Sunday 21 January 2018

Brendan Fanning: Oz's Generation Next are on the way

Michael Cheika may have unearthed some new gems to face Ireland next week

Changed relationship: in the last seven games between the countries Ireland have won three and drawn one. The win in Auckland in 2011 was the first time Ireland beat the Wallabies in a World Cup match, having lost in 1987, 1991, 1999 and 2003. Photo: Sportsfile
Changed relationship: in the last seven games between the countries Ireland have won three and drawn one. The win in Auckland in 2011 was the first time Ireland beat the Wallabies in a World Cup match, having lost in 1987, 1991, 1999 and 2003. Photo: Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Auckland, September 17, 2011. For the purposes of the World Cup there has been some remodelling in Eden Park, and it includes a vast new press room. Located directly behind the posts at the south end of the stadium, it offers a unique perspective on one of the great rugby grounds in the world. We're settling in, some 90 minutes ahead of kick-off, enjoying the view and wondering aloud if it would be a crime to watch the game from there instead of venturing out to the press box in the cold night air.

Then a text lands, with the news that David Pocock is not fit to start for the Wallabies. Before a ball has been kicked it is a game-changer. So get a few bob on Ireland to win, because the Aussie openside was then at the peak of his powers, and on a classically wet Auckland night he would have been given a broad stage to do his thing. Not now, he won't.

What unfolded next was Ireland's best ever World Cup performance. It provided massive momentum to the squad and changed the relationship between Ireland and Australia, a fixture Ireland had never won in a World Cup over four previous attempts. When the pools had been drawn, lobbing this pair in with USA, Russia and Italy, the consensus was that Declan Kidney's side would be favourites to beat the Italians to a runners-up spot behind the Wallabies. That night they swapped places.

That the Wallabies ultimately would make it further in the tournament than Ireland reflected their vastly superior record at these gigs. In the review, Ireland would lament hugely falling off the stage against Wales in the quarter-finals, having got their lines word-perfect against Australia.

Since then they have met just twice - first in 2013, when the Aussies gave Joe Schmidt a rough passage when he had only sat in the saddle, and then a year later, when Johnny Sexton was the difference in a three-point win. Over those two games Ireland were wiped 7-2 on the try count, and it confirmed our impression of them as always being clever about the way they did their business, always making the most of what they've had.

You wondered how good they would be if they hadn't lost so many players in the last few seasons. Time was when the Wallabies would wait until their international careers were virtually filed away before bouncing up to Europe to fatten their pension. They used to call England's Premiership the Superannuation League. Then France waded in. The effect is that the traffic north now starts when those Australians' careers are mid-stream.

When, over Christmas 2014, Jake White was announced as coach at Montpellier, the Australian Rugby Union knew that it wouldn't be long before a few Brumbies, whom he coached in 2012/'13, would be leaping the fence.

Joe Tomane (26), Jesse Mogg (27) and Nic White (26) all answered the call. Second-row Luke Jones (24) from the Rebels did the same when Bordeaux got in touch. As did Lachie Turner (28) when Exeter made him an offer. If you were wondering where Toulon were in all of this, then remember flanker Liam Gill (24), who was getting tired of waiting in line behind David Pocock and Michael Hooper at Camp Wallaby. Along came Mourad Boudjellal with a million-dollar deal that clarified his thought process. He was gone to Toulon.

Currently there are over 100 Australian players earning their corn overseas. The impact of this on the Western Force and Melbourne Rebels, the two teams added to the traditional trio of the Waratahs, Reds and Brumbies, has been obvious. With no depth they can neither compete in Super Rugby nor provide enough bodies to the Wallaby ranks.

As it is, that production line has outlets primarily only in two states: Queensland and New South Wales. ACT can lay claim to legends Steve Larkham, George Gregan and Joe Roff, but they were almost in a previous generation.

Despite having a Super Rugby presence across five states they are struggling for numbers. It's ironic that the growth of football's A League should have come from a seed sown on the watch of John O'Neill, former head of the ARU, but football is very much part of the mix spread across Aussie rules, rugby league, cricket and rugby union.

Competition from other sports is what, in the first place, drove them further and faster down the professional road than Ireland. They were always adaptable - and the current crop are no different.

A few years ago under Robbie Deans and then Ewan McKenzie, the Wallabies were lurching from crisis to crisis, whether those incidents were located late night in kebab joints or in business class on a long-haul flight. Ironically, things have settled down under the volcanic Michael Cheika. It's not been plain sailing, but certainly they are a happier crew, and they will arrive here with ambition.

Aussie observers readily recall the Brian O'Driscoll try at the tail-end of the 2009 Test in Croke Park that gave Ireland a draw - and robbed the Aussies of a chance to chase the Grand Slam. The clean sweep on tour is a big deal in Australian rugby. They have only managed it once - in 1984, when the Ellas, Nick Farr Jones and Michael Lynagh were the stars of the show. In 2009, they had beaten England first up and were seconds away from two on the trot when O'Driscoll carved through to score. What was noticeable in the aftermath was that coach Robbie Deans scarcely mentioned that the Grand Slam was a goner - it was as if he never considered it to be on the table in the first place. They lost to Scotland the following week.

It's inconceivable that Cheika would take a similar attitude. Despite having been knocked around first by England and then the All Blacks for 0-6 in those fixtures alone, they managed to win three from four in the home and away ties with South Africa and Argentina.

"It's very important for players to have dreams of achieving the bigger-picture items," Cheika said before they left home. "I really believe that's important. If you don't have those dreams inside you then what are you doing it for?"

Their schedule would suggest it's all about air miles. In the last seven weeks, between the tail-end of the Rugby Championship and what they call their spring tour, they have been to Pretoria, London, Auckland, Cardiff, Edinburgh and Paris. They arrive in Dublin today and will leave for London again this day week. And then home.

It's worth pointing this out, because it gives Ireland a real advantage in preparation, with the home team having far less fatigue through time on the field and time spent checking in, travelling and checking out. In fairness to Cheika, he is unlikely to have a whinge on this front.

The coach is all about 'generation next' with this group, having given out more than a dozen new caps this year. Centre Kyle Godwin became number 13 when he started at 12 last night in Paris.

And there is something traditional about them too in the rapid rise of centre Reece Hodge, who a year ago was playing club football - as in non-professional. They have a history of turning bolters into race winners, and in second-row Rory Arnold - or Two-Storey Rory, as an Australian sub-editor dubbed him a while back - they have the tallest man in the game. Lions fans may remember him first playing against the tourists for New South Wales Country in 2013. Plucked from playing barefoot for the Gentlemen of Murwillumbah, Arnold is a nugget in the mountain of bland that is modern, production-line rugby.

Currently the ARU are getting it in the neck at home for putting too much cash into that end of the game, and not enough into the grassroots that grow the Rory Arnolds and Will Skeltons.

If he is fit after last night in Paris, captain David Pocock - the missing link in Auckland in 2011 - is expected to feature against Ireland for the first time since 2010.

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