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Greg Growden

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After more than 30 years with The Sydney Morning Herald and Fairfax Media in Australia, Greg Growden now writes exclusively online for ESPNscrum. Never afraid to step on toes, you can expect plenty of compelling insight from one of Australia's most renowned rugby writers.

The Growden Report
Scott Higginbotham can inspire mongrel
Greg Growden
September 1, 2014
Greg Growden is an unabashed fan of Scott Higginbotham © Getty Images

Few understood rugby better than Fred Allen.

This New Zealand icon was respected as the "immaculate player", became the All Blacks' most successful coach, and was known worldwide as 'The Needle' for his ability to inspire, provoke his players. Shortly before his death two years ago, he witnessed another All Blacks shellacking of the Wallabies at Eden Park. After the Test wipeout, Allen sidled up to then Australian Rugby Union chief executive John O'Neill and said: "What your team needs is at least three Brad Thorns."

O'Neill groaned. Three Brad Thorns? The Wallabies didn't have one who even came close to faintly resembling that extraordinary All Blacks forward.

O'Neill, then working in tandem with Robbie Deans, knew exactly what Allen meant. The Wallabies desperately required forwards who boasted an exceptional skill set, could win lineouts, dominate breakdowns, be a steel rod at scrum-time, and most importantly had presence: magic and might matched with menace; basically Supermen who always stood their ground.

Deans knew it as well. He had been involved with Brad Thorn at the Crusaders and knew what a difference the forward had made when converting successfully from rugby league to union, back again, and back again once more to justify claims to be rugby's greatest code hopper.

A few years later, nothing much has changed. Labelled by the New Zealand press as "powder puffs", the Wallabies were laughed out of Auckland last weekend after the pack had been exposed as inadequate and limp.

New Zealand dominated Australia up front in Auckland to lay a platform © Getty Images

The Wallabies had headed across the Tasman with chests out. They had been bluffed by a few good scrums in Sydney and convinced themselves they were actually something. They took too much out of the ANZ Stadium draw, which should have been a victory except for brain-dead decisions. Some within the Australian team thought they had advanced more than they actually had; lacking any real threat in their pack, they were exposed at Eden Park.

The indecision in the Wallabies' backline and uncertainty over who should be at Nos.9, 10 and 12 is a serious concern. But the crux of the Australian rugby problem remains up front, and it will not change until the Wallabies can find forwards who are downright mean.

Look at the Waratahs this season as a prime example of how a team can be transformed through the injection of bullying forwards. The recruitment of Jacques Potgieter, a Brad Thorn-like character, from South Africa worked brilliantly for the Waratahs, as his aggression, extraordinary work-rate, and ignorance of personal safety transformed the pack into a frightening beast. His charges into the breakdown, at the opposition defensive line, and at anything that veered into his way ensured so much front-foot ball for their attack; the Waratahs' backline blossomed because of what happened up front.

Potgieter's work with Will Skelton, an enormous forward with enormous potential, was exceptional; if only Potgieter had an Australian grandmother and hadn't played three Tests for South Africa.

Australia flanker Greg Cornelsen takes on the Oxford University defence, Oxford University v Australia, Iffley Road, October 29, 1975
Greg Cornelsen? Yes, please © Getty Images

Australia have always performed when they had a mixture of "beauty and the beast" in the pack.

Not surprisingly the Bledisloe Cup made a rare public appearance at the Sydney Cricket Ground in 1979, when the Wallabies boasted the likes of Mark Loane, Greg Cornelsen and Tony Shaw to overhaul the All Blacks.

Simon Poidevin, Steve Williams, Tom Lawton, Andy McIntyre, Steve Tuynman, Topo Rodriguez, David Codey, Chris Roche and Steve Cutler provided a shield that made Grand Slam success so much easier five years later.

David Campese then got the kudos in the 1991 Rugby World Cup triumph, but the work upfront from John Eales, Poidevin, Willie Ofahengaue, Troy Coker, Jeff Miller, Rod McCall, Ewen McKenzie, Tony Daly and Phil Kearns was every bit as important. The repeat World Cup victory in 1999 heavily involved Eales, David Giffin, Toutai Kefu, Michael Foley, David Wilson, Andrew Blades, Matt Cockbain, Richard Harry, with Owen Finegan and Jeremy Paul waiting on the bench.

Many of those names in their prime would be handy right now, because similar forward resolve is required. The Springboks have shown during the Rugby Championship that they are an excellent mauling team, while Argentina are the scrummaging masters. Each could easily bulldoze the Wallabies.

Tough forwards are necessary, and as we wait for a Brad Thorn to appear from somewhere a reasonable start would involve giving Scott Higginbotham a go at No.8. At least he is willing to stand his ground, and he won't disappear when the Springboks and Pumas come a hunting. And Skelton needs to be persevered with.

As the late Wallabies coach Bob Templeton, whom McKenzie in his playing days knew so well, would often say: 'This is the time when… WE WANT MEN NOT BOYS!"

Brad Thorn illustrates what's missing in Australia's pack © Getty Images
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd

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