You couldn’t call it unconditional support, but Wallabies coach Robbie Deans has backed besieged captain Rocky Elsom to silence the doubters against the Springboks on Saturday.
With the Rugby World Cup less than a month away, Elsom is under mounting pressure to return to his barnstorming best after failing to hit his straps in Australia’s opening three Tests of the year.
In a scathing attack, former Wallabies fullback and high-profile commentator Greg Martin this week claimed Elsom should not only be stripped of the captaincy but also make way for dynamic Queensland flanker Scott Higginbotham.
“Rocky Elsom at the moment doesn’t deserve his spot in the team,” Martin said on Fox Sports’ Back Page.
But after naming Higginbotham slightly out of position at No.8 on Thursday, for what will be the 24-year-old’s first Test start, and retaining Elsom as blindside flanker and captain, Deans defended his embattled leader.
He said criticism was “the nature of the industry and he’s not alone in that” and attributed Elsom’s scratchy form to the Wallabies as a whole being below par, particularly in last Saturday’s 30-14 loss to the All Blacks in Auckland.
“He was more industrious last week but I guess as a team we all suffered insofar as we didn’t play as one,” Deans said.
“The key for us is it’s a team game. It always is. It’s the ultimate team game, rugby, and that’s what makes it so rewarding when you do put it all together off the back of a lot of hard work.
“It doesn’t just happen. It takes a lot of preparation, a lot of time and effort from many people who have got varied skills.
“So that’s the piece of growth we’re looking for this week.”
Martin also claimed the apparent taboo subject of the Wallabies discussing Elsom’s lack of form as “the elephant in the room no-one talks about”.
When asked directly on Thursday whether he had ever considered a change of captaincy, Deans indicated the big flanker was in the same category as every other player – a week-to-week proposition.
“Oh mate, let’s just concentrate on this Test match,” Deans said.
After a series of impressive cameos off the bench, Higginbotham demanded his selection.
“He’s earned this start,” Deans said.
“He’s done well with the time that he’s had and he’s got the prospect of a lot more time and we’re looking for a similar enthusiasm and industriousness in that time.
“It’s a different skill starting at the front end, so there’s some realities you’ve got to deal in with that.
“But I’ve got no doubt he’ll be up for it.”
In relegating Ben McCalman to the bench, Higginbotham’s big break comes a year after he experienced the despair of suffering back spasms in the warm-up and having to be scratched from his scheduled debut against the Springboks in Bloemfontein.
“It was a tough thing to go through,” Higginbotham said after joining recalled lock Nathan Sharpe as one of two changes to Australia’s starting line-up.
Sharpe has replaced young Reds second-rower Rob Simmons, who has a shoulder injury.
With Sharpe promoted and Dan Vickerman asked to play a full game of club rugby in Sydney as he continues his comeback, developing second-rower Sitaleki Timani won a spot on the bench.
Deans also included the versatile Radike Samo after opting for five reserve forwards, while prop Salesi Ma’afu replaces Pek Cowan on the bench and winger Lachie Turner drops off.