Triumph in adversity: Nathan Sharpe has been irreplaceable during a tough championship for Robbie Deans

by Ben Coles

Finished: 2nd

CONSIDERING THE enormous amount of opprobrium poured on Australia throughout The Rugby Championship, the fact that they finished the tournament in second place has been somewhat overlooked.

When you factor in the fact that Australia were without James Horwill, Will Genia, James O’Connor, David Pocock, Quade Cooper, Drew Mitchell plus many more for either portions, or the duration of The Rugby Championship, and it’s a miracle they won a match at all given the youthful inexperience of their squad.

Then to make a tricky situation worse, Quade Cooper declared to the media that the atmosphere in the Australian camp was “toxic” and that he would refuse to play for the Wallabies given the current tactical stifling of his attacking game and lack of national training centre. With Robbie Deans facing weekly calls from critics to leave his job, it has been far from the easiest of championships.

This has mainly been down to the Wallabies aforementioned injury list and tactical approach. Persistent kicking from Berrick Barnes gained next to nothing as Australia threw away possession to the obvious discontent anger of their fans.

The Wallabies inability to match the other three sides physically without Horwill and Pocock led to a chain effect of untidy ball at the breakdown, which left Barnes too often on the back foot. Nathan Sharpe at times was like a one-man army at the coal face.

Out wide, denied of Will Genia’s clean service from the breakdown, Australia’s lack of depth at scrum-half was sorely exposed. Any side would struggle without their best players, but Australia have far weaker strength in depth than their rivals.

And yet, the Wallabies overcame potential slip-ups against Argentina both at home and away thanks to Barnes’ accuracy in front of goal and the finishing of Digby Ioane. The Queensland Reds winger shone all too rarely in an Australian back line that has faded away since they lit up last year’s Tri-Nations tournament. Their outmuscling of the Springboks at home and the performance of the exciting Michael Hooper in Rosario were rare examples of forward dominance.

When their stars return the Wallabies can be a force again, but the gap between themselves and the All Blacks has widened. The youthful 22 that took the field in Argentina will take plenty of heart from their win as they build towards 2015, but a successful tour of the Northern Hemisphere will be integral to the under-fire Robbie Deans keeping his job.

Star Player: Nathan Sharpe

The man who cannot retire. At least not until the Australia Rugby Union will let him. Being a veteran seems to suit Sharpe perfectly as he continues to inspire his teammates around him. With the Wallabies short of leadership following the loss of three captains in Horwill, Pocock and Genia, Sharpe has thrived and his performances have led to the ARU asking him to continue playing into the November Internationals.

Rising Talent: Michael Hooper

2012 has been Hooper’s year after a breakthrough season with the Brumbies and deputising for Pocock in the June Internationals against Wales. Much like Pocock, he is brilliant at the breakdown; physical and uncompromising, he has already been snapped up by the Waratahs for next season and is set to play a significant role this November.

Follow Ben Coles on Twitter @bencoles_