Four days ago I was pilloried by a senior Roar editor, and quite a few Roarers, as being hairbrained to suggest James O’Connor should be groomed as the Wallaby halfback with Will Genia out for six months after knee surgery.
As it turned out subsequently, O’Connor will miss the entire Rugby Championship with on-going hamstring problems, making my original suggestion purely academic.
Lo and behold, Wallaby coach Robbie Deans has since named Berrick Barnes as fullback for tonight’s clash with the Pumas at the Gold Coast.
O’Connor has never played halfback, Barnes has never played fullback. Is Barnes a hairbrained selection as well?
Not a peep out of anybody. How about that?
Despite the brickbats, O’Connor would have made a real fist of donning the nine jersey, as Barnes will make a real fist of wearing 15.
And the reason? Both are very talented and versatile footballers.
Genia’s long-term injury was the reason for suggesting O’Connor with Nick Phipps not up to speed. The return of Pat McCabe at inside-centre the reason why a spot had to be found for Barnes, whose goal-kicking makes it imperative he’s in the starting line-up.
Barnes has landed 25 of 29 shots at goal this international season. The 86% strike rate is pure gold with the Wallabies really struggling to score tries.
Tryless against Scotland, five in three Tests against Wales, one try in two Tests against the All Blacks, and two tries last weekend against the Boks making it eight tries from seven Tests. Hardly riveting stuff.
On the credit side, the Wallaby defence has only allowed in eight tries to square the ledger.
With Mike Harris briefly in the kicking role against Scotland and Wales, that makes 19 of Barnes’ goals vital three-pointers, that has kept the Wallabies somewhere in touch, especially as ill-discipline has cost 28 successful penalties against them.
So the difference between winning and losing has been the Wallabies’ giving away penalties, making Barnes’ retention a must at all costs.
Wingers Digby Ioane, and Dom Shipperley, who made an excellent debut against the Boks, and consistent outside-centre Adam Ashley-Cooper couldn’t possibly be dropped, so struggling fullback Kurtley Beale had to be the scapegoat for Barnes, and drop down to the bench.
The formula for winning is simple, the Wallabies must score more tries.
Providing Phipps lifts his game and sends Quade Cooper on his way with consistently swift accurate service with no double-pumping, tonight’s Wallaby backline is the best balanced this winter, and if – and it’s a big if – Ioane and Shipperley receive some decent quick possession with room to move, that try-scoring rate will rise accordingly.
Upfront, the Radike Samo experiment starting at eight against the Boks, with Scott Higginbotham coming off the bench, was a huge success.
Samo was a powerhouse, while Higginbotham turned in by far his best Test performance of the season, scoring within minutes of taking the field.
Lock Kane Douglas debuts tonight, and if he throws his massive 202cm, 123kg, frame around with conviction, it could well be the start of a long international career.
And good luck to veteran 34-year-old lock Nathan Sharpe who will captain the side tonight in the absence of James Horwill, David Pocock, and Will Genia – all victims of the captain’s poisoned chalice.
Sharpe has been a tower of strength for the Force and the Wallabies in his farewell season, and it would be fitting if he can lead the men-in-gold to victory in the last three games of the Rugby Championship against the Pumas tonight and the Boks, and Pumas, both away.
Hopefully tonight aimless senseless kicking will be wiped out altogether, and the Wallabies play ball-in-hand.
The Wallabies will be up against arguably the best pack in the tournament, and they sure won’t beat the Pumas if they kick away hard-earned possession.
The visitors, like any decent side, thrive on gift ball and make the culprits pay dearly on the scoreboard.