Ok, so where were we before we were so rudely interrupted? Ahh, that’s right. The Wallaby of the Decade. As we step slowly into the unknown, please spare a thought for our back friends. In fact, let me assist. Why don’t you lads stare lovingly into this mirror, as the rest of us real men discuss some of the more important elements of the game. Ok?
Ok…..good. I think they’re gone now.
This has been an interesting period for Australian propping. The 1990s started and ended with two of our greats – Tony Daly and Ewen McKenzie in 1990 and then Andrew Blades and Richard Harry in 1999. From a Tight Head Prop perspective, Blades’s retirement after the World Cup in 99, left us on the lookout for new blood. We found it in Fletcher Dyson, who would start every test of 2000. Come 2001 though, Ben Darwin and Rod Moore were the new men on the block (despite Moore debuting v the US at the 99 RWC). Then we tried Noriega in 2002, whilst 2003 saw us burn through four tight heads in Pato, Panaho, Darwin and Al Baxter.
Baxter provided some solidarity, but we did experiment with Matt Dunning there, and then Dave Fitter for a couple of tests. 2006 was the time for Rodney Blake and Guy Shepherdson to take the stage, with moments of success. Since this time, we’ve stuck with the tried and tested. Until this year, however, when Ben Alexander has come into his own. So all in all we have used eleven men in the Wallaby Number 3 jersey this decade. They are:
Al Baxter (42), Patricio Noriega (15), Guy Shepherdson (15), Fletcher Dyson (10), Ben Darwin (9), Ben Alexander (9), Rodney Blake (7), Rod Moore (6), Matt Dunning (6), Glen Panaho (2), David Fitter (2).
The top three, as decided by G&GR, are:
Sometimes Al Baxter must just sit back and shake his head. What a career. Whilst he debuted for the Waratahs in the 2000 season, it wasn’t really until the 2003 year that he cemented his spot in the starting team. From there it was a rapid rise.
The Wallabies started the season with Patricio Noriega as their Tight Head Prop before injury ended his career in the second last Tri-Nations test against South Africa. For the next match, against New Zealand, the veteran Glenn Panaho was recalled into the team. And promptly discarded. Baxter would make his test debut from the bench this match as Australia’s propping depth was stretched to the limit.
To his credit though, Baxter was named in the Wallaby squad for the home Rugby World Cup. Further he would start the first two games against Argentina and Romania. It would seem, though, that that would be it for his RWC. Ben Darwin reclaimed the starting berth and Baxter was set to ride the pine for the rest of the tournament. That was, until, the famous semi-final against New Zealand. When Darwin severely damaged his spine in a scrum, all of a sudden Baxter was playing in the biggest match of his career. Australia would win and all of a sudden Baxter was PLAYING IN THE BIGGEST MATCH OF HIS CAREER!
That is some rise. And it is testimony to Baxter’s resilience and perseverance that he would go on to become the most capped Wallaby prop of all time. Baxter would also play most of his career under an intense microscope and constant questioning of his abilities. To his credit all Baxter ever did was put his head done, work harder and focus on his game.
This is a decision I don’t necessarily agree with. I believe Noriega was selected on reputation, both for the Wallabies and for this top three. I will be interested to see others’ perspective. Remembering this is focussed on Noriega’s form in the noughties.
Having been injured prior to the 1999 RWC, and being forced to pull out, Noriega headed to France to play for Stade Francais for the 2000 season. He returned to Australia the next year, this time for the Waratahs having played for the Brumbies previously.
Noriega would finally get back in the Wallaby shirt in 2002, starting every match at Tight Head Prop, except for one against South Africa he missed with a middle ear infection. It was a similar story the next year, as Pato was first choice Tight Head Prop for the start of the 2003 season. Unfortunately, the match against South Africa in Brisbane (also the game Toutai Kefu was king hit from behind that would lead to his premature retirement) would be Noriega’s last. A degenerative back injury starting to take its toll. Remembering that he debuted for Argentina all the way back in 1991 – so that’s a hell of a lot of scrummaging!
When Noriega was with the Brumbies, his scrimmaging was uncompromising, his work rate was high and his work with the ball was strong. Come the new decade, even Pato couldn’t anchor the Wallaby scrum, and his work rate seemed to decline. He did bring aggression to the pack however, and a great deal of experience, and if it contributed to him being the Wallaby scrum coach now? Then I am all for it.
Ben Darwin could be described as the James Dean of Tight Head Props. His career was relatively short and sharp and we seem to remember it more fondly because of that.
Darwin debuted for the Wallabies, off the bench, against the British Lions in the first test of the 2001 series. He wouldn’t get another run until the Tri-Nations however and his first start wouldn’t come until the 92-10 shellacking of Spain later that year. But this would be enough for the selectors as he retained his spot in the team for the rest of the tour.
This would prove tremendous experience as he scrummed against the likes of Rowntree and Vickery (England) as well as De Villiers and Crenca (France). Darwin’s apprenticeship would continue the following year, playing most of the season off the bench behind Patricio Noriega. One start would come against the South Africans in Jo-Burg, the match made famous for Werner Greef’s last minute match winning try, two minutes after Brendan Cannon’s match winning try.
Darwin’s opportunity would come though, the next year. When Noriega again pulled out of the World Cup squad injured (as he did in 1999), Darwin took over the position as the number one Tight Head Prop in the squad. Near-disastrously however, a collapsed scrum in the semi-final against New Zealand would end his career. It is interesting to note that three Tight Head Props played their last game of rugby for Australia, due to injury, that year – Darwin, Noriega and Panaho. No wonder Baxter was left to hold the fort for so long. There was no one left?
So there you go, our three best Tight Head Props of the decade. What do you reckon? Are these the three? Who’s our best? Is Al the man? Am I way of with my judging of Noriega? Shouldn’t Guy Shepherdson be considered? I reckon he was our best forward just three years ago! I’ve also got a soft spot for Fletcher Dyson. So let us know. Vote first, and then comment, either below or at the Blog. Better yet, comment at both locations. Only two more positions until we can name our G&GR Wallaby Team of the Decade, so stay tuned!