Wallaby watch: James Horwill

With the Lions tour to Australia now just over 16 months away, we're taking a look at the Wallaby heroes we expect to play a major role against Britain and Ireland's elite. [more]

Wallaby watch: James Horwill

With the Lions tour to Australia now just over 16 months away, we’re taking a look at the Wallaby heroes we expect to play a major role against Britain and Ireland’s elite.

Over the next year and a bit we’ll give you the lowdown on the star names who pose the biggest threat to the Lions’ hopes of a first series victory in 16 years.

Some of the players we highlight will already be household names but others will be bolts from the blue, youngsters yet to appear on the big stage or experienced club campaigners peaking at just the right time to achieve the ultimate goal.

We’ll assess the veteran internationals who believe themselves worthy of a recall, as well as the foreign-based stars who may return home just in time to stake a claim for a second shot at Test glory.

So far we’ve run the rule over current Wallaby No15 Kurtley Beale, first-choice hooker Stephen Moore and young pretender Luke Jones and we’re now taking a look at skipper James Horwill’s chances of facing the Lions.

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Although nothing in sport is a certainty, it would be a sensational shock if Horwill wasn’t involved when the Lions come calling in 2013.

Wallaby head coach Robbie Deans clearly has great faith in the 26-year-old having promoted him to captain prior to the Tri Nations decider against New Zealand in August of last year. Australia were then on the verge of a first tournament success in a decade but Deans dumped incumbent skipper Rocky Elsom after deciding Horwill was the man to guide his team to glory.

Horwill did just that in Brisbane five months ago but the success story soured when Ireland upset the apple cart with a shock victory in the pool stages of the World Cup in mid-September. The end result of that surprise reverse was a semi-final exit at the hands of the All Blacks but there were few calls for Horwill’s head and Deans was never going to make his main man a scapegoat.

Australia and Horwill responded from that disappointment in style with three wins in their last three games of their season, including two victories over in-form Wales in Auckland and Cardiff, as both enhanced their reputation at the close of the year. And unless he suffers a severe dip in form or a long-term injury, Horwill will be the man wearing the captain’s armband when Australia begin the 2012 international season with a home Test against Scotland on June 5.

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Wallaby boss Robbie Deans has the utmost faith in James Horwill

Deans rates his right-hand man highly – as does the majority of the Australian rugby public – but Horwill is far from the most experienced member of the Wallaby set up. He made his Test debut against Fiji in Perth in 2007 but has since seen his international career twice affected by serious injury. Horwill missed a large part of the 2008 Test calendar with a foot problem and was then forced to sit out the entire 2010 campaign with knee damage.

As well as limiting his number of Test caps, those setbacks have meant Horwill is far less well-known – and far less appreciated – in the northern hemisphere than he otherwise might have been. But while his promotion to captain of his country may have come as some what of a shock in terms of its timimg, his value to the Wallabies should not be underestimated.

Prior to being rested for the defeat to Samoa last summer, Horwill had started every match for which he had been available since 2008. He was the only member of the Wallaby squad to begin all 14 internationals in 2009 and was promoted straight back into the starting XV when he recovered from the second of those serious injuries.

He enjoys a similarly exalted status in Super Rugby, having played in 39 straight games for the Reds before his foot issues four years ago. He has since been a pivotal figure in the Reds’ recent success, marking his return from his knee problem with a title-winning campaign in 2011.

Horwill was at the helm as the Queenslanders secured a first Super Rugby crown since 1995, providing a steely focus to the Reds’ surge to the top of the regular-season table, an abrasive nature in the loose and a calmness and composure under pressure that ensured Ewen McKenzie’s men saw off perennial champions the Crusaders in July’s final.

So just what is it that makes Horwill such a vital figure for club and country? Well, first up there’s his sheer physical presence. The Wallabies may be known as thinkers rather than fighters but Horwill is their sternest enforcer. He may not be in the same mold as a Martin Johnson or a Bakkies Botha but he’s no pushover. And while a knock on the dressing room door is unlikely to strike fear into the most brutal of opponents, you can guarantee that Horwill will never take a backward step. Never. In short, he is the Wallabies’ hard man, a defiant defender of his realm and a player who isn’t afraid to go toe-to-toe with anyone in world rugby.

