Are we getting the hang of these now? Good, let’s keep them coming. From the period 2000-2009, eleven different men have worn the Wallaby Number Thirteen jersey in a test match. They are:
Stirling Mortlock (52); Daniel Herbert (20); Matt Burke (11); Ryan Cross (9); Lote Tuqiri (8); Morgan Turinui (6); Adam Ashley-Cooper (6); Mat Rogers (4); Digby Ioane (3); Graeme Bond (2); Clyde Rathbone (2).
As we return to a specialist position, its back to picking the top three candidates for our Wallaby Team of the Decade.
As the Wallaby selectors still tried to fill the gap left by Timmy Horan, and with the emergence of Chris Latham as a fullback option, Matty Burke found himself in the 13 Wallaby jersey come the start of the 2002 year. Dan Herbert had moved in one spot to inside centre allowing Burke to slide in next to him. There’s no denying Burke had all the qualities of a top level 13. He was strong in defence, ran the angles well, was a good communicator and had a decent kick to boot.
He was capable enough to hold down the position for the first seven tests of the domestic season that year, including wins over France, South Africa and New Zealand. However he would end the season back in his preferred position at the back of the team.
With an injury to Stirling Mortlock, and neither Morgan Turinui nor Matt Rogers capable of making the position their own, Burke found his way back to Outside Centre during the Rugby World Cup year of 2003. Eventually Morty would come back, reclaim his spot and that was effectively that for Matty Burke. His Wallaby career would finish off the bench in Durban, before moving to the UK and showing his legs still had a few more years in them.
Herbert began the decade as the premier outside centre in global rugby, thanks to his performances at the 1999 RWC. He would hold onto that title, at least arguably, for another couple of years as the Wallabies continued to win trophy after trophy. Herbert was a key component of memorable wins against the Springboks, All Blacks and Lions over that period.
His resolute defence was often tested (as he marked Brian O’Driscoll in the 2001 Lions series) but it was his leadership and strong running game, as well as his ability to recycle ball, that were perhaps undervalued by Wallaby supporters. He was simply put, a dominant presence in the toughest of defensive channels.
Like Burke he would be shuffled around a bit by the Wallaby selectors, between inside centre and outside. Whilst many doubted his ability to handle to greater ball handling required at 12, he did so well enough to play most of his last season in that position. In fact his last test was as an inside centre against Italy in Genova. A relatively inconsequential match played in relative obscurity. Quite apart from the world stage that Herbert played most of his career.
This picture just typifies Mortlock to me. He just looks unstoppable. I don’t know what it is about him. Sure he has size, and at least used to have a little bit of speed. But why was (is?) he so good? He obviously has the commitment and motivation. He just seems ‘up’ for the big games. Any man that seems to always perform against the mighty All Blacks is worth recognition.
He seemed to have this innate ability to run the right line or angle. When he got the ball the Wallaby backline would look like someone had pressed the fast forward button. Mortlock would just barge it straight, pinballing defenders as he went. So many memorable moments of him this decade. His kick against the Boks, albeit as a winger, was just the start. The two stand outs are obvious. His intercept of the Carlos Spencer pass in the RWC03 Semi Final and the run to set up Scott Staniforth for a crucial try back in 2007 are regulars on any highlights reel.
As a captain he lead from the front, not as the Captain Insano his nickname would suggest. The results rarely came for him however, and his missed penalty against England at the 2007 RWC will long be etched in his memory. But hopefully right at the back. Behind all those wonderful charges, tackles, tries and kicks.
And so we come to the end of another position. How’d we do? Should have we considered a couple of the current lads in Ashley-Cooper or Ioane? What about Lote’s time in 13? Was he worth consideration? Let us know and keep coming back as we count down the days until we reveal the G&GR Wallaby Team of the Decade.