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Given the current climate with the Australian coaching position, I thought I?d take a look at where it has all gone wrong for Australia following their defeat at the hands of New Zealand in the 2005 Tri-Nations campaign.
It would be unfair to dump the whole bucket on the 2005 side, as there have been a few ongoing problems for the past 10 years. After going down in game one of the series 38-28, the Kangaroos hit back the next week in Auckland, winning 28-26. They began to look good on the British leg of the tour, with successive wins against Great Britain. However, they never got the better of a more passionate Kiwi outfit, minus superstars Sonny Bill Williams and Benji Marshall I might add. Admittedly Australia was minus their halves combination, the world?s two best players, Andrew Johns and Darren Lockyer. But given the depth that the Australian Rugby League has at its disposal this is no excuse. All Australian supporters, ex-players, players and coaching staff were stunned after being thrashed 24-0 by the Kiwis in the 2005 Tri-Nations Final, and we have a detailed look at the roots of the problem here.
It has always been an argument of form versus loyalty, incumbency, or reputation. Former NSW State of Origin coach Phil Gould has consistently promoted the case for form in the Test arena, realising that Australia?s form side will always beat any opposition side that?s thrown onto the park. Coaches of Australian sides over the last 10 years have abused their powers at times, selecting players they favour personally, rather than the players who deserve the position on their merits. The Australian team?s failure in the 2005 Tri-Nations series has finally exposed these agendas which have been in place since the mid 1990s under the guidance of former Manly coach Bob Fulton. In the past, Australia has had enough depth to get away with it, not to mention the poor standard of the opposition. But Bennett?s side has been caught out, and it?s time to give the system a complete overhaul.
During Fulton?s reign, he selected Manly players like Daniel Gartner, Nik Kosef, Danny Moore and John Hopoate in the Green and Gold. I would argue that these players didn?t really warrant selection, with the only deserved players from Manly was Geoff Toovey. Even Terry Hill had the odd lucky roll of the dice. Fulton even went to the extremes of selecting David Gillespie in the Kangaroo side in 1996, years after last playing for Australia and even without taking part in the State of Origin series earlier in the season. This can be taken within the context of the Super League War, but these sorts of decisions send a poor message to younger players aspiring to play for their country, but again, Fulton isn?t the only one.
Let?s have a look at the two stalwarts of coaching over the past decade. Arch rivals Bennett and Anderson. Bennett coached Australia in 16 tests, winning 12, losing 3 and having the 1 draw. He took Australia to the 2004 Tri-Nations title, as well as winning a series in 1998. Unfortunately for Bennett, punters will remember him for losing the 2005 Tri-Nations Final, and so they should. Anderson on the other hand coached Australia in 18 tests between 1999 and 2003, winning 15 and losing 3. He managed to come away victorious in every series at the helm. The pair both held agendas by favouring certain players, making certain selections which can be described as contentious at best. In 2003, Cronulla finished well outside the top 8. Anderson selected club halfback Brett Kimmorley as the Australian no.7 ahead of Premiership winning halfback Craig Gower. Most would agree that Gower?s form was superior to Kimmorley?s at the time and it was widely rumoured that Gower was the winner of the Dally M Player of the Year, although the awards were cancelled. Anderson argued that Kimmorley had done the job before and therefore warranted selection. He then went on to play a starring role in the series and Anderson had got away with it, but that doesn?t make it right.
He also selected utility Phil Bailey on the same tour. Most scribes would rate Bailey no better than an average NRL player. But it?s amazing how things can go your way if you know the right people. Luke Lewis was also picked in the squad, another Premiership winner with the Panthers. Australia led 2-0 in the series, and with a mounting injury toll, they struggled to field a team for the final game of the series, a dead rubber. It was thought that Anderson would give Lewis a game, but he strangely turned to the ageing Darren Smith, a mate of Anderson?s from his days of coaching Canterbury. Remembering that this game was a dead rubber makes it even more bewildering to bring in an outsider from the squad playing in the UK, particularly over a man who hadn?t even played a match previously on tour. Lewis hasn?t played a Test since, and if he never does, he can quite rightly feel very hard done by.
Bennett showed loyalty to a group of players who were loyal to him, not necessarily from his side at Brisbane. Willie Mason is a classic example of this. He spoke out about how much he idolised Bennett as a coach, and Bennett repaid him with Australian selection. Willie himself would probably admit that his selection wasn?t warranted for this tour. He stated a case for Tigers prop John Skandalis to be selected ahead of himself, a decision which may have resulted in a better outcome for the Australian side. Brisbane prop Petero Civoniceva showed real signs of slowing down in the 2005 series, but was retained right throughout the tour without fuss from Bennett. This became evident in the final, with a younger, tougher more enthusiastic Kiwi pack proving too difficult for the Aussies to handle. Tonie Carroll is another player that Bennett has been loyal to in his time as Australian coach, allowing him to play for Australia despite the fact that he played previously for New Zealand.
Now for the new man in the hot seat, Sydney Roosters coach Ricky Stuart. The Canberra great and former Bulldog has enjoyed a stellar start to his coaching career, which began at the Bulldogs with a Jersey Flegg Premiership in 2001. He then went on to coach the Roosters to a first grade premiership in 2002, and Grand Final appearances in both the 2003 and 2004 seasons. He has enjoyed representative success also, coaching Country Origin to victory in 2004, and a NSW Origin series win this year. Stuart is a much younger coach with new ideas, and wants the Australian side to have more passion. He does have a tendency to lose the plot on the sidelines though. When things aren?t going well for his side, he carries on like a baby without a lollie. Some say that it?s great that he wears his heart on his sleeve, but how are his players supposed to respond when seeing him behave in that way? A classic example in the 2004 Grand Final was when Justin Hodges and Chris Walker were making mistake after mistake, and Stuart was seen screaming and kicking chairs on the sidelines. This could work against Australia in the coming seasons if he doesn?t learn to keep his cool and stick to his strategic plans.
With the job now Stuart?s, it remains to be seen whether these problems continue. A possible solution would have been to pick a coach who has no current affiliation with any NRL club, similar to what the Queensland Rugby League is doing with their State coach ? Mal Meninga. This would ensure that the Australian Team is chosen on merit, avoiding the continuous favouritism which has plagued representative rugby league for too long.