Wallaby watch: Stephen Moore.

Our latest Wallaby watch looks at the chances of Stephen Moore packing down against the Lions this summer. [more]

Wallaby watch: Stephen Moore.

Our latest Wallaby watch looks at the chances of Stephen Moore packing down against the Lions this summer.

Australia’s most-capped hooker has more reasons than most to want to face Warren Gatland’s troops given his Irish background and only a severe change in fortunes will prevent him from doing just that.

Although born in Saudi Arabia, Moore could have been representing the Lions instead of playing against them had his parents taken a slightly different path. Moore’s mother and father moved back to their native Galway in the mid-eighties but were then tempted by life in Australia, eventually emigrating permanently in 1988 when Moore was five years old.

Moore still has large family links in Ireland, including a cousin who represented the country of his parents’ birth in fencing at the 2008 Olympics and another who played Gaelic football for Meath. And if biological ties weren’t enough to hand him a special affiliation to a Lions tour, the fact that his early idol in the world game was none other than Lions hero Keith Wood should ensure he is familiar with the traditions of the famous red shirt.

Moore certainly knows all there is to know about the Wallaby jersey, having worn it 76 times since his debut in 2005. After a slow start to his Test career, Moore established himself as his country’s first-choice prior to the 2007 World Cup, a tournament in which he started all bar one of the Wallabies’ five games. He went on to feature in each of their 14 Tests the following year and was described by legendary All Black captain Sean Fitzpatrick as the game’s premier hooker that season.

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And despite losing his place to perenial understudy Tatafu Polota-Nau for the final two games of the 2009 Tri Nations and then breaking his jaw in May 2010, Moore remained one of the first names on the teamsheet for the current Wallaby coaching staff until he was plagued by a hamstring problem throughout last year.

Stats show that Moore had long become the rock upon which Australia have attempted to build their forward platform. While props have come and go as regular as clock work, the Wallaby hooking berth had become something of a one-man show until recent months.

Prior to suffering that setback in training ahead of the Rugby Championship clash with South Africa, Moore had missed just 14 of the 69 Tests played by the Wallabies between 2008 and 2012 as he laid the foundations from which his country set out their stall.

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Brumbies hooker Stephen Moore is hugely important to the Wallabies

But while Moore clearly has plenty of credit in the bank, his lengthy lay off means he now faces a major battle with Polota-Nau for a starting berth at the Suncorp Stadium on June 22. If the Lions had been touring Oz just over a year ago, Moore would have been an odds-on-favourite to wear the No2 shirt for the Wallabies in Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney, but fast forward from late 2011 to early 2013 and things are a little less clear for the veteran front rower.

Having long been the undoubted No1 No2 for his country, Moore will have to fight off stiff competition in the form of the powerful Polota-Nau. His Waratahs rival has always been sniffing at his heels but it’s only in recent times that Polota-Nau has really started to fulfill his own potential.

Wallaby boss Robbie Deans edged towards the younger man in 2012, with Polota-Nau starting nine of the 11 Tests prior to their end-of-year tour of Europe and then all bar the Italian job in November and December. But those impressive figures owed as much to Moore’s injury problems as his team-mate’s form and plenty of critics are still suggesting it will be Moore who is given the nod against the Lions if he can stay fighting fit over the next four months.

So why is it that Moore is still so many observers’ first choice when Polota-Nau is the man in possession with nothing but domestic rugby and international training sessions remaining prior to the Lions’ arrival Down Under?

The answer is four-fold: strength in the setpiece, consistency, experience and an ability to perform under pressure. In all four of those areas, Moore rises above his main rival.

The Australian pack may have been heavily criticised in recent years but Moore has often been the redeeming feature in an unsightly weakness. The 30-year-old’s tenacity and consistency in the tight have been major factors in Australia’s best moments as the Green and Gold have worked hard to rubbish claims that the setpiece remains a major weakness of their game.

And while the likes of Will Genia, Quade Cooper, Kurtley Beale and James O’Connor may get most of the headlines when things go well for the Wallabies, it is clear that an Aussie line up minus Moore is a less intimidating beast than it otherwise might be.

