Rugby
Greg Growden, ESPN Rugby 76d

Wallabies long for world-class No.8 in Tim Gavin mould

Australian rugby has a long wish-list. It includes reviving an ailing local game, uniting a code deeply divided by the culling of the Western Force and making the Wallabies winners again by somehow, somewhere finding dominant back-row forwards of the calibre of Tim Gavin.

So many ills would be cured if Australia were again consistent Test victors. But that won't happen until they boast a back-row as dominant as the All Blacks, based around a No.8 who can provide the attributes of a Kieran Read at the lineout, scrum and in open play.

In the late 1980s-mid 90s, Gavin provided that service for the Wallabies with such aplomb that for several years he was rated the best No.8 in world rugby. Due to his second-row background, Gavin was a lineout dominator. He backed that up by being a formidable scrummager and masterful open play footballer. During his 47 Test appearances, Gavin was an attacking weapon, while Australia, boasting a quality backline, benefited from precise, intelligent back-row play.

In recent years, the Wallabies have struggled to find a similarly angular, powerful and consistent selection at No.8. They've often had to make do with those forced to make the transition from either openside or blindside flanker- such as David Pocock. Sean McMahon, who at 1.86m is 12 centimetres shorter than Gavin, is the current flanker handling the No.8 role- and so far, has acquitted himself pretty well.

But the back-row balance would be improved considerably if a tall, powerful No.8 could be found to bind the scrum between McMahon and openside Michael Hooper.

Closely observing it all is Gavin. One of Australian rugby's most cherished players remains within the fold. Now running a 4,700-ha wheat/cotton/sorghum property near Gunnedah, he often makes the five-hour drive to the 'big smoke' in his role as Australian Rugby Union senior vice-president, after several years as the NSW Rugby Union's president, to attend matches, functions, anything that is involved in being a code ambassador.

He is not as glum as some about the state of the Wallabies. Gavin is another who would love a Kieran Read clone to suddenly appear in the green and gold, but believes Australian rugby is pretty good at adapting.

Concerning the dearth of No.8s in Australia, Gavin said: "We just haven't had the players who can cover all the attributes, including the lineout. At least we have some good ball runners. There are lots of aspects of the game where we are developing, but we are not using as much, such as the driving mauls, which we used to use quite a bit in the middle of the field to try to suck in the defence," Gavin told ESPN.

"There are signs of the platform getting better, particularly with the Australian scrum starting to improve. And it is from the scrum that a lot of the No.8 play can come from. Once we've got that sorted out, we can expand a bit more. You can have all sort of things and ideas in mind, but if the set-piece is not working properly, then it won't work.

"The mindset seems to be there. Everyone is talking the right way, and once we get that core team leadership through the middle of the side, rather than just having one or two leaders, then you will get to the top of your game."

Gavin is particularly impressed with how McMahon has made the transition to No.8.

"He is an exceptional player. He's tough and that's what you want. He always wants to go forward and he takes blokes with him. I really enjoy watching him playing. It would be great if he was a few inches taller, so he would be a lineout option, but there is a blindside flanker (Ned Hanigan) who is jumping pretty well. You can balance it off that way, but it is always good to have a fourth lineout option."

Gavin also believes Kurtley Beale's return has revitalised the Wallabies.

"I'm glad Kurtley's back. He is the dynamic that the team has missed the past 12 months. He brings (Bernard) Foley along with him, and obviously Israel (Folau) feels a lot more confident when Kurtley is around. If that backline can get the ball going forward, there's no doubt they can be dangerous. All these games are won up front, and if our blokes can start matching it with the All Blacks in the forward pack, we'll be half-a-chance. Still the All Blacks are some benchmark."

The Wallabies, who have won only nine Tests of 22 since the 2015 World Cup, have become accustomed to despair. Still if they ever want to really discuss serious rugby disappointments, Gavin is the first person they should consult.

He was probably the unluckiest post war Wallaby of all. In the lead-up to the 1991 World Cup, Gavin was at the peak of his career, completely out-pointing his opposite England's Dean Richards in the July Test that year in Sydney, and then excelling a few weeks later against Zinzan Brooke during the Wallabies 21-12 win over the All Blacks, also in Sydney.

He was in the 'first picked' category for the World Cup, until damaging his knee in a Sydney club game, which forced him out of the tournament. When told the news that Gavin required major surgery, Bob Dwyer described it as one of the saddest moments he experienced as Australia coach. Like many, Dwyer realised that Gavin was one of Australia's most important rugby assets, while his calm, casual demeanour made him a close friend of all within the Wallaby fraternity.

Gavin was at least there at Twickenham as a spectator when the Wallabies won the Cup for the first time. He did return to play 30 more Tests for Australia, and was the NSW Waratahs' first Super Rugby captain before retiring at the end of 1996.

He remains philosophical about 1991.

"I got over it. It was certainly disappointing to miss out," he told ESPN. "But just before that World Cup, I met Mandy, who is now my wife. My original plan was to go overseas that year. If I had gone to the World Cup, what occurred in my life might never have happened. Mandy and I started going out then, and during that period we became close. Mandy was also a great help when I was getting back into rehab. Three children later, I'm very happy."

Just a few days ago he and Mandy celebrated their 21st wedding anniversary. Now all he is hoping for is 'six inches of rain' so he can start planting cotton.

As with Australian No.8s, the drought in the NSW rural areas needs to end soon.

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