Where were we in 90:
The Wallabies were rebuilding still in 1990 or perhaps were on the cusp of the end of the rebuilding phase. Things hadn’t been great for the team since the previous World Cup. It was a period when we lost a lot of young stars to league including Brett Papworth, Mat Burke, Michael Cook, James Grant, Andrew Leeds, Scott Gourley, amongst others. The British Lions had beaten us two tests to one at the beginning of 1989. It was a disappointing result given we smacked them in the first test (30-12).
With the World Cup not long away a number of debutants were brought in, and there were some future big names amongst them. Teenagers Tim Horan and Jason Little being the biggest, as they made their debuts at the end of 1989. Phil Kearns, Tony Daly, Rod McCall and Ewen McKenzie were all rookies too come the start of 1990.
Once again, relying on the site Pick and Go, we can see that the Wallabies were ranked 4th in the world in mid-1990. Not surprisingly New Zealand were number one! Bloody surprisingly was that Scotland were second, but with players of the calibre of Hastings, Calder, Chalmers and Sole, it shouldn’t shock us too much. England were third.
Following the debacle that was 1987 Alan Jones lost his job to be replaced by the man he took over from, Bob Dwyer. Dwyer started in 1988 so was entering his third year as Wallaby coach (in this second stint). Nick Farr-Jones was now skipper and he still had Michael Lynagh controlling things outside him. Interestingly, David Campese was still playing fullback with Queenslander Greg Martin unable to consolidate his spot in the team.
So far that year:
There were no warm up games for the Wallabies in 1990 as they went straight into a three match test series against France. The series would have to go down as one of the most memorable series on Wallaby soil for all sorts of reasons.
A young Abdel Benazzi, who would go on to be one of France’s great players and captains, was sent off in his debut test; Peter FitzSimons was ambushed by the French pack and king hit from behind by Philippe Sella; Phil Kearns was decked by the smallest man in the opposition team; and Serge Blanco scored one of the greatest individual test tries running from try line to try line, outpacing Ian Williams, Paul Carozza and David Campese in the process in the try fest that was the 2nd game at Ballymore. The first test at the SFS was won by Australia 21-9, the second at Ballymore was also won by Australia 48-31 whilst the French came back and one the final test, at the SFS, 28-19.
Another try fest at Ballymore a week later, against USA, to the tune of 67-9 was highlighted by the entire front row in Tony Daly, Phil Kearns and Ewen McKenzie each scoring tries. I was at the game and remember it fondly!
The team that took on the yanks that day, 8 July, 1990 at Ballymore, the fourth test of the year and last before a three test tour of New Zealand, was:
15 David Campese, 14 Ian Williams, 13 Jason Little, 12 Anthony Herbert, 11 John Flett, 10 Michael Lynagh, 9 Nick Farr-Jones [c], 8 Tim Gavin, 7 Brendan Nasser, 6 Sam Scott-Young, 5 Rod Mcall, 4 Peter Fitzsimons, 3 Ewen Mcenzie, 2 Phil Kearns, 1 Tony Daly. Replacements: David Knox, Peter Slattery.
Looking at that team and you can see it is a lightning back three, perhaps our fastest ever, but at the same time you might suggest it had questionable composure. Further in, Timmy Horan had a niggling injury and would be back soon enough, however Jason Little would be injured in this game, forcing him out of the tour to New Zealand.
The balance of the back row wasn’t quite right at this stage. No one could doubt its aggressiveness, through the fiery Queenslanders Nasser and Scott-Young, but the lack of a genuine flyer and a more imposing blind-side was worrying.
Take a look at that tight five though. Leading into this test match v the USA, and it would be retained for the first test v the All Blacks, it had only 25 caps between them. McAll had 5, as did Fitzy, Link just 3, whilst Kearns and Dales both had half a dozen. All very much rookies.
The year ahead?:
The first two tests of the 1990 Bledisloe series (remember those?) went as expected. Australia lost both. The first one was particularly costly for some as it would prove to be the last test for five players. The four tries to none margin in the first test was a truer indication of the game than the 6-21 score line. In Auckland for the 2nd game, the17-27 loss was at least encouraging.
