We now take the step into the unknown, somewhat. The tight forwards. Now for many of you this will be a scary place. Going into the unknown often is. For those backs out there we are going to be discussing some fairly foreign concepts from now one in. Things like “aggression”, “work rate”, “physicality” and “toughness”. Just keep breathing. We will start with the locks, who are those tall guys you often see jumping in the line outs and at kick offs.
Over the decade Australia has used twelve players in the starting team at lock. Interestingly less than who have played Blind Side Flanker or Inside Centre. The locks of the decade are:
Nathan Sharpe (75), Dan Vickerman (36), Justin Harrison (31), David Giffin (28), James Horwill (24), Mark Chisholm (23), John Eales (17), Hugh McMeniman (6), Dean Mumm (2), Matt Cockbain (1), Owen Finegan (1), Al Campbell (1).
As per the wingers. We are not discriminating between left and right locks here. Nor tight and loose locks. I trust you will forgive us. Accordingly instead of just a top three, we have chosen the top six locks of the decade. A top four probably could have done it, but we snuck in two more. Whether they deserve it, we’ll let you decide. You can also work out who the 5th and 6th lock are. But in the end, G&GR came up with the below top 6 locks of the decade.
It may surprise some people to know that Sharpe has had the second most starts in the one position all decade, behind George Gregan who 81 times started at scrum half. Sharpe’s 75 starts also include two as captain.
Sharpe seems an intriguing character. He is extremely highly rated by his peers whereas many Wallaby fans are frustrated by his work rate and impact on the field. Whilst many fans have been calling for his removal from the Wallaby team for the last year or two, many of those same fans are now acknowledging what he brings to the team having seen the Wallabies compete without him.
So what does he bring to the team? Leadership is an obvious one. At a time when the Wallaby jersey seems to be tinged with more green than gold, Sharpe has been playing for the Wallabies since 2002. He’s played with the likes of Matthew Burke, Dan Herbert, Justin Harrison, Toutai Kefu, Patricio Noriega and Bill Young. So he brings a great deal of knowledge to the party.
His lineout work was sorely missed as well. Whilst the Wallaby lineout failed to gel, Sharpe’s experience at running a lineout as well as his own jumping abilities have been very much missed. His impact around the field would also have been handy. Sure he ran with the ball a lot but he does invariably get beyond the advantage line and presents the ball for recycling. A few of those charges close to the ruck against the likes of Ireland and Scotland could have been very important.
Where to now for Sharpie? It will be interesting to watch. The attitude of both the Aussie selectors and Sharpe himself will be intriguing. The selectors have shown a tendency to go with youth, but only when the quality is there. The question has to be asked, is it there at the moment though?
Unlike Nathan Sharpe, I think everyone knew we’d miss Dan when he was no longer in the Australian team. Vickerman made his test debut, one test after Sharpe, against the French waaaay back in 2002. Ever since he played colts for Queensland University, Vickerman was destined to play for Australia. Ok, sure he went back ‘home’ to South Africa to feature in some of their age teams, but he came back again, and found his way to Canberra.
His time spend at the Brumbies learning the lineout trade from both David Giffin and Justin Harrison would see Vickerman develop into one of the leading lineout forwards in the game. Of course he had the added advantage of being 204cm tall, and being able to speak Afrikaans for when we played the Boks. However we mustn’t discount his rugby smarts. At the Brumbies, and then the Tahs, he dominated lineout play and became a master at reading the opposition throw. The current day Wallaby lineout would love to have his intel.
But it wasn’t just his lineout play. Vickerman’s aggression at the breakdown is a massively missed aspect lacking in the current Australian team. The impact he made at rucks and mauls was significant and just the type of hard-nosed style of play that would balance the current pack.
From 2002, it took Vickerman a couple of years to really secure his spot locking the Australian scrum. It wasn’t really until 2006 that he really got some continuity in his appearances for the Wallabies, starting in all the domestic tests. However a shoulder reconstruction would prevent him from touring the UK that Spring and threaten his World Cup the following year. He did make it back however and featured in all tests, bar one against Fiji, including the quarter final in which he seemed to let the English pack niggle him out of the contest.
Injury would again rule him out of the 2008 season, and soon after he was off to Cambridge and, ultimately, Northampton. Will we see him back in Wallaby colours? Let’s bloody well hope so!
Harrison really came to prominence when he was labelled a plank by British Lion Austin Healy after they met during a Lions v Brumbies encounter. Healy scored a try, and Harrison heckled him saying that he’d “only scored one try”. The Brumbies were winning at the time. Healy would go on to score the match winning try and give it right back to Harrison.
Justin would have his revenge. When David Giffin was ruled out of the third and deciding Lions test, Harrison was called in. In classic Hollywood mode, Harrison stole a late and crucial line out ball, out of the hands of Lions legend and captain Martin Johnson, to effectively save the game for Australia.
