The first in a series of Wallaby team previews, position by position.
Drew Mitchell (WA) – played the last two tests at fullback last year, taking over from the seemingly out of position Adam Ashley-Cooper. Has taken over from Cameron Shepherd in the custodian role for the Force. There’s no doubting his running abilities particularly his strength in the tackle, however concerns still lie over the consistency of both his boot and his defence.
The likely candidates:
Adam Ashley-Cooper (ACT) – was the Wallaby fullback of choice for most of last year; however his seeming over reliance on the highish kick and chase game left many Wallaby fans frustrated. There’s no doubting his abilities, just what position he should be?
Mark Gerrard (ACT) – AAC’s team mate at the Brumbies and their actual fullback. It’s where he made his name as a schoolboy and it’s where he seems to be re-establishing himself in elite football, after time on the flank. His kicking game is arguably the best of any player in Australian rugby. His distribution skills are high class and his positional play sound. Speed is the question, or is it? Perhaps his supposed ‘hamstring-induced-lack-of-speed’ is more a myth than a fact. Either way it would be hard to argue that over the 2nd half of last season and the first half of this season he has been Australia’s form fullback.
Sam Norton-Knight (NSW) – what a frustrated fellow is Sam. He is, in my eyes, the Tah’s most consistent back and a player with whom they always look better with (or rather, seem to perform worse without). He has a close to Latham-esque boot, and a wonderful long pass, a natural run over from his fly half days. The trouble is, he doesn’t trouble the defence, rarely breaking the line. If he does confirm his departure for Wales, as has been reported, then that’s it for him. A two-test wonder.
Cameron Shepherd (WA) – if Mark Gerrard was the form Australian fullback in the 2nd half of last season, then Cam Shepherd was the form Australian BACK for the first half. Until injury intervened, Shepherd was in career best form. He managed to come back from injury in time to start the Wallaby season at 15. A broken leg against France, however, brought his season to halt. And it’s hard to say he’s looked as on top of his game since. In form, I’d suggest he’s the natural selection.
Lachlan Turner (NSW) – started the season slowly and has now started to find his feet. Most importantly he is looking a lot more dangerous bringing the ball back from a kick. Kicking and play making may well be his downfall, but that depends on who is picked where elsewhere in the team.
James O’Connor (WA) – is getting shunted around a bit at the Force, which should be a concern for him. Will want to settle into a position, one way or the other, sooner rather than later. Deans sees him as a strong fullback option, and his skills are obvious. Has a bit of maturing to do before he’s ready for the constant rigors of test footy though I reckon.
Mark McLinden (QLD) – this was an odd signing by the Reds. Sure there was some logic too it. An experienced back. Highly recommended by the incumbent. Would fit into the Reds game plan of active ball play. But he hadn’t played rugby since school and was probably no more than a league journey man. But, other than a poor game v the Chiefs, he seems to have adapted to the game quicker than any Aussie code switcher of recent times.
What is Deans looking for?
The common theory is that Deans likes his fullbacks to act as a second ball distributed. The thinking behind this seems to come from the fact that he picked Leon MacDonald for the Crusaders and, more often than not, for the All Blacks. It’s probably underplaying MacDonald’s abilities to say he was only picked because he could pass the ball. He was picked because he was the best available. Other Dean’s selections Mils Muliana (All Blacks) and Mitchell and Ashley-Cooper (Wallabies) don’t really fit this mode.
So what does he want? My reading is he wants assuredness first and foremost. Someone with whom you can feel comfortable with at the back of the team. From there it’s probably fair to say, he wants involvement. Someone who likes to use the ball and engages in play.
Who is the answer?
As I alluded to above, in form Cameron Shepherd is probably the man. He is a very confident fullback and has a substantial boot (both out of the hand and off the tee). He would need to get back on the field and quickly regain his touch and confidence over the remainder of the season. Otherwise I can see the only other alternative is Mark Gerrard, a player not too dissimilar to the aforementioned MacDonald. The only question mark is whether or not he is heading overseas next year. There’s no point picking him, 2 years out from a World Cup, if he won’t be here for it. After these two, it’s back to last year’s options in Mitchell and Ashley-Cooper.
As referred to by Archie below