These tours are used as central planks to develop winning sides but, this year, the Wallabies arrive for post-operative therapy after a tepid showing in New Zealand. In other years, Australia would likely face England at Twickenham, with bragging rights at stake, and the Irish in their Dublin fortress. In 2011, though, Australia have a truncated assignment, playing just two Tests, against the Barbarians on Saturday and then Wales in Cardiff next weekend.
But Wallabies skipper James Horwill insists his side’s determination will be undiminished by the fact rugby’s main event has come and gone and that he and his teammates find themselves at the beginning of a new cycle.
“I don’t think the motivation has flagged – it’s been a big year with the World Cup but we’re already looking forward,” Horwill says. “This is a bit of a different tour, with only two matches but it means we’ll put all our efforts into those two weeks and hopefully come away with two wins.”
Often, major refurbishments follow a World Cup, with hard calls sometimes made on older players who won’t last another four years. But, if there is a silver lining in the Wallabies’ mixed results at the World Cup, it is that they have a young side and will lose few players. In the 26-man squad named for the two-match tour, only Nathan Sharpe, Radike Samo and Matt Hodgson are in their 30s. It means the Wallabies need not break stride and can instead focus on the new goal of dislodging New Zealand as the world’s top team.
“That’s what we’d like to happen, but four years is a long time in rugby,” Horwill says. “The good news is that we’ve got a really young side, so we’ve got more time to build together. We’re just worrying about this tour and then next year, when our aim is to get to the top of the world rankings, to become the number one side.”
On recent evidence, it will require more than a little tinkering at the margins for Australia to leapfrog the mighty All Blacks. Horwill, to his credit, admits Australia under-performed in the World Cup but insists the side’s foundations are strong enough to justify optimism.
“We didn’t do what we wanted to do. We went over there to win it and we fell short,” he says. “We did some good things but we also did some not-so-good things – it wasn’t up to standard. Our consistency needs to be better but there were parts of the tournament when we played some good rugby, so we don’t feel like we’re too far away.
“There are always areas to improve – the breakdown, particularly, is a big part of rugby these days. It’s become so crucial and that’s one area where our inconsistency hurt us. When we did well, we had quick ball and looked good but, like any team, if you’re getting beaten at the breakdown, it makes it hard.”
Sadly, flyhalf Quade Cooper became a symbol of Australia’s campaign – brimming with promise and natural ability but, after misplacing their best rugby, struck down when it mattered most. On Cooper, Horwill’s pragmatic approach, and his unwillingness to dwell on past disappointments, is again impressive.
“Quade will bounce back – I’ve seen him at the Reds and everything is going well there,” Horwill says. “Quade was maybe treated a little unfairly by the public, but we have no control over that. People forget how good he is – he’s one of the most talented footballers I’ve ever played with.”
And so the Wallabies, intent on improvement, turn to the Barbarians, which can be an awkward fixture for touring sides. The Barbarians’ remit is to play a rapid, exciting brand of rugby – is it incumbent upon their opponents to follow suit or go for the win at all costs?
“When you play the Barbarians, it’s very exciting – there’s the history behind it and they play an attractive style of rugby, very free-flowing, and they’ll come in with an attacking mindset, which normally makes for a good spectacle,” Horwill says. “They’ll have a good side, probably with a bit of an All Black tinge to it.
“And the Welsh, the way they played at the World Cup, were probably the most entertaining and attractive side, and probably felt a little bit hard done by with the way it ended. So it’s a big game for us.”
Early in his career, Horwill earned a reputation as one of Australia’s fieriest players. But taking on the captaincy, replacing Rocky Elsom before the World Cup, has mellowed him – now, rather than being sin-binned, Horwill is the man responsible for sweet-talking the referees. It has been quite a turnaround for the towering lock.
“I guess that comes with maturity as well – I came in as a young player and did a few silly things on the field. But I saw that I needed to consciously work on that,” he says. “Referees who can have a huge impact on the game so you need to be able to manage them, and you learn that.”
It is a new beginning for Horwill, and for the Wallabies. One cycle ends and another begins. Maybe, in four years’ time, Horwill will be toasted as skipper of a World Cup-winning Australian side. It will be a long road but the first steps will be taken this weekend at Twickenham.