concern as Tom Bowman hadn’t fulfilled promise and John Welborn was not quite cutting it either.
- As the RWC got closer, there was increased concern as to who would play 10 with Larkham expected back mid-tournament. After Spooner, McQueen reverted to playing Tim Horan there, with mixed success. Eventually Rod Kafer was brought in for the home test against New Zealand in Sydney, orchestrated a memorable win and proved himself capable to fill the whole, at least temporarily.
Those that missed the boat:
There were a number of players that would play their last test in the lead up to the RWC
- Queensland winger Damian Smith’s farewell was a cameo v Fiji in RWC Qualifier in Sydney.
- McQueen has said the hardest cut he had to make was opting not to select his former Brumby captain Brett Robinson and he would play his last game v Tonga in 98.
- Willie O’s body couldn’t continue and finished v France in 98.
- Nathan Spooner served his purpose and played just the two tests v Ireland in 1999. In the end he was the best man for the job at the time.
- John Welborn had the difficult task of trying to fill the boots of one John Eales. He performed admirably but once Eales was back, and with Mark Connor’s excellent performances, there was no room for Welborn. His last test would be the 34-15 loss to New Zealand in 1999.
A quick analysis will show that all of these served a purpose, most filling in for an injured first choice option. All (other than Spooner) could be considered aging as well and perhaps this was a lesson learnt from 95 campaign – ‘cut the dead weight’.
The 1999 RWC:
Come the World Cup all our stars were back on deck, albeit Larkham missed the first game v Romania just to be safe. The team clicked early and we won through to the finals with wins over Romania (57-9, featuring Timmy Horan’s try within 90 seconds of kick off), Ireland (23-3 featuring Toutai Kefu smashing Irish flanker Trevor Brennan with a barrage of punches that would see Kef suspended for two games) and the USA (55-19 featuring the only try scored against Australia through the entire World Cup).
A quarter final match up with Wales in Cardiff didn’t end up being the battle anticipated as we won 24-9. The Boks were next in the semi-final which is famous enough already, thanks to a wonky 45m drop kick from Bernie Larkham. Which took us to the final in Cardiff against France who were somewhat underwhelming following their upset win over New Zealand a week earlier. In the end we won 35-12 with the team being:
15 Matt Burke, 14 Ben Tune, 13 Daniel Herbert, 12 Tim Horan, 11 Joe Roff, 10 Steve Larkham, 9 George Gregan, 8 Toutai Kefu, 7 David Wilson, 6 Matthew Cockbain,5 John Eales [c],4 David Giffin,3 Andrew Blades, 2 Michael Foley, 1 Richard Harry. Replacements: Jason Little,Nathan Grey,Chris Whittaker,Mark Connors,Owen Finegan, Dan Crowley, Jeremy Paul.
Check out this great memories from the RWC final and after. There are some very special scenes.
2011 RWC Learnings:
I’ve identified three, I believe, relevant lessons to learn from the 1999 RWC win. The first is, this current glut of injuries we have may be a good thing. In 1998/99 we had some key players out for a large chunk of time. But each of them – Eales, Burke, Larkham and even Finegan would return and play a major role in the RWC win. If there is a positive we can take out of the current injuries to James Horwill, Tatafu Polota-Nau, Ben Alexander et al it is that come the start of 2011 (even earlier as is relevant) they should come back hopefully refreshed and really champing at the bit to get on the field!
An area I would like Robbie Deans to take a leaf out of Rod McQueen’s coaching manual is in the use of the bench. McQueen had a fantastic bench, and he selected it that way. He filled it with players he knew could make an impact on the game and he made sure he used them. Players like Nathan Grey, Owen Finegan, Jeremy Paul, Jason Little, Jim Williams, Tiaan Strauss – they all were key players in that Wallaby squad and important elements of our success.
The other factor, and one that is difficult to factor too much into, is goal kicking. Not many teams have won a RWC without a good one. In fact Burkie kicked 15 penalty goals in those last two finals (eight v the Boks and seven v the Frogs). It’s not something we can manufacture by any means, but if we have a kicker we’d want to make damn sure he’s on his game. There’s no four try bonus points come the World Cup finals!