Retiring captain Nathan Sharpe hailed the Wallabies’ European tour a success and a good springboard into the pivotal 2013 season highlighted by a British and Irish Lions tour.
As so often in 2012, it didn’t come easy as the tour ended with a 3-1 win-loss ledger following a 14-12 win over Wales in Cardiff on Saturday thanks to a try from Kurtley Beale with less than 30 seconds remaining.
Australia’s second-most capped player, 34-year-old Sharpe was voted the Wallabies players’ player, known as the Man of Gold, after his 116th and last Test and there were plenty of moist eyes in the dressing room after his stirring acceptance speech.
“I didn’t want to take my boots off,” said Sharpe later. “I knew once I took them off … that was it.”
Beale’s try not only sent Sharpe out a winner but ensured the Wallabies and coach Robbie Deans finish one of their most turbulent seasons on a positive note.
Sharpe said the character the Wallabies had shown to keep on track amid a crippling injury toll this year – finishing 2012 with nine wins, five losses and one draw – would stand them in good stead.
Sharpe believes the nature of the victory in Cardiff, snatching success when seemingly beaten, was a great omen for 2013.
“It’s a great confidence thing for the team to know that you can close out a close game like that and get the result against the odds,” he said.
“I think that’s really important in building belief around a team and it’s a good way to finish the season and will give the group plenty of confidence going into the Lions’ tour.”
Written off after being thumped 33-6 by France in Paris in the European tour opener, when beaten in all department, they responded with a 20-14 win over England and followed with a nail-biting 22-19 win over Italy when under siege in the second half before making it three-straight against Wales.
“You look at the results. We were well off our game against France. But I thought the character of the group has been outstanding,” Sharpe said.
“It’s been a very hard year in terms of what we’ve been through with injuries and I think the team has stood up really well to that and the tour was a successful one.”
Deans said it had been the most challenging year in his coaching career dealing with so many key injuries to the likes of captains James Horwill, Will Genia, and David Pocock and gun utility James O’Connor while getting through such a heavy Test program.
“You’ve got to find new ways of getting them up … it involved every little piece of creativity you can dredge up. Off the field, on the field, it was an unprecedented challenge,” Deans said.
“Nobody was happy with what happened in Paris but we showed character to bounce back from it.
“They just keep accepting the challenge and that’s a great trait.”
Champion flanker Pocock played his first game since August, returning from injury against Wales with a strong 80 minute performance.
The Wallabies managed only three tries on tour with Beale scoring the only five-pointer against Wales.
It means Australia scored just 15 tries in as many Tests this year.
“We’ve been creating a lot of chances but we haven’t been finishing them off,” Deans said. “We need to keep working hard on that.”
Sharpe answered the call to delay his retirement and lead the team in Europe and Deans praised his efforts the veteran lock’s contribution.
“He’s been great at corralling the group and getting them up week-to-week. He’s been enormous for us,” Deans said.
The Wallabies coach said his team were keenly aware of the huge challenge awaiting them in June and July in the three-Test Lions’ series.
“The blokes have earned some respect and a good break,” Deans said.
“But I’m sure in the back of their minds they know it’s looming and it won’t be just them that’s going to be excited about it. It’s going to be a great series.”
Deans got one up on Lions coach Warren Gatland who also coaches Wales but said the tourists would be a completely different challenge.
“They’ll hatch fresh plans and they’ll throw everything at us, as we will them,” he said.