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?

Inside Sport - - EDITOR'S LETTER - BY MATT CLEARY

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.

IFSUNTORYORWASPSOROLD-MATECRAZY-MANINTOULONHASACOUPLE MILLIONSPARE,THEAUSTRALIANJUMPERISONLYGOLDENOUGH.

“Sooner or later ev­ery­one sits down to a ban­quet of con­se­quences.” – Robert Louis Stevenson

S

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.

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