The third test, however, would be somewhat of a turning point for both teams. Australia won 21-9, thanks to five penalty goals by Lynagh, but also to that memorable try by Kearns and the even more memorable ‘celebration’ afterwards (see clip below). The win gave a young Wallaby outfit some real belief as they halted the All Blacks’ record run of victories – 50 games and 23 tests. Sam Scott-Young was almost manic in the destruction he caused. All in all in was an excellent way to finish the year and it provided hope for 1991.
Come 91 it all seemed to click. The Wallabies smashed a very poor Welsh team at Ballymore 63-6 with debutants Marty Roebuck, Rob Egerton and John Eales all playing a big role. Moving to Sydney the team played almost the perfect game in taking a part a very strong English team, 40-15. The highlight was the dominance of the Wallaby forward pack and perhaps was the last time properly executed back row moves have been worked by an Australian Rugby team.
A couple of weeks later we played almost as well again in taking down the All Blacks 21-12 with Ego scoring a cracker as he chased a Lynagh kick, plucking it out of John Kirwin’s hands and streaking away to score. A fortnight later, it was different though as we went down in a wet Auckland 3-6. Farr-Jones described it as the loss they needed to get them back refocused, which is a great result because the game itself was terrible.
The worse thing to come out of the early season games was an injury to Tim Gavin who was killing it at Number 8. Gavin had become a central plank of the Wallaby pack, particularly at the back of a strong scrum and in the midst of a dominant line out. His injury would rule him out of the World Cup and prove to be a difficult spot to fill during the tournament.
New Faces to come:
It is not too hard to see where Bob Dwyer got his reputation as a keen talent spotter from. How well did he go this 12 months before the World Cup? After that USA game in 1990, there would be four Wallaby players making their debut prior to the World Cup and all would be crucial in our success.
Arriving on the scene first was the unheralded Willie Ofahangaue against the All Blacks in that first Bledisloe Test of 1990. The mythology behind Willie O playing for in Australia is a well told story, regardless he provided us with the ideal back row player for that team. He was monstrously powerful in attack and defence; he was handy with the ball – in hand and in the line out, and he had a fantastic work rate. Along with Simon Poidevin, who Dwyer convinced to return to international rugby, it was an ideal flanker combination.
In the first test of 1991 Dwyer would introduce three new players to the Wallaby jersey. A slight of build fullback in Marty Roebuck; an unassuming and balding out of position fullback on the wing in Rob Egerton, and a two metre tall lanky young lock fresh out of his teens in John Eales.
Eales’s career is acclaimed enough, and his World Cup was superb, highlighted by his try saving tackle on Rob Andrew in the final. Roebuck would become an important part of the Wallaby back line for the next three years. He was a general for the Aussie backs, linking superbly with his more famous team mates and providing, at times, goal kicking relief for Michael Lynagh. Ego was the classic though. He retired from elite footy after the World Cup, going to live in the USA for a while I believe. But what a year! Ten caps, nine wins, two tries, a World Cup win and, much like Keyser Soze, like that – poof – he’s gone!
Those that missed the boat:
Picking the right players is one thing, making the tough decision to cut players is even harder. Dwyer had to do it in spades. That first test loss to the kiwis in 1990 had casualties. Fullback Greg Martin, wing Ian Wiliams, centre Paul Cornish, back rower Steve Tuynman and lock Peter FitzSimons would not wear the Wallaby jersey again. Two tests later lock Bill Campbell would suffer the same fate.
Come 1991 Dwyer had his team and didn’t vary from it. There was a bit of in-and-outs played with Poidevin and his QLD counterpart Jeff Miller, but I reckon that was as much to do with keeping the two red dogs fiery and chomping at the bit. In the end Tim Gavin’s injury proved the most difficult to fill as Eales, Willie O and eventually Troy Coker were all used at 8 come Cup time. But that was pretty much it. Dwyer didn’t stray much from his success formula. A few lads got a run against Western Samoa but for many, it would be there last test as well – John Flett, Brendan Nasser, Steve Cutler, Cameron Lillicrap. So much did Dwyer believe in maintaining momentum that two of his World Cup squad, David Knox and Richard Thombs, didn’t set foot on the playing pitch once in the tournament.
