When Wallabies coach Ewen McKenzie replaced Quade Cooper after 59 minutes of the Test against Italy in Turin, it was a sensible bit of squad management he probably longs he could do a bit more of.
Examine the heavy workload of instrumental Wallabies this year, including Super Rugby, and one conclusion leaps out. It is uncommon and unsustainable.
In Super Rugby, Brumbies hooker Stephen Moore accumulated 21.56 hours of service. That is not far off the total of 24.16 hours booked, collectively, by the All Blacks’ three hookers, Andrew Hore, Keven Mealamu and Dane Coles.
Moore also played out the full 80 minutes nine times. The New Zealand trio, again in total, did that just three times throughout the whole of Super Rugby. That is a staggering difference.
At that other end of the age scale, Australian rugby is also asking a lot of its commodities. Michael Hooper played almost five more hours of Super Rugby than Chiefs peer Sam Cane – who job-shares at Super and Test level – despite not featuring in the finals. Hooper played every minute of every game he was available for the Waratahs, then continued into the draining British and Irish Lions series and Rugby Championship, where he has again been asked to carry a heavy workload, almost exclusively, at No. 7. As for Moore’s post-Super Rugby exertions, if you are a Brumbies and Wallabies fan, you’ve probably seen more of him than your own partner this year. And these two are not isolated cases.
The likelihood of two things increases when you ask someone to keep playing at high levels for extended periods. You break them, or they produce performances that are good but not as good as you might get with a mentally and physically rejuvenated athlete. There is no way anyone can be at their peak from February to late November.
You can see why this situation arises – depth. At the Brumbies, for example, there is a pattern to how they use Moore. The back-up hooker, Siliva Siliva, has a lot of potential – Wallaby potential – but there was an evident wariness about throwing him in at the deep end (and understandably so). At the start of the season it was five minutes here, 10 minutes there, but at the business end Moore was the go-to man. Siliva didn’t get a single minute of finals rugby.
At the Waratahs, they need to win games. They are fighting for relevancy in the Sydney market. People want to see Hooper play, especially when having an openside who can cover the ground like Hooper can is essential to the way they were playing the game.
So how can you solve this problem? It certainly throws up a lot of curly questions, but you can probably boil it down to one hard one: Does Australia want its Super Rugby teams to do well or the Wallabies? Of course, in the ideal world the answer is both, but in that blissful fictional existence the money trees are thriving in the backyard, too.
Even if a functioning “third-tier” competition gets off the ground next year, it will take a year or two before it starts to feed into the Super Rugby system. In the interim, there might be a few interesting discussions between Ewen McKenzie and the Super teams. The Wallabies’ injury problems during the past few years tell their own tale. One bad year is probably unlucky, the next one starts to look like a trend.
With a bit of luck Tatafu Polota-Nau will return this weekend against Ireland to give the Wallabies a one-two punch at No. 2. But when you look at the kilometres on the clock of several Wallabies, they’ll be playing the Irish, Scottish, Welsh and their own weariness over the next three weeks.
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