SPIRO: How I would fix Australian rugby
219 Have your say
Waratahs captain Rocky Elsom. Photo AAP Images/Greg WOOD
Let’s cut to the chase, there are two major things wrong with Australian rugby. The first is the dysfunctional NSW Waratahs franchise.
And second is the general inability of most Australian Super Rugby teams to score tries and play entertaining rugby, especially when they play each other in local derbies.
NSW produces a third of all the rugby players in Australia. The state has one professsional rugby team compared with a number of NRL teams and two AFL teams. Yet this rugby team has been attracting crowds of less than 20,000 spectators for some of its matches. Admittedly the team has suffered its worst season ever in Super Rugby.
But the collapse of the team’s playing record and its crowd numbers is not a one-off 2012 event. The Waratahs have never won a Super Rugby title. And in recent years has compounded this lack of success with a terrible style of rugby, the ‘win-ugly’ method (in reality a ‘lose-ugly’ method) which has seen the average crowd size of over 30,000 diminish to something almost half this number.
The Waratahs have a tradition of being one of the great provincial sides in world rugby. They have beaten the All Blacks on a number of occasions, something that Scotland, Ireland, Italy and Argentina (among the top tier rugby countries) have never done.
Sydney has or had a club competition which was the equal to any in the world. The city, too, has the greatest rugby school in Australia, St Joeseph’s Hunter Hill which has produced 15 per cent of all Wallabies. There are several strong school-boy rugby competitions.
And despite all this, we get the woeful Waratahs. And aside from Kurtley Beale in recent years, the Waratahs assembly line of brilliant backs and forwards from the state’s earliest days with Dally Messenger seems to have dried up. Where are the exciting young players coming through the Waratahs system?
What is to be done?
Do what was done in Queensland several years ago, when the Super Rugby franchise there was in as bad a shape as the Waratahs franchise is now. There needs to be an ARU intervention against the Waratahs franchise, as there was against the Queensland franchise.
In Queensland, the franchise was re-branded as The Reds. They were given a new outfit. The board and organisation of coaches, medical staff and so on were cleaned out. A new chairman with a rugby and business background, Rod McCall was brought in. The old board was booted out and people who knew something about rugby were brought in. A coach, Ewen McKenzie, with Super Rugby (at the Waratahs) and overseas experience (France) was brought in.
Tough guidelines regarding the repayment of the ARU loan were instigated. The loan was repaid before it fell due. The team is playing in front of record crowds. There are 30,000 members (probably double what the Waratahs have). And in his second year as head coach McKenzie brought home the bacon with the Reds first Super Rugby talent.
The intervention and system and processes which were put in place to revive the Reds must happen for the Waratahs franchise to save it from oblivion.
The matter of improving the spectacle, quality and success-rate of Australian Super Rugby teams (a combination of outcomes that I join together with the lack of tries mantra) gets down to the quality of the rugby thinking in Australia and flows through to the mentality and skills of the coaches.
In my view, the rugby IQ in Australia is much lower than that of New Zealand or South Africa, but much higher than that in the UK. What is perplexing about this is that at schools like Joeys and in the past in clubs like Randwick of ‘Galloping Greens’ fame, the level of sophistication about tactics and strategies (the flat line back line attack, for instance) was much higher than in New Zealand and possibly even South Africa.
Two of the finest coaches in world rugby, Graham Henry and Jake White, came out of coaching their high school First XVs, and I might add, so did Alan Jones, the first Wallaby coach to have a winning record of over 70 per cent.
Since professional rugby came in, the progression from success at the school boy level through to clubs and then on to the international level has been replaced with players moving directly from playing to specialist coaching of a professional team and then through to becoming a Super Rugby coach.
This system is just not working, in my opinion. Right now there are two Super Rugby teams that are noticeably well-coached and well-selected. These teams are the Reds and the Brumbies. Only one of the head coaches of these teams is an Australian, McKenzie.
Where are the successors to Deans and his probable successor McKenzie among the ranks of the Super Rugby franchise, or the club sides in Sydney and Brisbane?
