What Does Australia Need To Do To Regain It’s Crown?

So Australia lost the Four Nations Final, and it is the third loss in a major final in the last five years, all of them at the hands of New Zealand and two of those losses on home soil.

You can’t ignore those facts. They fly in the face of what we have all grown up knowing about the Australian Kangaroo’s and Australian Rugby League.

It would be harsh not to acknowledge the fact that, through the NRL, Australia has done a fantastic job of helping New Zealands elite players lift their standards and finally be able to compete as equals on the international stage.

If the 2005 Tri Nations Final was a shock and the 2008 World Cup Final was just surreal, surely the 2010 Four Nations Final was like the full coming out party for New Zealand Rugby League. No, it wasn’t just a fluke, it wasn’t luck, this is New Zealand Rugby League, the new standard bearers of test match football.

Now, Australia has to do something it hasn’t needed to do in generations, and that is ask questions of itself as to why it is not longer the best Rugby League nation in the world.

The good news is, we are bloody. Sure Australia is no longer the best, but we are not far off. There doesn’t need to be game wide changes, we don’t need some sort of radical approach, but we do need to change our thinking and we have to keep an open mind about what will and will not work.

Managing Our Test Side
I think in Australia we need to have a bit of an overhaul of the way we manage our test side and generally the elite end of our game.

I think we’ve got it about right with the role of the coach at the moment, but I definitely think our test coaches need more job security. When Wayne Bennett was in charge, he never really seemed like he was there long term. I think sacking Ricky Stuart was reactionary, what he did was wrong, but he was tossed aside with so much ease. Even now, after losing the final to New Zealand, Tim Sheens job security has been questioned.

When you remember that there are 30 professional clubs out there that can offer higher wages than the Australian job pays, I think it would be in our best interests to offer these top coaches a position that has some security and won’t seem them embarrassed by a public sacking when, lets face it, a better side just beats them on the day.

I also think Australia needs a high performance director, someone that is in a full time role, with no club or state ties, who can do some of the work a full time coach might normally do, but with a lower profile and more time to do it.

This person would need to be in with the NSW and QLD Rugby Leagues, be able to take with both state coaches about players and the direction of teams (without giving orders). They would be able to contact players and talk about maybe the possibility that they are being looked at for future test selections, maybe talk about what they need to work on.

Queensland has some of these things in place right now, but I think we need it on a national scale now if we want to compete with New Zealand and regain our title as the worlds best Rugby League nations.

Value In A Certain Type Of Forward
A second rower with a high work rate, good mobility and a defensive specialist.

I’ve just described the vast majority of what would be deemed the elite forwards in the Australian ranks. Its what I would want from my teams forwards, and its even to a point where you see some clubs and rep teams selecting second rowers in the front row and at lock with all of these attributes.

The thing is, we want that so much from our forwards in Australia that anyone that doesn’t fit into that box has a difficult time getting to the top.

If you look at New Zealand, Greg Eastwood was fantastic for them in the Four Nations. In the final he was one of the best on the field. He was probably happy to finally be playing in a team he wanted to play for after Leeds didn’t cop the tip 12 months ago that he didn’t want to play for them!

The thing about Eastwood is, if he was Australian, there is no way in hell that he would be running out in the Green and Gold. He just isn’t what we look for in our forwards.

I would like to have seen Jamal Idris included in the Four Nations squad because, through his size and strength, he is going to cause problems for the opposition. Sure his defense needs work, his endurance as a forward isn’t quite there yet, but at some point you need forwards who can give you something in attack beyond good footwork and mobility.

The lack of ball playing forwards in Australian ranks is shocking. Just a simple offloader, we have coached them out of our game because of the push from coaches to retain possession and play by the numbers. Safety first.

We’ve also got rid of the power forwards, the guys who come out and just give you pure go forward. We like them, thats why we have so many of them from New Zealand and the Pacific Islands, but as far as Australia’s own forwards go, we’ll discard one of our own if he doesn’t tick off the safety first boxes.

At every level, we need to start to value forwards in our game that bring attributes that are different to what we have been wanting in the past. New Zealand has a set of forwards that bring many different abilities and skills to the table. We need to look to have more of that variety in our side.

Not Having To Push Ourselves
For the longest time, Australia didn’t have to push itself to maintain its hold on the Rugby League world. We could basically pick anyone we wanted and know we would win.

Now we have to really consider what we need at test level to beat New Zealand. Its not just about picking a side that can choke out the opposition with defense, we need to build a side that can go out and win games.

For the last decade Australia has had a pretty stock standard formula for selection its side. We’ve been lucky in some instances, to have had all time greats like Webcke and Civoniceva as your foundation tends to help you gloss over the need to push the boundaries in other parts of your side.

Now we are coming into an era where the talent gap is no more. Where we had Lockyer, now they have Marshall. Where we have Cameron Smith, they have Issac Luke. We have Paul Gallen, they have Adam Blair.

We can’t just rely on our normal formula to win and hope our talent can get the job done. Now we have to look at the opposition and chase wins, we need to push ourselves and the way we play to a different level. We need to try new things, new tactics and make selections that are a gamble.

We can’t play it safe any more.

A Plan For The Future
In every Rugby League World Cup I have watched, Australia just selected who they thought were their best players at the time and went with them. To be fair, it worked, but I think next time around, that won’t be good enough.

We have just three full clubs seasons left before the next World Cup rolls around, and I think Australia is going to need them. I’ve been saying for some time now, New Zealand looks great with an eye on 2013. I like the look of them more now than I did heading into 2008….when I had my suspicions about them having a real shot at beating us.

Australia needs a plan for the next World Cup and that plan is going to result in some big decisions that must be made NOW.

God love Darren Lockyer and Petero Civoniceva, they have been amazing for us. However, neither will be playing for Australia in 2013, so that means we have just three years to find the players to replace them and give them that three years to develop.

I think both could easily play Test football for the next couple of years, but if they won’t be there for the World Cup, and we need to give time for their replacements to get up to speed at test level, we need to make that tough decision now.

It’s not just those two though, we need to have a long term plan set out for how we use State Of Origin football, how that will feed into our test team and make sure we have defined plans for who we hope to have ready to play in those key roles in 2013.

Should we be looking for New South Wales to play Josh Dugan at fullback, with the idea that, as a great, young, talented player, he might need to be the alternative for us if Billy Slater doesn’t get rid of bad mistakes out of his game.

You know full well that NSW will be looking at Jarryd Hayne as a fullback come next season, but thinking long term, is he the alternative you want to Slater?

To me, Josh and Brett Morris looked like two players we needed to develop for the future of our test side during the 2009 Four Nations. They just looked like they belonged at rep level. I think we need to give those type of players every opportunity to have their game time in Origin rather than falling back on the likes of Jamie Lyon!

Queensland do a very good job for planning ahead for their Origin side. They take chances on players New South Wales would never select, and they are willing to think outside of normal thinking when selecting their side. We need more than them doing that work though.

If we can have New South Wales and Queensland developing players for the future, not just playing its safe, and then have that same thinking pushing on to text level, we’ll be in a good position.

That work needs to start now though. Three seasons isn’t a lot of time to develop a winning World Cup team.

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