The 1991 RWC:
The team that would win the World Cup against England on 2nd November, 1991 at Twickenham was:
15 Marty Roebuck, 14 Rob Egerton, 13 Jason Little, 12 Tim Horan, 11 David Campese, 10 Michael Lynagh, 9 Nick Farr-Jones [c], 8 Troy Coker, 7 Simon Poidevin, 6 Willie Ofahengaue, 5 John Eales, 4 Rod Mcall, 3 Ewen Mcenzie, 2 Phil Kearns, 1 Tony Daly.
We went through undefeated downing Argentina(32-19), Western Samoa (9-3) and then Wales (38-3) in pool play. What followed were two highly memorable finals. The first, a famous last minute win v Ireland (19-18), was followed by a brilliant performance v the All Blacks (16-6) including possibly the finest opening half of football a Wallaby team has played prior to or since. Eventually it all culminated in a somewhat underwhelming 12-6 defeat of the Poms in the final. It lacked any of the real drama of the previous two games, but the outcome was deserved for the most consistent team of the tournament.
2011 RWC Learnings:
So what can we take from this tournament? For me it all comes down to team selections. The first thing is that Coach Dwyer knew the team he wanted and made the hard calls to get it. Ditching the experienced guys like Marto, Fitzy and Bird Tynman must have been tough. Bringing in unheralded players like Roebuck and Ego was a massive gamble, but Dwyer knew the game he wanted and what these two could contribute to it.
The other thing that Bob used well was provincial combinations. He had two ready made combos in the now settled front row of Daly, Kearns and McKenzie of NSW and also in the centres with the QLD duo of Horan and Little. Around it he added a back three from NSW with Roebuck, Ego and Campo, a QLD lock combination in Eales and McCall and then a NSW back row through Poido, Willie O and Gav (eventually to be replaced by QLDer Troy Coker). What helped was that Rod McQueen had coached the Waratahs to an undefeated 1991 season whilst John Connolly had the QLDers playing winning footy as well.
Finally Dwyer knew he had a good thing and he stuck to it. If you take away the Western Samoa test, in which there were a number of changes, Dwyer only started 18 different players across the nine tests that year. Two of those were due to injuries to Tim Gavin and Nick Farr-Jones. The other was the aforementioned Miller-Poido rotation.
What Robbie Deans needs to work out is how he wants to play the game. Contrary to some beliefs, Australia DOES have the depth of players (when fully fit) to enable the coach to select players to his game plan, rather than the other way around. So do we want the flighty runners in the backs and the forwards to be the ball runners? Pick the team now and stick to it. Ditch the dead weight and do it. Or do we need a purely set piece pack with a hard running back line. Make the call Robbie and then pick the team. There’s still time.
As for combinations, well unfortunately for Robbie injury has limited his ability to do that. But he had his chance earlier. There was a very strong case for picking Anthony Faingaa outside Quade Cooper because of the successful combination they’d formed at the Reds. Likewise a lock combination of Kane Douglas and Dean Mumm would not look out of place in the Wallabies. The Force had one of the most effective back rows in the comp, so why not reward Brown, Hodgson and Pocock en masse?
But finally, and I think this is perhaps the most valid point, is stop building depth. Dwyer found his team and stuck with it for pretty much the entirety of the 1991 RWC. If they are our best team, back them to play out the tournament, allow them to keep their combinations going and let them play. We don’t need 30 world class players to win the World Cup. We need 15. Ok maybe 22. But it really doesn’t matter that Salesi Ma’afu has played a season of test match footy this year, if we know Al Baxter is available and a better option. Professional footy now is obviously a lot different to how it was played in the amateur days of the early 90s. But continuity of team selection is a valuable tool that is too often overlooked.