The Admirable Australian Wallabies

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Australia. The island continent that was a mystery for many years to the early sailors and may be still a mystery to most these days. It is a genuinely unique country with a land mass similar to the United States of America but a fraction of the population.

The centre is no more than red sand and dangerous critters, but it’s the coastal areas where this country prides itself. The endless golden beaches, beautiful natural wonders, landmark cities and a people that aspire to be the best sporting nation in the world.

Australians have the benefit of a beautiful country to play in, so it isn’t a wonder that a place that has around 22 million people achieves great sporting prowess. Any sport that you can imagine most likely is played in Australia as well as sports that are unique to the Land Down Under.

Australia has a proud history of sport which was kick started in the 1968 Summer Olympics. Before that time, Australia was no more than a minnow in the world of sport and didn’t achieve much, but with silver medalist Peter Norman achieving something special, the government built a sporting initiative now known as the Australian Institute of Sport or AIS.

From this initiative, sports began to take a central figure in the psyche of Australia to the point now where a loss is almost a national embarrassment. Australia produce world leaders in a number of sports and their athletes regularly achieve top spots on the podiums. From swimming to football (soccer) to athletics to cricket to snow skiing and many others, Australians have achieved a lot through the AIS programs. Even rugby has benefitted from these programs and many players have received world class training and advice.

Australia is a relatively young country and even though it is still part of a constitutional monarchy, they operate very independently with their own government and laws. They became the country as we know it in 1901 but rugby had been around since 1882. The first club, what is now New South Wales, formed to tour New Zealand at the time. Even though they weren’t successful on tour, the game of rugby garnered a lot of support. In 1888, a non-sanctioned British tour took place but since it was an entrepreneurial endeavor, these matches were not counted as official. However an official tour took place in 1899 when the British returned to face players picked from New South Wales and Queensland.

Even though Australia didn’t have an official playing strip at the time, they wore the crest and emblem on their “borrowed” jerseys. The colours of gold and green would only be adopted in 1961 when they had to change colours to avoid clashing with the Springboks’ green jersey. In the past though, the Wallabies have had a kaleidoscope of colours but eventually settled on the gold/yellow in ’61. The name of the Wallabies was selected over the British press dubbing them “Rabbits”.

Over the past 100 years, the Wallabies have had some great success stories as they have competed with the best in the world. Their rivalry with the All Blacks generally makes front page news, or at least dominates the sporting section. Since 1920, their winning record has been 53% with Italy being the team that they have 100% winning record over. (At least 10 matches had to be played between the two nations for me to take this record into account). As with all rivalries, they have struggled to get over New Zealand for a long time and are currently chasing the Bledisloe Cup after 12 years of All Black dominance.

Even though they have had a dry spell recently, they are still two times World Cup winners, winning in 1991 and 1999, the first country to win the cup multiple times. They have appeared in a number of semi-finals and finals and the previous world cup saw them reach the semi-finals where they were beaten out by New Zealand, the eventual winners.

The Wallabies may be currently ranked 6th in the world, but this is not a true reflection of the team. They have a chance later in the year to rise again, but in the meantime they have to swallow their pride and bide their time. Part of the drop in rankings comes because of the controversial reports of some players engaging in immature text behavior in November 2014, which led to the then coach, Ewen McKenzie resigning his position. Australia had to rush a few things to install a new coach and selected the New South Wales Waratahs’ coach, Michael Cheika. He didn’t have much time to form his playing philosophy with the team and when they embarked on the Northern Hemisphere tour, the public wasn’t expecting them to win.

Cheika has this year to deliver on the same level has he did with the Waratahs, who are currently defending champions of the Super Rugby series. His style of coaching is honest, straight forward and he doesn’t accept peripheral nonsense. His players respect him and he in turn respects them, as long as they deliver on the field and stay focused. He is said to bring this tight regiment of coaching to the Wallabies this year.

Some of the legends of the game have worn the Wallaby jersey, such as Tim Horan, Matt Burke, Stephan Larkham, David Campese, Nick Farr-Jones, Phil Waugh, Michael Lynagh, Ken Catchpole and one of the most gentle giants of the game and former captain, John Eales. Eales was a man of many talents and as captain would ask that he take the difficult road before his players. He was the Australian lock from 1991 – 2001 and was a member of both World Cup winning teams. He is of only a select few who have won the cup twice.

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Eales was an unusual rugby specimen. It wasn’t his size of 200 centimeters or 115kg frame, it was the fact that this forward could place kick with the best of them. He was able to take penalties and conversions and was very successful at this. Out of his 173 career points, he scored only two tries with the rest being attributed to kicking. Arguably his most famous kick came in 2000 when he landed a difficult touchline kick to beat the All Blacks in the last play of the game and reclaim the Bledisloe Cup.

Since his retirement he has been named Australian of the Year, an award given to extraordinary citizens of Australia annually and has set up his own businesses in marketing and financial consulting. He is a legend of the Australian game and is one of the most respected players worldwide to this day.

The Australian Wallabies compete annually alongside South Africa, New Zealand and Argentina in a double round robin competition, the Rugby Championships, and have won this competition, or the earlier form of it, 3 times. They have a lot to work on though if they are to challenge for the World Cup, but don’t underestimate them. They are known for a very dangerous back line and and counter attack through intuitive play and slick passing. The bulk of their game is built on exploiting gaps in the defensive line. Even though their forwards aren’t the best, the back line ability and all round fitness creates a dangerous and powerful team.

People expect the Wallabies to reach the play off rounds but they are in the pool of death with England, Wales, Fiji and Uruguay. Only two teams will be able advance from the pool stages and Australia will need to be at their best early on so as to not be eliminated at the pool stages.

With a new coach and a crop of young players, this team is unpredictable in a positive way and may surprise a few people come Rugby World Cup 2015.