Al Baxter (NSW): Ok, disregard the penalty try that Australia let in, during the last test of last year against Wales, the scrum was a much improved element of Australia’s game in 2008. Thanks largely to Michael Foley, then Wallaby assistant coach and now Waratah assistant coach. Whether it has been Foley’s constant attention, or Deans’s player empowerment, Baxter is now playing the best football of his life. Let’s hope it continues for another two years.
The likely candidates:
Guy Shepherdson (ACT): 2007 wasn’t that long ago. Less than 17 months in fact. And 2007 was when many Wallaby fans had thought they had found our ‘great-wide-hope’. Guy Shepherdson had just put in a series of highly impressive performances on the European tour and it looked as though we had finally moved on from the Dunning/Baxter era. Twelve months later and after a poor Super 14 season, Baxter went some way to proving his doubters wrong whilst Shepherdson just watched on TV. His form has been drastically better this year, and propping down next to Wallaby hooker Stephen Moore has provided him the opportunity to form, what could be, a very important combination.
Sekope Kepu (NSW): A concoction of Michael Foley’s it would seem. Formerly a back rower in New Zealand, Kepu has played most of his front row rugby at loosehead prop. In an effort to create greater depth for the 3 jersey, Kepu has now played a number of games for Randwick, Australia A and the Wallabies (off the bench) at tight head. The results have been mixed, but the need to have a player who can play both sides of the scrum on the bench means he will continue to be used there.
Dan Palmer (NSW): North Hemisphere observers of last year’s Under 20 World Cup were mightily impressed with young Palmer’s work in the Australia scrum. It was of particular interest to them because of our infamous previous scrum experiences at Twickenham, Cardiff et al. Palmer has received a chance with the Waratahs this year, due to injures to Baxter, Dunning and Kepu, and has demonstrated some abilities at this level. I must admit I had him as the next best tight head in the country, behind Baxter, until his recent demotion from the Tah squad. In reality though, that has more to do with his specialist tight head play limiting his loosehead experience. I reckon he’ll be capped this year for sure.
Matt Dunning (NSW): For Matt it will just come down to game time. He is apparently making his club comeback in a couple of weeks, and if he can get games under his belt, then he’s every chance of a Wallaby call up. His ability to play both sides of the scrum is his biggest selling point. No other prop in Australia can do it as capably as he, which may not secure him a starting spot, but makes him a very valuable tool on the bench. If the injury doesn’t hold up well, then Australia will be scrambling for another ‘home made’ tighthead (Kepu?) for the Grand Slam tour.
Laurie Weekes (QLD): Has usurped Danya Edwards as the Reds Tight Head Prop. At the beginning of the season, I was among many who suggested that Edwards could push for a Wallaby jersey this year. Well Weekes has crashed his party and may well take home the prom queen. Weekes has proved a very solid scrummager whilst also being effective around the field. He’s really a long shot of a test starting jersey this year, but he will definitely be a project player with an eye on 2011 and beyond.
Salesi Ma’afu (ACT): The roughest of the roughies. And a debatable selection at that. He has a bit in his favour. Over 120kgs and still only 26, young in prop years, and he’s had a fair run lately due to the suspension of Guy Shepherdson. Through the emergence of Palmer, and Weekes to a degree, he may have slipped down the pecking order a bit, but he will still be watched closely.
What is Deans looking for?
If the reports are to be believed, Robbie Deans has convinced Baxter to spurn wealthy overseas overtures to remain in Australia. Assuming that’ll be a two year contract he signs, then its pretty damn clear that Baxter is the man to anchor Australia’s scrum in 2009, and probably all the way up to RWC11. And why not? Five years of test footy, and 51 caps, finally saw Baxter demonstrate his worth on the international stage last year. It seems he finally feels he belongs. Let’s hope he continues to believe that.
Who is the answer?
Baxter is the answer. And no, the question is not “who is the worst player to have more than 50 test caps?” Baxter is a forward leader, a respected Wallaby and, with two World Cups under his belt, and an important – nay vital – cog in Australia’s World Cup armoury. In all honesty there will need to be a great deal of work done to ensure the likes of the others mentioned above close the gap on ‘daylight’ as our next best test quality tight head prop.