Most of the newspaper focus on team selection prior to Australia’s shock World Cup defeat to Ireland centred on the absence of star openside David Pocock but guess who else missed out that day? That’s right, our man Moore. Moore fell ill shortly before kick off and was forced to sit and watch the 15-6 reverse that threw the Home Unions’ route to the World Cup Final wide open.

With Moore missing out, the Australian setpiece simply went missing. Ireland dominated the lineout and got on top in the scrum despite hardly being renowned as the world’s most fearsome front row at the time. Moore missed out, but boy did Australia miss Moore.

Rewind 14 months further back and it was a case of déjà vu against the English. With Moore’s broken jaw ruling him out of the two-Test series against Martin Johnson’s men, the Wallaby front three were simply smashed into oblivion. Australia somehow survived two penalty tries for continuous scrum offences in the first international but their inferiority up front cost them dear a week later as England left Sydney with a famous win.

There seems to be a reoccurring theme within the Wallaby story: having Moore in the starting XV doesn’t necessarily turn the Aussie tight five into the best in the world but not having him in the side has often resulted in a far weaker front row. Polota-Nau is definitely closing the gap by ensuring his own setpiece is a lot more solid than it used to be but you’d still back Moore as the man to produce the goods when it really matters.

After all, winning more than three quarters of a century of caps doesn’t come without an impressive level of consistency. While Polota-Nau has often been criticised for failing to transfer his franchise form on to the Test scene, Moore has rarely let his country down. He isn’t as destructive in the loose or as dynamic with ball in hand but he’s proved himself to be ultra reliable at a time when the Wallabies have lacked solidity up front.

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Moore has 76 international caps to his name and will be looking for 77, 78 and 79 against the Lions

Fast facts

Name: Stephen Moore
Date of birth: 20/01/1983
Position: Hooker
Club: Brumbies
Previous clubs: Reds
Height: 6ft 1in
Weight: 17 stone 9lbs
Test debut: Versus Samoa in Sydney, June 2005
Test caps: 76 (as of 07/03/2013)
Honours: Australia U19; Australia U21; Australia A

Strengths and weaknesses

Strengths: physicality, solidity in the setpiece and consistency on the big stage.

Weaknesses: a comparative lack of pace and mobility that may limit the expansive game the Wallabies seem to favour.

Chances of being involved against the Lions: it seems certain that he’ll feature in the three-match Test series but whether he starts or sits on the bench behind Polota-Nau is a 50-50 call.

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Tatafu Polota-Nau is the main obstacle blocking Moore's path to a start against the Lions

Rivals for the Wallaby shirt

Tatafu Polota-Nau – Polota-Nau was the IRB U21 Player of the Season in 2005 and is finally living up to that billing on the big stage after flitting around the edges of the Wallaby side for far longer than many expected. He made his Wallaby debut that same year, prior to even playing Super 15 rugby, but injuries have stalled his career and he was forced to miss most of the 2010 international season after an ankle operation.

His ability in the loose is seen to outweigh Moore’s own talents but his lack of consistency at the lineout often lets him down. He made major strides in 2012, though, and Deans and co see little to choose between the two.

Saia Faingaa – a Super 15 winner with the Reds in 2011, the Wallabies had high hopes for Faingaa but he hasn’t quite kicked on the way he and they would have liked.

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Saia Faingaa is unlikely to beat Moore to a place in the matchday squad

Having skippered Australia U19s to World Championship success in 2006, Faingaa’s career had faltered somewhat before a breakthrough year in 2010 and, although two big seasons followed, he has been unable to establish himself as a regular starter for his country.

The 26-year-old featured in 11 Tests in 2010 but is playing third fiddle to both Moore and Polota-Nau and his shot at the Lions is likely to come with the Reds rather than the Wallabies.

James Hanson – currently pushing Faingaa hard for a place in the Reds starting side, Hanson won his first and only cap in the 18-18 draw with the All Blacks in October. The 24-year-old was handed his opportunity in Moore’s absence and then headed to Paris, London, Rome and Cardiff with the Wallby squad as Faingaa stayed at home nursing a broken hand.

A solid performer on the Super Rugby scene, the Australian Rugby Union have identified Hanson as a player with plenty of potential but 2013 will come too soon in terms of nailing down a place in the Wallaby matchday 23.

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