We finally reach the last position in the team, if only because of its numerical allocation. For mine, this will be one of the most interesting ‘battles’ of the series. Now I expect most people to jump on the current incumbent (tautology?), but I think that is unfair on the other options proposed.
Because, in the end, we’ve come up with three fairly decent candidates who were all highly regarded during their playing days. And actually there is some half decent talent amongst the none loose head props we’ve picked this decade. Promising too that four of them are still playing and young enough to be playing for a few more years yet. The Loose Head Props from 2000-2009 have been:
Bill Young (46), Benn Robinson (28), Matt Dunning (14), Nick Stiles (12), Greg Holmes (10), Richard Harry (7), Al Baxter (3), Ben Alexander (2), Pek Cowan (1).
We here at G&GR have come up with the following three has our top performers for the decade:
The first thing to note about Bill Young’s career is that he started at loose head prop in every test he was involved in. Never did he come off the bench, which is quite a record for a prop, especially one only just breaking into the side.
And break into the side he did, back in 2000 against France. In the same game that George Smith debuted. Whilst Smith was replacing the retired World Champion David Wilson, Young was replacing the retired World Champion Richard Harry. Young would go on and play each of the tests, against France, Scotland and England.
Young wouldn’t feature in 2001 with Nick Stiles preferred for most of the season, but Young was back again in 2002, playing all but one test. Young was somewhat unique for test props, being reasonably tall at almost 1.9 metres tall, nor was he a particular heavy weight. He used his height though to great effect as he managed to manoeuvre his opposing props out of their comfort zone.
Young would be the scorn of many opposing team fans for what they called illegal scrimmaging. In reality though, Young was doing what all props do – finding a way to get over their opposite man. For Young he suffered because the rest of the Wallaby scrum was generally not pulling their weight up front.
Come the 2003 RWC, Young had established himself as our premier Loose Head Prop. Some suggest he gained a leg up by the refereeing in the World Cup final as England were penalised for scrum infringements perhaps caused by Young’s actions. This was somewhat of a turning point for Young as he often became targeted by the referee who seemed to be hunting for a reason to penalise him.
Eventually, however, it was injury that brought about the premature decline of Bill Young. Like others before him, a degenerative bone disorder in his neck would mean that he had to make the decision to stop playing. His last game for Australia was against the All Blacks in 2005. Just two games later the Wallaby scrum suffered their worst ever moment as they were decimated by a powerful English pack. How they would have fared had Bill Young been there is somewhat of a moot point. But at least one worth considering.
Whether it was because of Young’s retirement, or perhaps just the shambles that was the Wallaby scrum against England at the end of 2005, but 2006 was somewhat of a changing of the guard for the Wallaby front row.
It began in the first test where Tight Head Rodney Blake and Hooker Tai McIsaacs debuted along side 4 cap rookie Loose Head Prop, Greg Holmes. Two tests later a new Tight Head Prop was debuting in Guy Shepherdson. Soon we would see the last tests of veteran hookers Jeremy Paul and Brendan Cannon. In amongst all these changes, was the emergence of a little nugget of a prop from the Waratahs, Benn Robinson.
At 22 Robinson would make his test debut in the most intense of environments. Against the Springboks at Ellis Park. He performed admirably and toured with the Wallabies to the UK. However it was not until the last test on tour, Stephen Moore’s run on debut as well, that he received his next cap. Promise was shown as the Wallaby forwards finally stood up and the backs enjoyed the extra space to run out 44-15 victors.
Robinson shared the 1 jersey with Matt Dunning during the start of the 2007 World Cup year, but his tournament hopes would be shattered when he was ruled out of the RWC after injuring his foot in the Australian Rugby Championship. Perhaps the doctor inserted a bionic pin or something, but from thereon in Robinson’s career has boomed since. And so to the Australian scrum.
Finally Fat Cat, unlike the original TV character, had friends! And plenty of them. He was our first choice Loose Head Prop. In fact our first choice prop. Eventually, come 2009, he would be our first choice player. For the first time in years, the Wallabies have a legitimate weapon in the scrum and it starts with the man in the binary coded jersey – Robinson. For Robinson, scrimmaging is the reason to play rugby as a prop. It is the physical challenge at its most tribal. And he is a master of it. But the rest of his game is just as masterful. He must have one of the best long passes in the team. Ball in hand, particularly close to the line, he is highly dangerous. He is a strong defender and a handy runner. Robinson stands alone now as probably the only Wallaby capable of being named in a World XV at this current time.
Richard Harry just played the 7 games for the Wallabies this decade, and this may count against him when it comes to voting. But you can’t discount him too quickly, because these 7 games were as high a quality games from a loose head prop as you will see.
Two tests against Argentina and then the closest and most compelling Tri-Nations competition ever seen are a pretty good way to finish your career. Particularly when the only game lost is arguably the most talked about game ever, a 39-35 point loss to the mighty All Blacks. And during this time Harry’s form was as high as it had ever been.
A former high level club flanker, Harry was moved to the front row in a wonderful piece of forward thinking. Harry would go on to be a vital part of the 99 RWC winning team, in which is toughness and commitment were key features of his play. He was a strong scrummager, using his bull like body to great effect, and was a contributor in general play, his days as a flanker giving him greater awareness in the loose. Bullocking runs were a strong feature of his play, as exampled in this great Wallaby try from the 2000 season.
Harry would retire alongside more acclaimed team mates David Wilson and Jason Little in that memorable final Tri-Nations game against the Boks in Durban. Stirling Mortlock’s late penalty would give Australia the game and the Tri-Nations trophy. A suitably relevant trophy winning departure for a trio of trophy winning players. Harry’s departure would usher in the career of our next loose head prop custodian in Bill Young. And from Young we would eventually reach Benn Robinson. Three wonderful loose head props, for which Australian rugby fans can forever be proud of.
And with that we draw to a close a look at each of the players of the noughties. How did we do with this one? I’m guessing the ‘recency factor’, will again come into play and Robinson will come out on top. But just stop to consider the impact of the likes of Harry and Young on their Wallaby team. I also want to recall Matt Dunnings exceptional game in the 1 jersey against the Boks in Cape Town, in 2007. If it wasn’t for a couple of Francois Steyn drop goals and a dodgy ref’s call on a disallowed Matt Giteau try, it would have been a wonderful Wallaby victory. Make sure you vote in the poll below, and then leave a comment to support your decision or dispute ours.
G&GR will weigh it all up over the next day or so and be back to announce the official Green & Gold Rugby Wallaby Team of the Decade!