Robbie Deans must feel like the boy with his finger in the dyke – just as you get one hole plugged, another crack opens wide. Or at least, I hope he sees it that way, because I believe there’s a good chance that the Wallabies are going to get blindsided on this Grand Slam European tour, from probably the most underrated position on the modern rugby field – the second row.
While we’ve all been fixated on the scrummaging of the Wallabies Props or the throwing of Polota-Nau, a slow but certain rot has been setting into the strength of Australia’s lock stocks. Only as recently as the 2007 World Cup did Australia have a jumping pair to rival any in the world, in the form of Dan Vickerman (204cm) and Nathan Sharpe (200cm).
Since then, with Vickerman up north and Sharpe either deemed surplus to requirements or injured, Australia’s locking stocks have done a Lehman Brothers. Out of the 19 forwards on this year’s Grand Slam Tour, only 1 (the out-of-form James Horwill, 200cm) is listed as a specialist lock. Mark Chisholm (197cm), Dean Mumm (196cm) and Dave “midget” Dennis (192cm) are all listed as “Lock/Flankers”. I suspect though, that if Dingo asked “who wants to play sux?” all three would find their arms involuntarily raising.
So what’s the big deal?
Compare that to the line-out stats from last years’ European Tour and the difference is stark.
Probably the most alarming stat for me is the demise of the win against the throw. As we saw towards the end of the Tri-Nations, the Wallabies, lacking a specialist jumping lock like Sharpe, had given up even attempting to contest the notoriously rickety New Zealand line-out. With the line-out having become the key attacking set piece over recent years, such a capitulation hands the opposition a golden platform.
Sure, within those 2009 Tri-Nations stats are the world’s line-out kings, Victor Matfield (200cm) and Bakkies Botha (202cm). But looking at what’s likely to come the Wallabies’ way this spring, it’s certainly not going to be smooth sailing. Of the most likely lock opponents across the four home nations, all eight are specialist locks (no whiff of wannabe flankers), and have an average height of 200 cms, weight of 118kgs and 47 caps under their belts.
The average Wallaby lock (or more accurately, lock/flanker) is 196cms tall, weighs 110kgs and just 20 caps to his name.
With 10 out of the 19 touring Wallabies forwards listed as flankers within their positional description, I feel sure we could take any other pack forced to play back rowers only. The problem is, they’re not. It would seem that just as Australian rugby finds some light at the end of one tight five conundrum in the front row, another has been left to ominously fester. Let’s hope Dave Dennis still has plenty of growing left to do.