Finally! On to the REAL men. The pigs. The pack. The piano movers. The forwards! Starting at the back of the scrum we consider the top Number 8 of the decade, and I reckon it is a bit of a battle. There are, realistically, three stand out candidates and each have had moments of superb form. But each have also fallen off the pace and not been as consistent as we would have liked.
But to the list, in the 123 tests since 2000 to 2009 we have had the following ten players wear the Wallaby Number 8 jersey:
Toutai Kefu (31 starts), Wycliff Palu (30), David Lyons (28), George Smith (8), Richard Brown (8), Jim Williams (6), Rocky Elsom (4), John Roe (3), Stephen Hoiles (3), Scott Fava (2).
The Top 3, we here at G&GR came up with, are the top three on the capped list as well. So, starting at the top of the list we have…
Like many of his World Cup team mates, Toutai Kefu started the decade on top of the world. In fact Kef was probably at the very top as the best 8-man in world rugby, and one of the best forwards. Unfortunately he had a slow start to rugby in 2000 and he had to play his way back into the Wallabies from the bench as Big Jim Williams demonstrated his skills in Kef’s old jersey. Even when back to full fitness coach MacQueen seemed to use the two on a horses for courses basis. Jimmy for the massive Bok pack whilst Kef would take on the more mobile All Blacks. Come season’s end Kef was back in the starting pack and ready for anything.
Anything would come the following year in what would be one of Toutai’s most memorable seasons. He was instrumental in the Wallabies’ 2-1 series win over the British Lions forming a powerful back row combination with the rookie George Smith and the cunning Owen Finegan. A win over the All Blacks in Wellington was soon followed by that most famous of tries. Kefu’s last minute, match winning, Bledisloe retaining, Tri-Nations securing, captain farewelling try was phenomenal from every perspective and will go down as one of the most memorable moments of Australian rugby.
Unfortunately for Kef his Wallaby career ended prematurely. Whereas he had targetted finishing on the high of a home World Cup, instead he bowed out one match early when injury suffered in a Tri Nations match against South Africa ruled him out of the tournament.
Cliffy Palu seems to has saved his best until last. At least the last few tests of the decade. Palu’s form on the 2009 Spring Tour has been career best. For the first time since his debut in 2006 he has managed to string together a series (more than two) of high quality, high impact games in a row. His ball running was consistently damaging, his defence destructive and his work rate surprisingly high.
There have been glimpses of his abilities over the last four or so years in the green and gold. We’ve seen the barnstorming running game with the deft off loads. We’ve seen the occasional massive hit reminiscent of Willie O. We’ve seen flashes. But we never saw enough of it, and rarely with the high work load he brought to the table in the Grand Slam attempting tour.
When Palu has been injured or out of form the Wallabies of recent years have never looked as capable of winning as they are when he is on song and firing.
David Lyons debuted for Australia against Argentina in the very first match of this decade, just two days after his 20th birthday. This is quite the achievement when you recall that he had only made his Super 12 rugby debut that same year. It would be a full year, though, until his 2nd test. This time coming off the bench in the first test against the touring Lions team. What an initiation, but what an experience.
And so it would still be another 12 months after the Lions test that he would actually play his third test, against France. The following week he would get his run on debut against the same outfit. He still played most of his rugby from the bench, but at last he was a very real member of the squad. And the experience would prove invaluable come the Rugby World Cup in 2003.
When injury ruled Kefu out of the World Cup squad, Lyons stood up exceptionally to lead the pack. He was a stand out in the very first match of the tournament against the Argentinians, in just his 2nd test start in the position, and would continue his form all tournament to be Australia’s most consistent player.
His form continued the following year in which he won the John Eales medal, but his consistency began to be called into question and injuries began to arise more regularly. He managed to make it to the 2007 World Cup, starting in just the one game, and that was it for the Wallabies. His last game being a relatively low key affair against the Fijians. On his day he was a damaging wide running 8 with plenty of potential. I’m personally not convinced we ever saw him at his very best.
So how do we stand? Did we get it right this time from a top three perspective? Does King George’s time at 8 deserve further consideration? Or have we undervalued the worth of Jimmy Williams? Let us know in the vote below, and in our comments section here and in our blog. We need to start getting these positions tied down as we are only a week or so away from naming our Wallaby Team of the Decade.