Five more things about Australian rugby
The culmination of the inaugural Rugby Championship provides us with the perfect opportunity to take a long, hard look at the state of Australian rugby.
1. Australia doesn’t have a good team at present
What I mean is that Australia has been blessed a few times during the past three decades with great teams, or with great players who were able to make average teams good.
Just like the current Australian cricket team is nowhere near the class of those with Warne and McGrath, so the current group of rugby players isn’t as talented as – or, perhaps, is unable to combine their talents as well as – some of their predecessors.
This seems pretty normal to me. As fans, we can’t reasonably expect that the team will always be winning: even New Zealand had some ordinary teams during the late 1990s.
2. Australia took too long to get its coaching setup right
Leaving aside whether or not Robbie Deans is a good coach or the right coach, my view is that we took too long to provide him and the team with the right setup. I think that one of the reasons New Zealand did so well over the past eight years was that they had three very experienced coaches working as a team.
Until Tony McGahan started this year, Deans chose, or had foisted upon him, a succession of inexperienced assistants, few of whom had a record of success and none of whom had any experience in charge of a team. David Nucifora was an exception but his role and influence is unclear, except in 2011 when he started to appear in the coaching box, initially at the back then closer and closer to the centre.
Coaching is more than a one-man job, so getting the right team is critical (remember how important John Muggleton was to Rod Macqueen’s success). Look at the difference Andrew Blades has made this year to the consistency of the Wallabies scrum.
And remember that he could have been coaching the Australian pack for a long time: he started working with Eddie Jones in 2004 and resigned within months because Jones was so difficult to work with. How his appointment could have changed things…
3. John O’Neill needs to focus on his ARU job or quit
Even more than the coach, JON is a divisive figure. I think history will judge him favourably: despite some elements of luck with timing, he’s been successful as the chief administrator in two major sports. Few other executives have a comparable record.
But his focus has shifted. In recent years he’s begun to take on external commitments that are taking up more of his time and energy. Anyone who’s followed James Packer’s attempt to take over the casino in Sydney will know things have been very messy at his target, Echo Entertainment. The independent directors forced the previous chairman to resign and installed one of their own to replace him.
According to media reports, the new chairman, who subsequently forced out the CEO, “is not known for being hands off.” His name? John O’Neill.
Now, maybe it’s a good thing JON’s energies are devoted elsewhere but compare his extra-ARU commitments with those of Andrew Demetriou, or David Gallop when he ran the NRL. My impression is that he’s just hanging on to his ARU job until the Lions tour, hoping to relive the glory days of 2001.
4. Mental fatigue is an issue
Most attention is given to the physical demands of the ridiculously long season but I think mental fatigue is also an issue. For example, I think Adam Ashley-Cooper has shown himself, yet again, to be one of Australia’s best performers, certainly a reliable and tough defender. But try to remember when he last played consistently well in Super Rugby. I might be wrong, but I think that’s a sign of mental fatigue.
5. The team and the coach have a mental problem playing New Zealand
To be fair, every team except South Africa has a poor record against New Zealand in recent times, and South Africa’s record is not good, just a bit better than every other team’s. Playing New Zealand has always been tough. But too often the team looks like it doesn’t really believe it can win.
And so often the New Zealand coaches have devised some variation that has left Robbie Deans –and the team – looking bereft of ideas about how to respond.
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