Time To Stand Up
Rugby union in Australia has rarely seen depths like its current predicament. With the All Blacks on the way, what can it do to turn things around?
So, this is it: the nadir. Australian rugby has bottomed out and now lies at its lowest ebb since 1920 when Queensland left just about en masse to rugby league and only an All Blacks tour of NSW saved the game from ruin. The game today could not get lower if it broke off from Australia like an iceberg, and sailed away to melt in the Coral Sea.
How did we get here? Friend, how long have you got? It’s a malaise a decade in the making. And while there have been a few spikes – Super Rugby titles, a Rugby Championship, even Olympic gold – the greater game languishes deep among the trough lollies. And nobody got time to hang among the trough lollies.
Crowds are down. Ratings are down. The national team’s brand is so on the nose that its rusted-on supporters would rather stand up sideline with a tinnie and a hot dog to watch Marlins and Rats on a Saturday afternoon than the Wallabies at Homebush. Waratahs versus Southern Kings (or whoever these anonymous, giant Africans are) on a Saturday night in the beating heart of Sydney holds no more appeal than an art-house flick at Dendy.
Consider: in 2017, not one Australian Super Rugby team could beat a Kiwi Super Rugby team in 26 attempts. New Zealand’s worst province, the Blues – beaten in the last round by Japanese Sunwolves, whatever they are – won more games than Australia’s best, the ACT Brumbies, who made the finals because the competition is a basket-case designed by drunk versions of Duckworth and Lewis.
In 46 Super Rugby matches against overseas opposition, Australian teams lost 39 times. In the 22 seasons of Super Rugby, 2017 was the only one in which every Australian team lost more games than they won. The Brumbies made the finals after winning six games in 15 starts.
The Wallabies did beat Fiji, so there was that. Then they lost to Scotland (which later lost to Fiji) and got home late against Italy. Australia (somehow, ask Duckworth and Lewis) is placed fourth on the World Rugby rankings. Yet as you peel open the glossy pages of this crackerjack journal, the All Blacks are $1.06 to retain the Bledisloe Cup that they’ve owned now for 14 years. Winx was longer.
It would be easy to list the manifold reasons for this, to pick the game apart like a murder of crows upon carrion. So let’s do that. Let’s get to pickin’. And see if we can make any sense of how we got here, where we are, and how we might ever make Australian rugby great again.
Because we’re in it. Anno semper pessimus. Worst year ever.
“Sooner or later everyone sits down to a banquet of consequences.” – Robert Louis Stevenson
ince the retirement of George Gregan and Stephen Larkham, and the Wallabies bowing out of the 2007 Rugby World Cup in the quarter-finals, and the introduction of a fourth Super Rugby franchise in Western Force, the stock-market line graph of Australian rugby has seen a downwards trend. The odd spike, sure. The odd rally. But it’s been a long and low-riding road to hoe.
The Western Force turned up in 2007 and never finished better than eighth (of 14 teams) in their second season. Along the way, they’ve had Nathan Sharpe, Drew Mitchell and Matt Giteau bought with money from a dodgy Firepower fuel pill. They had first dibs on the freak-boy, “Bam Bam” David Pocock. When James O’Connor was humming, he was humming in blue.
Flush with that, SANZAR granted the Melbourne Rebels Super Rugby’s 15th license in 2010. They were backed by rich ad man Harold Mitchell and KPMG and investment banker types, and became a sink-hole for money. The ARU sold Rebels Inc to Imperium Group in 2015 and principal Andrew Cox says he won’t sell it back to the ARU so they can kill it. And he’ll sue if they try.
Meanwhile, the ACT Brumbies’ “player power” saw two coaches axed: Andy Friend, now coach of Australia sevens, and David “Nucy” Nucifora, who stayed in Australia as “high performance director” and spoke about streamlining coaching so that all of Australia’s provinces would play the Wallabies’ way. They would share skills, tactics, game plans, knowledge, IP, all that, for the greater good.
And it was very unpopular. And Nucifora could never get it up. Too much distrust and short-sightedness, too much provincial politics. NSW and Queensland rivalry isn’t just in State of Origin. And out the door our Nucy went.
To Ireland! Where he suggested they implement his cunning plans, and they did, inventing a role for him. And cynical local scribes wondered, “Wot da fok is a ‘performance director’?” In 2016, they found out. Ireland beat the Wallabies, Springboks and All Blacks – in Chicago, the first time in 111 years. Ireland is today ranked third in the world, just behind England, and trotted out 11 Lions in the drawn series with those same All Blacks.
England, meanwhile, turned out 16 Lions. England is coached by Eddie Jones, of Matraville. In 2016, England beat the Wallabies three-nil in Australia. After the 2015 World Cup, the RFU posted record revenue of £407 million ($670 million). What can it all possibly mean? As England’s abrasive, thrusting, excellent 22-year-old lock Maro Itoje might tell you: extrapolate that, bitch.
Queensland did win Super Rugby in 2011. The Brumbies made the final in 2013. And NSW won their first title in 2014 when it all came together off Bernard Foley’s boot. A year later, the Wallabies made the final of the Rugby World Cup at Twickenham, getting within four points of New Zealand with 15 minutes to go. And then they were run over. But we thought: well, that’s pretty good, isn’t it?
And it was. But it wallpapered over some gaping structural cracks.
Australia has a surfeit of Super Rugby teams – and thus players – diluting the talent base. There are kids who’d be honest Eastwood Colts pulling on provincial jumpers. Says one former state player: “Putting schoolboys into professional sport without performance-related pay leads to one thing: marshmallows.”
Depth is a factor, as always. Globalisation means very good players have gone to Europe and Japan. Some have come back. But Australian rugby can’t compete with global market forces. If Suntory or Wasps or old-mate crazy-man in Toulon has a couple million spare, the Australian jumper is only gold enough.
Market forces whacked South Africa, too, though they appear to be back. Their Lions are roaring. New Zealand, meanwhile, could field five teams who could beat Australia,
Afternoon dates for the Wallabies only brought out the rusted-on [below] – and what they saw was a loss to the Scots [above].
The Rebels and Force also grappled off the field – for survival.