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Horwill is a true Wallaby hard man who leads by example

Then there’s his leadership qualities. Ask any of his Reds or Wallabies team-mates and they’ll all say the same thing – Horwill is the kind of guy you just love playing for. He inspires a ‘we’re all in this together’ and ‘we can achieve whatever we want to achieve’ attitude with his no nonsense ‘I’ll lead and you follow’ style of captaincy. He’s well spoken and intelligent yet he leads by example and his actions still speak louder than his words. He does exactly what he says he’ll do and that encourages others to do the same.

He’s one hell of a ball carrier and nearly always gets his team over the gain line. He makes the hard yards on a regular basis and is always looking to get involved in the loose without seeking glory out wide. He hits rucks, is a powerful force in the driving maul and does all the dirty work that a team needs to succeed. The likes of Quade Cooper, Kurtley Beale and James O’Connor may grab the headlines but it’s Horwill who sets the platform for them to shine.

On the field he’s a hard man but off it he’s a hard man to dislike. Comfortable with the media and bright enough to get his points across without being ruffled by reporters, Horwill will be a great promoter for the Lions tour. He’ll give the journos the amount of copy they require; will show respect to Britain and Ireland’s elite; and he’ll remind the Australian public of their role in backing their boys.

He does have one standout weakness, however, and it comes in the shape of the lineout. There’s no suggestion that he’s a liability in this area – you couldn’t be a world-class second row without grasping the setpiece – it’s just that he’s not the dominant force he could be. Instead of taking a lead here, he appears more comfortable playing second fiddle to the likes of Nathan Sharpe in this area. When veteran Sharpe pulls on a Wallaby jersey alongside his skipper, the Wallaby lineout tends to be solid enough. When he doesn’t, it has a tendency to struggle. Horwill seems to thrive when his second-row partner takes control, but with Sharpe now nearly 34 and Dan Vickerman 32, it looks like Horwill will need to develop an extra edge before the Lions arrive the season after this.

Fast facts

Name: James Horwill
Date of birth: 29/05/1985
Position: Second row
Club: Reds
Height: 6ft 7in
Weight: 18 stone 2lbs
Test debut: Versus Fiji in Perth, June 2007
Test caps: 35 (as of 02/02/2012)

Strengths and weaknesses

Strengths: physicality, hard graft and a determination to get over the gain line, all coupled with an innate ability to inspire.

Weaknesses: a lack of command at the lineout and unfortunate attraction to long-term injury.

Chances of being involved against the Lions: an odds-on-favourite for a starting spot unless fate cruelly intervenes. Unlikely to be pushed out by anyone other than bad luck.

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Horwill should get up, close and personal with the Lions in 2013

Rivals for the Wallaby shirt

In truth, Horwill is his own biggest rival. Underperform and he may miss out but it really is unlikely.

Sharpe has been an outstanding servant to Australian Rugby for a century of Tests but he will do well to remain in contention for another 16 months; Vickerman is another stalwart heading towards the wrong end of his career and none of the young pretenders are anywhere near Horwill’s stature just yet.

Rob Simmons could be a big figure in 2013, but it’s likely that he’ll support rather than upstage his skipper on the domestic and international scene, while promising Rebel Luke Jones is still a long way off reaching his full potential and is more likely to be seen as a blindside or No8 than a second row.

Van Humphries is another veteran past his best and Radike Samo’s international recall is unlikely to carry him all the way to the Lions series in either the second row or back row.

Dean Mumm had appeared to be the biggest challenger to Horwill’s starting spot, with the 27-year-old Waratah having led the mid-week Wallabies in 2009, but he then missed out on selection for the recent Rugby World Cup squad. With Sharpe or Vickerman, or possibly even both, in danger of being jettisoned due to their age, Mumm could be brought right back into the reckoning but his World Cup snub suggests he has some way to go to climb back up the Wallaby ladder.

Mumm’s fellow Waratah Sitaleki Timani is on the edge Deans’ thinking having featured in the shock defeat to Samoa and could be a serious contender this year and next but, again, it’s pretty hard to see him passing Horwill on his way to the top.

Peter Kimlin of the Brumbies showed his potential in winning two Test caps in 2009 but an 18-month injury-enforced absence has seen his star diminish. The coming campaign needs to be a big one if he is to work his way back into Wallaby contention but, yet again, you’d get long odds on him shoving Horwill to one side.

We could go on and on when it comes to potential Wallaby second rows thanks to the need for new blood to eventually replace Sharpe and Vickerman but we’ll keep coming back to the same starting block: Horwill’s name is effectively set in stone to face the Lions. If he doesn’t line up against the world’s most famous touring team in Brisbane on June 22, something will have gone horribly wrong for Horwill or horribly right for not just one but two other pretenders.

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