Some, me possibly, would suggest that Harrison possibly lived off this moment for quite some time. Regardless it was perfect timing for Googy. And I don’t mean the line-out steal. No, with Wallaby legend John Eales about to retire, the Wallaby selectors would be on the look out for a 2m lineout wiz. Step forward Mr Harrison.
And so he did, playing another six tests that season before playing every test in 2002. He played a minor role for the Wallabies at the start of their 2003 World Cup campaign, but ended up starting in all the big matches. His last year for the Wallabies was 2004 in which he would start every test. But that was it. He then headed north to play rugby in the UK, having played his last game for the Wallabies. Or has he? He’s back for the Brumbies next year, so who knows what will happen?
It must be hard to stand out in a pack of forwards including players like Eales, Foley, Kefu and Wilson. Accordingly David Giffin was a much undervalued, if not underappreciated, Wallaby lock. He made his debut under Greg Smith, almost by default as the last player standing. The Wallabies on tour of the UK in 1996 suffered a glut of injuries before the last test. So Giffin was thrown in the deep end, and produced a masterful game belying his inexperience.
Soon enough though the likes of John Eales and Garrick Morgan were back in the picture and the young Tom Bowman had arrived and Giffin was back playing a minor role. By the World Cup of 1999 though he was back in the team and a vital member of it.
Accordingly, come the new decade, Giffin was a mainstay of the Wallaby pack. Giffin was a hard grafter, rarely sighted with the ball in hand, unless he was plucking it from the skies in the line-out or from the kick off. Gif provided important size and physical presence to a pack that had a number of runners, particularly in the 2001 Lions series.
Despite a mixed 2002 season, Giffin fought his way back into the Wallaby starting team by the 2003 season providing much needed steal and experienced to the Wallaby pack. In the first World Cup game of the tournament however, against Argentina, Giffin was dropped by team mates attempting to take a kick off and suffered a worrying shoulder injury. He would come back to play three more games in the tournament, two off the bench (including the final) but that would be it for Giff, from a Wallaby perspective.
Horwill burst onto the world rugby stage in 2008 with a series of high impact test matches for the Wallabies. Big Kev’s debut would actually take place a year earlier, against Fiji in Perth, and his omission from the World Cup squad later that year would be one of a number of talking points.
Horwill’s 2008 form would further question the non-selection. With Vickerman gone (injured and then overseas), the Wallabies needed a pack leader. An aggressor capable of enforcing his presence on the opposition. Someone with enough bulk to throw their weight around. In the 2m tall, 117kg James Horwill they found him.
Whilst Horwill didn’t have the lineout skills of Vickerman, he definitely had the size. Horwill was an aggressive presence around the field, whether it be hitting mauls, clearing rucks, running the ball or making tackles. Even scoring the odd try (three for the season – more than John Eales in his entire Wallaby career!).
Horwill missed the Spring Tour because of ligament damage in his foot. Perhaps the delay start to the 2009 season, because of recuperation from surgery, impacted his form because he failed to live up to the same expectations as the previous year. It wasn’t a Tom Bowman fall from grace, but it was significant. In saying that, Horwill still managed to start in every test this year, the only Wallaby to do so.
The Wallaby selectors (and fans) will be hoping James can recapture his form of 2008 because his physicality will be an important element of the Wallaby pack as they enter the next decade.
What do you say about John Eales that hasn’t already been said a thousand times? It is an interesting perspective on the man in that we are trying to refine his career to just this decade. But it was still pretty bloody amazing.
In this decade, in which he played ‘only’ 17 tests he managed to captain Australia to two Bledisloe Cup wins, two Tri-Nations Trophy wins, win a series against the British Lions, win a test through his own boot, take part in one of the most celebrated games in rugby history, and then leave the game with the team scoring a last minute win against the All Blacks in Sydney via a try by one of your best mates. Nice.
It is interesting to note that Eales played every game he was available in his last two years in Wallaby colours. Seventeen tests in a row. And he came up against some pretty decent opposition locks too. Martin Johnson, Mark Andrews, Victor Matfield, Norm Maxwell, Chris Jack, Fabien Pelous, Scott Murray.
His was a great career, John Eales, that never dipped at any stage. His retirement, like that kick in Wellington in 2000, was time to perfection.
A nice way to finish. On a legend. I would suggest that Eales’s selection is a given? Despite playing less than two years of the decade? Or am I way off? If not, who joins him in the locking spot? Googy for his lineout abilities? Does Giffin come in under the radar as he did most of his career? Or his Vickers the man. What about Sharpie? He has the numbers (of caps at least)? Will anyone go into bat for Big Kev? Make sure you vote below, and leave a comment here or at the Blog.