By Frank O'Keeffe, 26 Apr 2012
Let’s have a look at the 10 most underrated, misused, or unappreciated Wallabies of the last 30 years.
10. Peter Lucas
Luco was not a great eight-man like Mark Loane or Toutai Kefu, but there was a period in the history of the Wallabies where he fit the team perfectly.
The absence of 10 Queenslanders on the 1982 Tour to New Zealand had a bizarre effect on the Wallabies. Bob Dwyer noted the effect of missing so many great players, but also that it “loosened the iron grip that the forward pack had on the performance of Australia’s backs.”
Peter Lucas had ball skills that Mark Loane perhaps didn’t possess, and was very fast around the field. He was the ideal number eight for running and supporting, and he suited the Wallabies’ approach.
Lucas makes this list especially because nobody remembers how shocked so many people were that he wasn’t selected to tour with the 1984 Wallabies to the UK.
I can’t fault Alan Jones’ decision making, but he was kind enough to note that it was an “ugly decision” that he hated making.
The great David Campese regards him high enough that he placed him in his all-time Wallaby XV in his last book Still Entertaining.
9. David Knox
You can knock the opposition if you want, but when the Wallabies beat Samoa by over 70 points in 1994, people were wondering if David Knox should be the Wallabies’ permanent five-eighth.
Knox’s performance was the first instance in many years where people saw the kind of running rugby they loved from the Wallabies, circa the 1991 World Cup.
1994 was a strange year for Australia. They were the reigning World Cup champions, and the best side in the world circa 1991-1993.
But while they weren’t beaten in 1994, people were wondering if they were still the best side in the world.
Italy nearly defeated them that year, which would have been the biggest shock in rugby history. Australia only won after Campese was incorrectly awarded a try.
Against Ireland Australia were criticised for being disjointed.
The Bledisloe Cup in 1994 was a tale of two halves and a legendary tackle. One half they played well, the second they hung on.
Spiro Zavis opined that perhaps it was time David Knox was selected at five-eighth. Lynagh took exception to that!
Knox was really the closest thing Australia had to Mark Ella after his retirement. He wasn’t the player Ella was, but perhaps he could have been of better service to the Wallabies.
It’s debatable whether he should have replaced Noddy. Noddy did nothing wrong, and was reliable as ever, but Knox certainly was there to give him a fright.
8. David Giffen
With the Wallabies regressing in forward play during the mid 2000s, many people suggested that Dan Vickerman’s hardnosed play was missing.
But Dave Giffen was, to my mind, a better player. Bob Dwyer wrote that “He delivered one of my favourite highlights of the ’03 World Cup in the semis when he tackled New Zealand fullback Mils Muliana, whose eyes must have lit up when he saw himself one on one with a second-row forward.”
7. Brian Smith
Who is the greatest selector in the history of Wallabies rugby? Bob Dwyer? Rod MacQueen? Alan Jones. By 1987, the tide had turned against Jones. And Australians seemed to have lost faith in his awesome selection abilities.
It was somewhat unfair to criticise his constant pushing of Brian Smith. Jones was, after all, the man who took Steve Cutler from the scrap-heap and turned him into the best line-out exponent of the 80s. Jones took chances with David Codey and Michael Lynagh (playing at inside centre), and both paid off.
Why should he be criticised for trying to polish-up another gem?
One of Jones’ greatest strengths was his ability to spot talent. Long before Robbie Deans selected Benn Robinson to play for the Wallabies, Jones had earmarked him as a player for the future.
I think Andrew Slack summed up Brian Smith perfectly in Michael Lynagh’s autobiography, Noddy, when he wrote that, “He was arguably the finest all-round utility player Australian rugby had ever produced, but in terms of specialising there always seemed to be players better equipped for the individual positions.”
When Smith finally found a position that he could specialise in at five-eighth, 99 percent of the Australian public were oblivious to it.
In a game against the World XV in 1988, Smith managed to score 26 points. He scored a try, kicked seven goals and two drop-goals. That match is, to me, a vindication of Jones’ selection talents.
The only other five-eighth I’ve heard of capable of scoring in such a variety of ways so successfully was Argentina’s Hugo Porta.
Both Dave Brockhoff and Jones (no longer Australian coach at that point) both called for Smith to play for Australia.
I’m not suggesting that Lynagh should have been dropped.
However, when Lynagh was injured for the second Test against New Zealand in 1988, Dwyer surprisingly selected Lloyd Walker, Randwick’s inside centre who had no previous experience at a five-eighth.
To Walker’s credit, he gave a remarkable account of himself in that game. But after Brian Smith gave such a tremendous performance, he was overlooked for the five-eighth position for a specialist inside-centre.