It is all very well insisting that the ARU should do something about all this. But the reality is that that the five Super Rugby franchises have the resources or should have the resources to do something about raising the rugby IQ in their states.
Take the Waratahs, for instance. What do they do about identifying young talent and then nurturing it so that the talented youngster become the senior players of later years? So many players over the years have been lost to the Waratahs because young talent was not identified and brought immediately into the system.
How much more successful would the Waratahs have been, for instance, if George Smith (an all-time Wallaby great) rather than Phil Waugh (a gutsy journeyman) had been identified by the Waratahs franchise as a player they could build franchise success around?
The new Waratahs regime, and the all the other franchises (although the Reds seem to spotting and promoting some great young talent, need to go further into their rugby communities to raise their collective rugby IQs.
Brett McKay points out in his piece on how to fix Australian rugby that at the Brumbies they also carried out a root-and-branch clean-out of all their systems and processes, including bringing in a new chef and, of course, a new coach with a winning track record. This fits in with the history of the Brumbies, following their foundation by Rod Macqueen, of being the smartest Australian franchise, on and off the field.
One final point about this matter of raising the rugby IQ of a franchise.
How many of the CEOs and coaches of the Super Rugby franchise know that next month Topo Rodriquez is publishing a master work on how get the perfect scrum? How many franchises will tap into his expertise in an area where Australian rugby lags badly behind New Zealand, South Africa and England?
How many franchises tap into the backline wisdom of Geoff Mould, the man who discovered the Ella brothers and helped to create with his theories on backline play a golden era of Australian back play?
Would the current administration of the Waratahs, for instance, even know who he is. They certainly didn’t recognise Terry Curley (a Waratahs and Wallaby great and successful coach at Joeys) who spoke with some disconcerting (for the officials and coaches) conviction at last year’s public forum put on by the Waratahs franchise.
As many readers would know, I came to Australia over 30 years ago from New Zealand. I would say that one of the main differences between the rugby cultures in the two countries is that there is much greater awareness of the history of the game, its great players and how to play it successfully in New Zealand than there is here.
It would surprise New Zealanders, for instance, to know that the talents of the Ellas, David Campese and other less great Wallabies like David Knox don’t seem to be given a run in the Waratahs or other Super Rugby franchises. The Waratahs, more than any other franchise, need to start looking towards taping into the intellectual property on matters rugby that resides in a host of former greats, of recent and not so recent vintage.
I’ll just discuss briefly some other matters raised in this series. Brett McKay wants the Australian Rugby Championship brought back as the Australian equivalent of the New Zealand ITM tournament and South Africa’s Currie Cup.
This overlooks the fact that there is now a seamless rugby year in Australia of Super Rugby from February to June: the June internationals; the July Super Rugby finals; the Rugby Championship in August/September/October; finishing with the November tour to Europe.
The Australian equivalent of the ITM and the Currie Cup should be the club competitions in Sydney and Brisbane. The NSW and Queensland unions need to put together a finals play-off between the top two teams in each city for the Australian Championship.
David Lord wants a shake up in the administration of rugby from the IRB, the ARU down to the state union levels. I believe that the IRB (finally) and the ARU are doing a good job. The real problems are at the state levels. And some of his ideas about club rugby, school boy rugby and the development of rewarding sponsorships at all levels of the game have merit.
But I would argue that a lot of the problems he and Brett identified would be dissipated when the current Waratahs franchise is dissolved and a new, efficient, knowledgeable and energetic group of leaders is installed.
In administration as it is on the field, nothing beats talent, team-work and commitment. Right now these are qualities that the Waratahs franchise, on and off the field, is totally lacking.
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Spiro Zavos, a founding writer on The Roar, was long time editorial writer on the Sydney Morning Herald, where he started a rugby column that has run for nearly 30 years. Spiro has written 12 books: fiction, biography, politics and histories of Australian, New Zealand, British and South African rugby. He is regarded as one of the foremost writers on rugby throughout the world.