Alan Jones called it the Gucci principle: “Long after you’ve forgotten the cost, you remember the quality”. And 30 years on from when his 1984 Wallabies were laying waste to British rugby, the quality of that team remains a vivid memory.
Theirs was among the last of the old-style tours – not quite the 30-odd match marathons of earlier years, but still with 15 other matches alongside the four internationals, ensuring that the tourists were seen outside the major centres.
Not a huge amount was expected of them. Australia still had a losing record against all of the home nations, except England. It was known that they had run the All Blacks close in that year’s Bledisloe series and some particularly assiduous British observers remembered the brilliance of a schools team which had visited in 1978 and wondered when their style would seep through at top level.
But this was still a world in which southern hemisphere teams might arrive as comparative unknowns. This one kicked off against London Counties at Twickenham on a midweek October afternoon. There was a decent crowd, but still a lot of space in the creaking old stands and terraces.
- Australia’s Test record on their 1984 tour:
- Played: 4
- Won: 4
- Points scored: 100
- Points conceded: 33
- Tries scored: 12
- Tries conceded: 1
- For more on Australia’s successful tour of 1984, visit Statsguru
They won 22-3, with newcomer Nick Farr-Jones making a decent impression at scrum-half and London wing Simon Smith noticing the frequency with which he was confronted by two or three Wallabies, even though none of the men inside him had done anything wrong.
It was the first warning of the quality veteran Daily Telegraph writer John Mason would note at the end of the tour: “The speed of the correctly-timed pass will beat the man every time and support will create space every time.”
And it was impossible not to notice coach Jones, by some margin the most quotable figure yet seen in a rugby press conference. He was not to all tastes – predecessor Bob Dwyer complained that he had been deposed amid “squalid intrigue” by a man who knew plenty about hardball politics from his time as a speechwriter for prime minister Malcolm Fraser. But by turns witty, incisive and bombastic, he was never dull.
But whether his team would be more succesful than any of its predecessors – the 1981 team had won only one international out of four, in spite of scoring more tries than their opponent in each match – was in doubt after the London victory was followed by a 12-12 draw with South and South West and a 16-12 loss at Cardiff.
That was the first of four defeats in non-international matches – they would also lose to Llanelli, Ulster and South of Scotland. Like most of its predecessors, this Wallaby squad lacked depth.
But the first XV was a different matter, with strength at every point. Their scrummaging had been greatly strengthened by the recruitment of Puma prop Topo Rodriguez, who still felt Argentinian enough to be an extremely reluctant participant in the team’s audience with the Queen at Buckingham Palace, only two and half years on from the Falklands War.
Tom Lawton, whose grandfather had been one of the Australian giants of the 1920s, proved two decades before Steve Thompson that it was possible to weigh 260lb and still have the all-round skills needed by a top-class hooker. Steve Cutler dominated the line-out and Simon Poidevin brought real quality to the back row.
That pack provided an immensely solid platform for a back division incorporating the rookie Farr-Jones, rising midfielder Michael Lynagh in a centre partnership with understated but authoritative captain Andrew Slack, wing David Campese and Roger Gould, a truly world-class full-back.
Yet even this assemblage of talent was outshone by outside-half Mark Ella, a member of the 1978 Schools team. One of 12 children in an Aboriginal family from the tough Sydney suburb of La Perouse, he struck the perceptive Dwyer as completely subverting the stereotype of native players as brilliant but unsophisticated. Even at 19, Dwyer recalled, “He spoke with precision about how he played the position…this was a skilled operator talking, not some free-spirited person.”
Australian journalist Evan Whitton credited him with “the timing of Bon Hope, the subtlety of [mime artist] Jean-Louis Barrault and a feeling for angles unrivalled for Euclid”. Standing closer to opponents than most outside-halves, he sucked in defenders while leaving them wondering which of his supporting runners would get the ball, then ran superb supporting angles himself.
|There was barely a moment in the whole Test series when the Wallabies were in trouble|
They kicked off at Twickenham against an England team whose five new caps included two long-awaited debuts – the half-back pairing of Bath outside-half Stuart Barnes, delayed by his brave and principled decision not to tour apartheid-era South Africa the summer before, and Wasp Nigel Melville, victim of a series of injuries. Melville was made captain as well.
England did not play badly, but the only one of them to seriously inconvenience the tourists was debutant prop Gareth Chilcott who poleaxed Farr-Jones with a blow to the jaw and was fortunate not to be sent off. Lynagh had an off day with the boot, but the Wallabies still won 19-3 with tries from Ella – exchanging passes with Lynagh, drifting across field and allowing England to be distracted by his support runners before slicing through a tiny gap to score.
Typically of English rugby at this time, none of the five debutants featured in their next match, against Romania in January.
That performance created the template for the tour. Australia’s forwards would exert control, Ella would score and the Wallabies would win with something to spare. As Rothman’s Rugby Yearbook would note: “There was barely a moment in the whole Test series when the Wallabies were in trouble.”
Ireland, who gave debuts to four future captains – Brendan Mullin, Phil Matthews, Willie Anderson and Michael Bradley – came closest, leading well into the final quarter before the Wallabies took control to win 16-9 with Ella adding two drop goals to his try.
The victory over Wales is remembered as the only international appearance by Pontypool scrum-half David Bishop, the Randall McMurphy of Welsh rugby. Bishop both showed why he was regarded by so many as a potentially great player with a superb solo try, the only time the tourists’ line was crossed in four tests, and Wales generally chose to do without him as he failed to provide a decent service to his backs, instead running regularly into the waiting arms of the Australian back-row.
Australia won 28-9, a victory which for them was highlighted by a pushover score, with the Wales scrum splintering under pressure and flanker Alun Davies, like Bishop playing his only test, detaching himself as the Wallabies rumbled unstoppably towards the line.
The last Test was expected to be the toughest, against a Scottish team who earlier in the year had won their first Grand Slam in 59 years and fielded a debutant flanker named John Jeffrey. Instead it was a four-try, 37-12 hammering with Farr-Jones claiming his first Test score, Campese crossing twice and Ella completing a personal Grand Slam as memorable as his team’s.
Among their predecessors only the 1947-8 Wallabies had won even three internationals. And nobody from any country had achieved Ella’s feat.
Rothman’s cautioned against automatically regarding the tourists as a great team, arguing that none of the home nations was in a great state. And when Ella quit top-class rugby the following March, saying “I want to get out when I’m young enough to work on other things” and citing a cool relationship with Jones, it seemed possible Australian success might be short-lived.
With 30 years of hindsight, the achievement of the 1984 team can be seen as a vital rite of passage in the rise of Australian rugby from also-ran to world power. Australia since then have had a winning record against every opponent other than New Zealand. The Bledisloe Cup was recaptured after a 39-year wait in 1986, and four of the 1984 team – Farr-Jones (by now captain), Lynagh, Campese and Poidevin – were at the heart of the 1991 World Cup victory.
Thanks to George Orwell, 1984 will always convey a sense of foreboding for most of us. Australian rugby fans are among the happy minority for whom it has other, much more cheerful, associations.