James Horwill has countered New Zealand claims the Wallabies had gone backwards since the World Cup, and praised his teammates' ''guts and fortitude'' following their win in Argentina at the weekend.
The injured Australian captain said comments by former All Blacks captain Taine Randell about an ''unprecedented'' drop in standards by the Wallabies this year ignored the fact they finished second in the Rugby Championship, under major injury pressures.
''We are still ranked No 2 in the world and we finished second in the Rugby Championship, so technically we haven't gone backwards and at the start of the year Robbie [Deans] and the coaching staff didn't think they would have to use as many players as we have, so I certainly don't think we've gone backwards,'' Horwill said.
Randell, a loose forward who notched more than 50 caps for the All Blacks, penned a stinging opinion piece targeting Australia's performance this year and their lack of ''confidence, courage and loyalty''.
''It's not acceptable to shrug that off as just a bad season complicated by injuries and coming against the best teams in the world,'' he wrote. ''Their drop in standards has been unprecedented in recent times.''
Randell said Australia did not have enough good players and should drop a province from the conference, adding: ''This isn't a development competition; it's meant to be the global pinnacle of provincial rugby''.
Horwill conceded depth was a problem in Australia but said a fifth team was crucial in the absence of a third-tier competition.
''I wouldn't have got my chance so early if it hadn't been for the Force taking two of Queensland's starting second-rowers, Nathan Sharpe and Rudi Vedelago,'' he said.
''Dave Pocock is another example; he saw the opportunity to go to Perth from Queensland and he wouldn't have had that opportunity had the Force not existed. These guys would have got their opportunities eventually but not so early.''
Horwill praised the Wallabies for their six-point win over the Pumas in Argentina and said they needed to add precision to determination if they are to beat the All Blacks in Brisbane on October 20.
''Everyone was writing them off beforehand, saying they weren't up to it, not giving them a chance, and the boys won't say it was perfect but sometimes you have to find a way and they did,'' he said.
''Now we need to be more clinical against the All Blacks; we can't gift them opportunities to score when they just continue to attack your line ... They'll stick at it and stick at it - that's what you saw against the Springboks - and when they did get one they made the most of it. That's what makes them such good team.''
Randell took aim at the ARU, saying chief executive John O'Neill's ''expand at all costs'' approach had weakened the code.
Rebels head coach Damien Hill defended the record of Australia's youngest franchise, saying the ARU was trying to build a bigger base of talent on which to draw.
''[Replacement halfback] Nick Phipps has done a tremendous job for the Wallabies and [winger] Cooper Vuna also got a start out of here, while [second-rower] Cadeyrn Neville is knocking on the door as well,'' Hill said.
''That's the job of every team in Australia, to produce Wallabies. Having five franchises with that focus in mind has got to be better for the national cause. The short-term view is that there are going to be hiccups along the way but the long-term view is that it will be the best thing for Australian rugby.''
- Sydney Morning Herald
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