THREE days before Australian rugby officials announce their squad to face the British and Irish Lions in a three-Test series, they are facing questions over who leaked a supposedly confidential memo outlining which players should be included.
There were a few surprises and, according to reports, most Super Rugby coaches in Australia didn’t think stand-off Quade Cooper would make the grade when they were surveyed a month ago. Another coach declined to answer the selection questionnaire from national head coach Robbie Deans.
Only Deans knew the results and kept the details close to his chest but it is all now public information after an email which Deans sent to the five provincial coaches with a squad based on the collated responses was leaked and published in The Australian newspaper.
The story, only a few days before the 25-man squad is announced on Sunday, has caused anger among the coaches, mystified the fans and led to speculation by the national daily newspaper that it was a deliberate leak to soften the fallout for selectors if Cooper and blockbusting New South Wales full-back Israel Folau missed initial selection. The Australian Rugby Union has denied the information was leaked from the administrative end.
Both Cooper and Folau, in his first year in professional rugby union, have been in outstanding form in the last few weeks for the Reds and Waratahs respectively, putting themselves in the frame for selection.
The leaked email row has certainly added intrigue to the selection for what is a once-in-a-career series for the Australians – the Lions visit only every 12 years – with Cooper on the brink of missing out since he was fined for speaking out about a “toxic environment” in the Wallabies set-up last year and a below- par performance at the 2011 World Cup.
Western Force coach Michael Foley thinks the leak could be an unwelcome distraction for players ahead of the Lions series.
Foley, who played for the Wallabies against the Lions on their last tour to Australia in 2001, was among the four Super Rugby coaches who did put forward their suggestions for the national squad to Deans. Waratahs coach Michael Cheika was the only one who declined, according to reports.
“I feel more for the players that have to read that sort of thing in the media and then try to second guess things when all they should be thinking about right now is how they’re going to play,” Foley said in Perth yesterday. “I’ve been on the other side of the fence as a player aspiring to try to make a Lions series, which is a once in a lifetime chance.
“I think this sort of media speculation on the eve of the squad being announced could be a potential distraction.”
Foley has coached in Europe and at New South Wales before moving to the Force this season. He said he wouldn’t be deterred from giving the Wallabies coach his input in future.
“I think the dialogue between the national head coach and the head coaches of the states should be open,” Foley said. “That dialogue is extremely important and wouldn’t make me reluctant in the future.
“We just move on. I don’t know if a witchhunt helps anybody, but I would like to know where [the leak] came from.”
Other Australian teams have been distracted by internal correspondence getting into the public domain. Former Australia cricket coach John Buchanan created a stir when he accidentally slipped plans targeting the New Zealand team under the wrong door at the team hotel in 2000. The cricket team was embarrassed again a dozen years later when a secret dossier compiled ahead of the South Africa series was published in newspapers. The Australians joked about the merits of the report, but lost the three-Test series 1-0.
The leak in rugby hasn’t been a laughing matter for coaches or players. The national news agency published a story yesterday leading with the question: Who leaked the email?
Without identifying them, it quoted coaches as saying the leak was “poor form” and “to read it in the paper verbatim is frustrating”.
Another of the coaches told The Australian that he’d question in future whether he should co-operate, adding: “We followed the process in good faith. Would you do it again? I’m not sure.”