Under-fire Australia face the Barbarians on Saturday and will have to cast aside off-field issues to avoid an ignominious start to their tour
It was difficult not to feel sorry for Nick Phipps on Monday as the Wallaby scrum-half fielded questions on sexism and misogyny in sport. Understandably awkward and sheepish, he resembled a neat personification of Australian rugby as a whole – desperate for some on-field action that might momentarily alleviate attention from embarrassing commotion.
Of course, it was not Phipps’s intention to act as an emissary for female rights on this trip. The schedule represents an excruciatingly tough boomerang starting and ending at Twickenham. Following Saturday’s curtain-raiser against the Barbarians, there are clashes with Wales, France, Ireland and England. Wholehearted focus is imperative from everyone.
Instead, Phipps found himself cleaning up the debris of a debacle featuring Super 15 champion and Waratahs team-mate Kurtley Beale, who is majorly responsible for the latest calamity to engulf the Antipodeans. Despite not actually being on tour as yet, the mercurial maverick’s involvement in a text message scandal has cast a lingering shadow over the party.
Indeed, the chain of events since Beale first blew up at Di Patson on a flight to Sao Paolo at the start of this month has resembled a grubby farce. Because everything occurred as part of the on-going circus-cum-soap opera that is Australian rugby though, it has been painfully believable.
Head coach Ewen McKenzie, who spent his year in charge laying honest foundations for the road to 2015, has relinquished his job and seen his considerable integrity damaged. Prior to the final Bledisloe game at Suncorp Stadium against New Zealand three weeks ago, he decided enough was enough.
As a mark of the man, McKenzie told nobody and soldiered on until after the game. It must have been utterly gut-wrenching when Colin Slade kicked that touchline conversion to seal a 29-28 defeat. A fine Wallabies performance brought grim consolation perhaps, but John Eales still described the sight of McKenzie announcing his resignation and leaving the venue – where he had enjoyed so much success with the Reds – as “one of the saddest sights I’ve seen in sport.”
Almost as disheartening has been the reaction to Beale’s hearing last Friday, which found him not guilty of any wrong-doing further than one brain-dead text message. While the Australian Rugby Union’s decision to fine him $45,000 felt like a bizarre attempt to cover all bases, the punishment was probably just about fair. Beale had been effectively suspended for two Tests and demonstrated genuine contrition.
Still, some misguided social media shouts ignored the severity of the initial blunder altogether – one prominent blog suggesting Beale’s ability made it “worth managing the chaos”. Well, is it? Trading two senior staff members for a player, albeit an extremely talented one, is an insane indictment on a team’s priorities.
Frankly, there is only so much crap you can sweep under the carpet. And the ARU’s rug looks fairly lumpy right now. A cash-strapped union’s need for bums on seats is spinning a vicious circle whereby player power has muddled hierarchy.
Rewind 18 months or so. When Robbie Deans jumped before he was pushed, his relationship with Quade Cooper was cited as a huge frustration. Cooper’s Queensland ally McKenzie was brought in. In the wake of his fall-out with another high-profile play-maker, he is gone too. Enter Michael Cheika, Beale’s former mentor with the Waratahs. The precedent is there, and made more striking by Nathan Grey hinting that Beale could join this tour “if he gets himself fit”. Would it have been preferable to appoint a total outsider?
Now, Cheika is an uncompromising, passionate character – belligerent with self-belief but hugely charismatic and innovative. The sight of him embracing every one of his Waratahs at the final whistle of the Super 15 victory over the Crusaders summed him up. However, his task is an intimidating one.
Uprooting any detrimental attitude issues should be helped by skipper Michael Hooper and figures such as Will Genia, who rejoins Cooper in a blockbuster backline including Henry Speight for Saturday. That said, cracks can widen very easily if results do not cooperate. And wins will not come easy in November.
First up this weekend, the Barbarians are a prickly proposition, far from an end-of-season pushover. Coached by John Kirwan, there is a distinctive tinge of Kiwi toughness – a superb back row of Adam Thomson, Matt Todd and Steven Luatua defining such steel. Slade sits at 10 on the back of his heart-breaking conversion and 56-cap Scot Alastair Kellock captains. No veterans slurring through the motions here, just a lot of hard-edged motivation.
Speaking of which, a certain Nick Cummins is on one wing. Inevitably, he has been in morale-boosting mode this week and is eager to barge into Australia’s World Cup plans. Cummins said his dream would require some “bending” from his Japanese employers, but an eye-catching afternoon would surely alert Cheika. Honey Badger certainly has happy history of running wild and grabbing ‘meat’ at Twickenham:
Should Cummins help deliver a famous Barbarians victory, there will be much to ponder on the Wallabies’ coach journey to Wales. Warren Gatland’s men are on a 20-game losing streak that must end before a rendezvous in Pool A at 2015. After that, Australia hit up Paris and Dublin before another World Cup dress rehearsal against England.
In short, Saturday is a cast-iron must-win for Cheika on many levels. In these parts, the pressure on home nations is palpable. How often do we talk about targeting autumn wins against the southern hemisphere big boys? This time though, Australia might just be feeling hot under the collar from the off.
Teams for Saturday at Twickenham
Barbarians: Tim Nanai-Williams; Frank Halai, Juan de Jongh, Francis Saili, Nick Cummins; Colin Slade, Tomas Cubelli; Matt Stevens, James Parsons, Angus Ta’avao, Dominic Bird, Alastair Kellock (captain), Adam Thomson, Matt Todd, Steven Luatua.
Replacements: Mahonri Schwalger, Thomas du Toit, Lorens Adriaanse, Heinrich Brussow, Matias Alemanno, Sarel Pretorius, Joaquin Tuculet, Marnitz Boshoff.
Australia: Israel Folau; Henry Speight, Tevita Kuridrani, Matt Toomua, Rob Horne; Quade Cooper, Will Genia; Benn Robinson, Saia Faingaa, Ben Alexander, Sam Carter, James Horwill, Scott Higginbotham, Matt Hodgson (captain), Ben McCalman.
Replacements (one to be omitted): James Hanson, James Slipper, Sekope Kepu, Will Skelton, Sean McMahon, Nic White, Bernard Foley, Christian Lealiifano, Joseph Tomane.