Finegan: Age not the defining factor in success

The Rugby Championship
by Owen Finegan

I am not going to be an expert in hindsight. Picking a Wallabies team is about getting the best 15 players on the park but three years out from the World Cup, having the balance between winning and planning for the future isn’t easy. 

Whether the balance was right or wrong in the opening Bledisloe Cup match is debatable ,but both ends of the spectrum were outplayed in Sydney.

Age is not the overriding factor when it comes to winning.

Matt Giteau has sacrificed plenty for his country. Photo: Getty ImagesA winning culture is instilled in a high performing organisation by  the coach, captain, leadership group, senior players and extended squad – it is about what each player is willing to sacrifice for the team, not what their date of birth reads.

Every element of last weekend’s team is up for debate, and it’s a far cry from the last major record loss that the All Blacks inflicted on Australia.

I was a part of the Wallabies’ largest ever Bledisloe defeat – a 43-6 loss in Wellington, but one thing that has changed dramatically since then is how social media has bridged the access gap between fan and player, and thus fan opinion and criticism.

For one journalist to suggest that last week’s poor performance is due to the negative influence of senior players that were invited back or that they have been detrimental to the Wallabies’ culture on their return, is quite frankly ignorant and it’s an opinion with which I couldn’t disagree any more.

Matt Giteau proved his worth during the World Cup and post-tournament his leadership and strong form helped him become an influencing factor in Toulon's march to the Top 14 and European Rugby Champions Cup.

How can you single out blame on Giteau's broken ankle after 11 minutes on the performance of the Wallabies any more than Matt Toomua suffering concussion or Rob Horne dislocating his shoulder?

Will Genia deserves praise for his opening Bledisloe performance. Photo: Getty ImagesThat argument is completely disrespectful to a player who has played 103 times for the Wallabies and tried to extend his game time by playing through that immense pain.

I agree that Adam Ashley-Cooper had a quiet game for the Wallabies but when the momentum of the game is  in the All Blacks’ favour even world class wingers Joe Roff or David Campese cannot do anything – in fact they were the ones in the firing line on that night in Wellington in 1996.

Ashley-Cooper has been one of the most consistent players for the Wallabies for over a decade and I am sure this criticism will bring a more self-motivated performance from him.

This weekend in Wellington the Wallabies are back where the worst Wallaby team performance I experience is etched in my memory. Sam Payne and George Gregan were our halfbacks and trying to blame either of them for the poor performance of the Wallabies on that windy and wet day in Wellington against a rampaging All Blacks forward pack is ridiculous. Will Genia's performance in Bledisloe one was admired by his coach and I agree with the positive assessment of his game.

When a journalist comments on the value of senior players to a team culture and their negative effect I would question whether age is a determining factor.

It is the impact of the individual not their age, a fact highlighted after the 2011 Rugby World Cup when some of the young guns of Australian Rugby had a disastrous impact on the Wallabies under Robbie Deans.

Culture within a team must be nurtured and developed to build confidence in the team within the group. Creating a continual learning environment that strives for constant improvement is the value Michael Cheika would see in the current senior players over the younger inexperienced alternative.

The Wallabies need to find themselves accountable. Photo: Getty ImagesCulture is affected by the abilities, ideas, and behaviours people have acquired over time. Work ethic, attitude, standards are reinforced through the way your team train. Culture is your most important tool as a rugby coach.

There is an ability to control the culture, improvement and success of the team by training effectively. No one would understand that more than Giteau, Ashley-Cooper, Mitchell and Genia with decades of experience between them.

The Wallabies’ current record loss to the All Blacks in 1996 was followed up by victory against the reigning World Cup winners, South Africa, in the next game, they were the World Champions at the time.

Although I cannot see the Wallabies fighting back as hard as they did 20 years ago, the senior players will be feeling it the hardest, holding themselves and their fellow players accountable and steering the way.

"On good teams coaches hold players accountable, on great teams players hold players accountable." Joe Dumars, Detroit Pistons

A former Captain of the ACT Brumbies, Owen Finegan played 90 matches for the Brumbies and 56 Tests for the Wallabies. He is currently the CEO of The Kids' Cancer Project Australia.

The opinions expressed in this article are the views of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the ARU.