6. Joe Roff
Underrated? Underappreciated? Forgotten? Maybe not quite. Every so often you’ll bump into an Australian who says, “Joe Roff played rugby the way it was meant to be played,” or “Joe Roff was an excitement machine.”
Then you find Australians who say he only played great rugby at Super 14 level, or that he only played well when it mattered and not consistently, or that he was a poor defender.
Joe Roff gets mixed reviews.
One of the worst selection choices I’ve witnessed was playing Wendell Sailor ahead of Joe Roff in the 2003 World Cup final. Roff had been a proven big-match performer for years, and only came onto the field in overtime.
His best big match performance of course came against the Lions when Australia was dominated in the first half of the second Test, down 11-6 (and it should have been more). Then Roff exploded in that second half with two quick tries.
It was one of the most remarkable turnarounds in rugby history, as Australia piled on 29-3 in the second half.
Anybody who could turn it on like that should be recognized for being a big-match performer, not someone who was ‘inconsistent.’
5. Chris Roche
There aren’t many players who’ve had it worse than Chris Roche in the history of the Wallabies.
The bad luck started during the 1981/82 Great Britain Tour. Australia’s loose forwards were Mark Loane, Greg Cornelsen, Tony Shaw, Simon Poidevin, and Chris Roche, while poor Don Price was left behind in Australia.
This created problems. Shaw was moved to the second row, but this didn’t work. The backrow performed well on tour – the only part of the side that escaped criticism. But Roche didn’t play, despite good form.
Then in 1982 Roche made it back into the Wallabies, however the selections of Poidevin and Roche together never made much sense, since they were so alike. There was perhaps a sense that Roche would become the preferred backrower, since he had the better ball skills.
Then Alan Jones comes along in 1984, and it became obvious Jones was obsessed with height.
How good was Chris Roche? Good enough that within a very short time he ascended to the vice-captaincy of the Wallabies, which he received partly due to his good form.
But Jones wanted height and Poidevin possessed it.
Frustrated with how he was treated, Chris Roche converted to league not long after the Grand Slam tour.
That was a real shame, because Roche had done everything against the odds. Jean Pierre-Rives once said that Roche had a pretty face, but if he continued to play rugby like he did, he’d become very ugly.
Roche was brave. He dived on everything. He sacrificed himself. He became vice-captain and then was dropped, after years of being mistreated.
I can’t blame Jones for his decision to choose Poidevin. Poidevin was incredible during the 1984 Grand Slam Tour (despite a famous gaffe in the Ireland Test). And the backrow of Cornelsen/Poidevin/Loane was pretty good too.
Some people just have no luck.
4. Lloyd Walker
How great was Walker? Great enough that Mark Ella devoted an entire chapter of his book Running Rugby to Lloyd Walker and his incredible abilities.
So why didn’t he play more for Australia?
Australia is the land of converting five-eighths into inside centres, and Australia was blessed with a great big glut of talented five-eighths in the 1980s.
It happened with Michael Hawker, Sydney University’s five-eighth, when he was converted into Australia’s inside centre in 1980.
Then in 1981/82, when Paul McLean was struggling at five-eighth, Australia had a wonderful utility, Mitchell Cox, who wasn’t given a chance to play for Australia against Scotland, so Paul McLean could play outside Mark Ella.
Then Hawker, who had established himself as Australia’s best inside centre, was dropped for the wonderful Michael Lynagh (get better Noddy!).
But then Mark Ella retired in 1984, and Lynagh replaced him at five-eighth. Then what?
Great stories were surfacing about a player from Eastwood, who was everything Michael O’Connor had once been – fast, elusive, and an amazing sidestep.
Brett Papworth was the most talented five-eighth in the Sydney competition – so talented that he couldn’t be left out of the Wallaby squad, even with Michael Lynagh in it. Alan Jones made Papworth an inside centre (not a bad move at all).
But what this incredible stream of exciting, dazzling, flair players meant was that the man Mark Ella referred to as the best ball player in Australia was never seen. Lloyd Walker wasn’t flashy. Well, he was flashy with the ball, but not with how he moved.
What Lloyd Walker did he did well, and so well he underplayed his importance. A bizarre New Zealander I once knew talked about the importance of the inside centre being invisible – shadowing the five-eighth and playing off him. He’d have liked Lloyd.
It’s one of the great ironies of Australian rugby that after a decade of being overlooked for five-eighths being converted into inside centre, Lloyd Walker made his rugby debut at five-eighth.
Lloyd was converted from inside-centre to five-eighth!
The result was quite stunning. Walker played against perhaps the greatest rugby side ever, the 1988 All Blacks, and was Australia’s best player in the only draw they had for four years (they went undefeated from 1986 until late 1990).
