Can ageing Wallabies hold their own?

The great debate: Is this the Wallabies’ A team? Or merely the Wallabies’ A-frame team?

That’s the question controversial Australian rugby columnist Greg Growden ask in his Monday Maul, published in the Sydney Morning Herald.

While the columnist didn’t mention names in the ageing side, it is impossible to avoid the fact that the Australian World Cup campaign revolves around those on their last Test legs, rather than those at the peak of their careers. That could burn the Wallabies in the end.

And it is not just the players. Of the Wallabies coaching staff and management, only a few are expected to survive after the tournament.

John Connolly was always going to go.
But several of his entourage are also certain to be handing back their green and gold garb at the end of October, with Australian Rugby Union (ARU) chief executive John O’Neill having stressed it is high time the Wallabies culture was improved.

The touring party in France received a sign that life in Wallabyland is about to undergo a major revamp several days ago, when the ARU provided intricate details of the process by which the new coaching staff would be appointed in the weeks following the tournament. This has resulted in one of the more unusual starts to an Australian World Cup campaign. It was a clear reminder to many to “enjoy your last six weeks with the Wallabies, boys, because the times are a-changing”.

Even if the unbelievable happens and Australia lift the Webb Ellis Trophy, the coaching staff will not remain as it is. The ARU will institute change—no matter what.

The change in the playing ranks following the World Cup will also be dramatic.

When the Wallabies play their first group match, against Japan in Lyon this weekend, the starting line-up will involve four players the wrong side of 30, while the average age is 27. The team will be relying on a halves pairing with a combined age of 67. For at least five members of the starting XV against the Japanese—Chris Latham, Stirling Mortlock, Stephen Larkham, George Gregan and Nathan Sharpe—this will be the start of their last World Cup.

The team Australia will field in New Zealand at the 2011 World Cup is certain to be vastly different to the one that appears in Lyon.

One cannot imagine there will be as many as 10 survivors from this tournament in four years’ time—as has occurred this year, with Mortlock, Lote Tuqiri, Larkham, Gregan, George Smith, Phil Waugh, Nathan Sharpe, Al Baxter, Matt Giteau and Matt Dunning all having appeared in the 2003 final.

Gregan and Larkham’s staying power is admirable, and they deserve credit for their dedication to the task. But the gnawing concern is that they are past their prime, and in the case of Larkham, have created a situation where too much is dependant upon one player.

Any hope Australia have of going anywhere in this tournament depends on Larkham staying injury-free. And that is a big ask, because his 33-year-old body has been battered and buffeted and targeted for the most hideous treatment from opponents. Somehow he keeps going, but there is only so much his creaking frame can take.

If Larkham does get injured, what do Australia do? Giteau is next in line, but he is not keen on playing at number 10. Berrick Barnes is the other alternative, but Connolly hardly gave him a ringing endorsement by stating that the Reds pivot had been picked on 2006 form rather than his fluctuating performances this season. Meanwhile, Kurtley Beale continues to impress back in the ARC.

And if Gregan’s service around the scrum returns to snail pace, will the Wallabies selectors roll up their sleeves and dismantle the back line, bringing Giteau in at number nine? That could actually be a godsend, because it would see Scott Staniforth at inside centre and Giteau going this way and that from the scrumbase.

Suddenly, much-needed urgency would come back to the Australian game.

Old father time will tell. - Sapa

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