Back rows will be key in World Cup final, says ex-Wallabies captain Rocky Elsom

Saturday, 31 October 2015 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


Australia Rugby World Cup 2015 Wallabies Squad​ Rugby New Zealand v EnglandRichie McCaw leads the All Blacks' haka - Reuters

Four years ago David Pocock played a key role in the Wallabies’ ultimately unsuccessful World Cup campaign in New Zealand. When he was injured for the pool game against Ireland, Australia were famously upset in Auckland. When he returned for the quarter-final against South Africa, it was his pilfering at the breakdown and 26 tackles that helped the under-siege Wallabies edge past the Springboks. They then faced the All Blacks in a semi-final at Eden Park, but he could not stop New Zealand prevailing. Packing down alongside Pocock in the back-row that day was Rocky Elsom.

The 2011 World Cup was Elsom’s swansong in international rugby, after 75 appearances he never played for Australia again. But the forward has been impressed by the rise of his old team at this tournament and the resurgence of his former flank partner, Pocock. The Zimbawe-born Pocock’s star has risen at this World Cup as the Wallabies have shone on the way to the final.

The No8 has claimed 14 turnovers in four games, five more than Fiji’s Leone Nakarawa, two tries and is ranked fourth highest in the Australian team for tackles made. Some pundits have anointed him as the heir to All Black Richie McCaw’s mantle as the best flanker in the world. Elsom would go even further. “David Pocock, he’s the best player in the competition. If there’s one player you want to avoid being around it’s likely to be him.”

In his new position at the back of the scrum, Pocock has formed a lethal combination with Scott Fardy at blindside and Michael Hooper at openside. The understanding between the three forwards, not to mention the work-rate at rucks and in defence, has been a thing of beauty. Between the three of them, the Wallaby trio has amassed a total of three tries, four offloads, 148 tackles, 21 turnovers and 87 carries. In comparison the Kiwi triumvirate of Kieran Read, Jerome Kaino and McCaw have recorded four tries, four offloads, 136 tackles, 18 turnovers and 122 carries. Nearly identical numbers from both brilliant back-rows.

Elsom, who won a host of honours for club and country, has been impressed with the contributions of both the bearded bushranger Fardy and the skateboarding-surfer Hooper as well. “With Scott Fardy, as the tournament goes on he’s been more and more effective,” Elsom says. “He was excellent again on the weekend. And Michael Hooper just keeps on going. He’s probably had the most rugby of anyone in the tournament and having those three are a huge asset. And you may not have said that a one year or two ago, that having those three would be a huge part of winning a World Cup, but it is.”

However, it is Pocock’s fearless breakdown play, his disregard for personal safety at ruck that has delighted Elsom the most: “There’s a big difference between guys who get the hands on the ball very time at the breakdown and those who get their hands on the ball when it’s a bit easier. He’s the bloke that gets his hands on the ball every time he can. If you do that you’re going to get hit really hard, there’s guys running in to obviously clear him out, but he just keeps doing it. As long as he does that, Cheik [Michael Cheika] and Australia can go much, much higher.”

In modern rugby the contest at the breakdown is just as important, if not more, than any other facet of the game. Those in the northern hemisphere are only just coming to realise this. Winning the ball means a fast and smooth attack, allowing you to build pressure with the ball in hand, while it also stops the opposition from getting a roll on and allows your defence time to set. Time and time again Pocock and his back-row buddies have either stolen possession or slowed it down for the other team, helping the Wallabies go undefeated at this World Cup and have the best defence in the tournament, with their 35 points conceded equal with Ireland’s return.

Elsom also has own insight, his own shared history with Australia’s coach Michael Cheika. It was under Cheika in Ireland that Elsom played some of his best rugby, winning the Heineken Cup and being voted European Player of the Year in 2009. That season he won a string of man of the match awards in both Europe and the Magners League, quickly becoming a fan favourite at Leinster.

Cheika’s impact on the Wallabies – from rebuilding the scrum, repairing the team culture, improving the style of player and securing on-field results in just a year – has been nothing short of amazing. “One thing about Michael is he’s an excellent motivator of players,” the 32-year old reveals. “You can’t really realise how important that is until you experience it. But, also, one thing about being able to do that is it can happen very quickly, which it has. Nobody’s perfect but he certainly seems to be doing a very good job.”

Pocock is one of 10 survivors from that Australian team of 2011 that was knocked out at Eden Park by New Zealand. Meeting them at Twickenham will be 10 All Black players, McCaw, Read and Kaino included, who emerged victorious on that October evening. Elsom will be watching from the sidelines this round but predicts a worthy contest for the final.

“The two best teams in the tournament are in the final, and that’s the first time for a while,” he says. “The real test for the boys is this weekend, they’re a far better team than anyone else in the comp. The guys in that [Australian] team, with the exception of maybe South Africa, they are a far better team than everyone that was in their group.” (