3. Berrick Barnes
A Wallaby fan could cry seeing how Berrick Barnes has been treated since 2008. Back in 2007 people said that if Stephen Larkham stayed healthy, Australia could win the World Cup. But against Wales in 2007 John Connolly introduced Berrick Barnes to five-eighth and he played terrifically well.
Prior to the 2008 international season, Berrick Barnes played an stand-out season of rugby with the Queensland Reds. The number of defensive tackles he made was incredible.
Unfortunately he wasn’t given the five-eighth role by Robbie Deans. Deans’ idea (I think) was to have alternating five-eighths, with Giteau using his left foot for clearing kicks one side of the field, and Barnes his right foot on the other.
Barnes was, hands down, the Wallabies’ best back in the 2008 Tri Nations before he got injured. People easily forgot how Barnes troubled New Zealand in Sydney 2008 with his tactical kicking. Most people regarded George Smith as Australia’s best player in 2008, but I thought Barnes was.
I have no hesitation in saying that Berrick Barnes’ absence in the last Tri Nations Test of 2008 seriously hurt Australia’s chances of winning. Mortlock was never a natural inside centre, and Ryan Cross’ defence allowed Dan Carter to score a try.
I was disappointed in 2010 when, after Cooper ascended to the role of Wallaby five-eighth, that Barnes was dropped at inside centre for Giteau.
I was even more shocked last year that after Deans dropped Giteau from the squad, and Barnes was available to play at the World Cup, that Barnes wasn’t immediately placed in the squad.
McCabe defended incredibly well against South Africa last year, and his contribution was significant. But Australia had some horrible problems in the centres last year
I was despondent to find I was the only person at The Roar last year calling for Quade Cooper to be dropped for the semi-final against New Zealand for Berrick Barnes. Bob Dwyer and David Camp uttered similar sentiments.
As history showed, Barnes played well in the third place playoff against Wales, and well again against Wales in Cardiff.
I’m sure Quade Cooper will play better in the future than he did in New Zealand, but for that time period, Barnes was the obvious choice.
Compare that to Graham Henry, who might have won New Zealand a World Cup by taking Peri Weepu off in the final.
Australia once had a coach who wasn’t afraid of dropping great players for good reasons. His name was Alan Jones, and his decisions to rid Ella of the captaincy, not take Peter Lucas on the Grand Slam Tour, and drop Chris Roche, among many other decisions, were positive steps for Australia.
Barnes is a bizarre player in that I almost think he plays better at the international level than he does in Super Rugby. He’s mature, calm, and plays the percentages. Quade Cooper played incredibly well for the Reds last year, but simply can’t get away with what he tries in Super Rugby in the Test arena.
I place Berrick Barnes high on my list because I honestly think under different circumstances, people would be talking about Barnes as one of the world’s best players.
The periods between 2009-2010 where Barnes hasn’t played his best rugby are partly due to how coaches and staff have mishandled his incredible talent.
The way Australian selectors have treated him since 2008 is horrible.
2. Owen Finegan
Who Needs Melon? Australia has since Finegan stopped playing.
Not only is he one of the more underrated Australian forwards of the last 30 years, but he’s one of the most missed players in the Australian squad.
Does anybody recall how poorly Australian forwards were from 2005-2007? There weren’t just problems in the scrums, there were problems making yards.
People who criticize George Gregan should look at how well he worked with Finegan for the Wallabies circa 1999-2001. This was, by the way, how Finegan scored his try in the World Cup.
It’s great Melon got to score that try because it sums up Finegan as a player very well. I love how during his entire run he was trying to offload the ball. And then the English commentator said, “Go for the line man!”
I’m not going to name names, but there have been a lot of Wallaby forwards since Finegan retired, and while many have been highly rated, Finegan has been better than 99 percent of them.
Australia just hasn’t had the dockside brawler that Owen Finegan was.
I’d rather have Melon playing for the Wallabies right now than some of Australia’s greatest ever players.
1. Brendan Moon
This may come as a surprise, because many regard Brendan Moon as great, and some will put him in their all-time Australian XV.
Let me be clear: After John Eales and David Campese, Moon is the easiest person to select in an all-time Wallaby XV for me.
You might think Mark Ella is an easier selection. I have no doubts about putting Mark Ella in my all-time Wallaby XV, but I have to consider the likes of Lawton Sr, Hawthorn, McLean, Lynagh, and Larkham. Ella still stands out, but I have to think about it.
Tim Horan is another easy selection, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have to think about men like Michael O’Connor (people forget 12 was his favourite position) or John Brass.
Trever Allen sounds like the world’s best player in his day, but I still have to think about Cyril Towers and Michael O’Connor.
Mark Loane was great, but by his own admission he wasn’t a great line-out exponent or ball handler.
You might ask yourself: Aren’t there many wingers to partner Campese? Some people want to say Dally Messenger, but he only played two Tests for Australia.