SPIRO: Memo to rugby fans: Keep the faith
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Can the NRL Nines match rugby's Sevens, which is now in the Olympics? (AFP Photo / Patrick Hamilton)
On Saturday I was going into a super market in Bondi Junction when a man who I didn’t know came up to me and asked me about John O’Neill resignation.
“Who is going to take over at the ARU?” he asked.
I told him that if the CEO of Queensland Rugby, Jim Carmichael, got O’Neill’s job then we have to presume there was an element of pushing in his going.
But if Matt Carroll, the acting CEO and an O’Neill under-study for about 17 years, got the job or someone else then the push from Queensland to dominate (takeover?) the ARU would have been thwarted, at least for the time being.
The conversation moved to more general rugby matters. I said that the main problem with Australian rugby was not O’Neill or Robbie Deans but the pathetic play of the Waratahs over the last few years.
There was a time when the Waratahs could defeat international sides, including the All Blacks and the Springboks (memorably in 1937 in the mud). But now players coming from the franchise into the Wallabies don’t have a clue about playing skilful, aggressive and ball-in-hand rugby.
This was developing into some hard running of a familiar hobby horse of mine, as frequent readers of The Roar will attest.
However, I went on to make the point that the SMH had run an excellent interview by Georgina Robinson with the new Waratahs coach Michael Cheika.
Cheika made it clear that at the Waratahs he was about to do what he’d done at Leinster and turned them into champions by “changing the culture, changing values, changing the way we administered.”
My heart leapt with joy when I read these words. Cheika was a hard man on the field as a number 8. He is a successful businessman.
Like Rod Macqueen, he doesn’t need to coach at the top level to maintain a pleasant life style. He is prepared to do it his way.
He has already moved on the defence coach, Greg Mumm. There are more changes to come. He has told his players that reputations won’t count with him. The players who ‘perform’ will play. Those who don’t perform, no matter who they are, won’t play.
I expect the Waratahs to be a much more competitive team next year. Not necessarily a team to win the franchise’s first Super Rugby tournament. But a team we can support without compromise.
Just as we broke away for me to a buy the weekend’s groceries, my new friend – who confirmed that he was an avid reader of The Roar – mentioned that the Australian Schoolboys had defeated the New Zealand Schoolboys for the second time in two years.
He said to watch out for the fullback, Jonah Placid. “He’s going to be a beauty.”
On Saturday and Sunday afternoon I watched the IRB Sevens tournament that was being played out on the Gold Coast. 30,000 tickets had been sold for the tournament. And the fans enjoyed a feast of running, exhilarating rugby that demonstrated why Sevens Rugby will be a tremendous hit at the 2016 Olympics at Rio.
A huge amount of money has come into rugby around the world because the game is now (for the first time since the 1920s) an Olympic sport. Watching the thrills and spills of the parade of matches, you could see that already this money and interest has lifted the standard of play of teams like the USA, which is just starting to get into the gridiron market of players, and Argentina who ran New Zealand close in their quarter-final.
Nowhere is this injection of money more noticeable than with the Kenyan side that defeated Australia in their quarter-final. Kenya has a designated coach and conditioner, and it showed as their players ran the young Australians off their feet towards the end of their match.
I fell in love with these IRB Sevens tournaments when I saw one in Wellington some years ago. The crowd was amazing with their Elvis, nurses, animal suits, you name it. There was a constant barrage of noise and dancing and good spirits throughout the entire tournament.
My wife Judy watched all these fun and games from high in the stands. The Kenyans, who were playing their first IRB tournament, were warming up on the ground just below us.
“I pick that team to win,” she told me.
“No way,” I replied. “They’re playing Australia and the Aussies will murder them.”
Judy is not someone who is deterred from making her case when her mind is made up. “That team will win because they have much nicer butts than the Australian boys.”
Well, it was not a case of butt me no butts, or anything like this. The Kenyans at Wellington, as they did on the Gold Coast, won a famous victory.
While in this Sevens heaven mood, it is worthwhile pointing out that the reigning world champions of the Women’s Sevens is… Australia. And the SMH in its news section had a fascinating story of how the ARU is sponsoring an Australian-wide hunt for athletic women, from sports like AFL, ice hockey, wrestling (good in the tackle, presumably) and the like to try out as Sevens players.
Literally hundreds of young women are being processed in the hope a team which will win gold at Rio can be developed.
And on Saturday the Wallabies get another chance to defeat the All Blacks. The Test is at Brisbane, a happy hunting ground for the Wallabies and the last ground on which the All Blacks have been defeated.
The All Blacks have won 16 consecutive Tests. The world record is held by Lithuania on 17. So a great occasion, one way or another, is in store for rugby fans at the game and around the world.
Richie McCaw, no less, reckons this current All Blacks side is the best he’s been involved with. It is a better team, in my opinion, than the 2011 model, if only because it has a world class half-back, Aaron Smith, instead of the journeymen Jimmie Cowan and Andy Ellis.
If the All Blacks win, they will beat the unbeaten run of Wayne Shelford’s All Blacks between 1986 and 1990 when they were unbeaten, winning all their matches in that time except for a 19 – 19 draw with the Wallabies in 1988.
It’s salutary to remember right now when the Wallabies are struggling to defeat the All Blacks that there was a relatively recent period when, for four years, the men in black almost always came out on top of the Wallabies.
At least for the current Wallabies, it’s only been a year since they defeated the All Blacks.
This period of All Blacks dominance was followed a decade later by the Macqueen era, when the All Blacks found the Wallabies extremely difficult to defeat and New Zealanders conceded (as Australians do now regarding New Zealand rugby) that all the talent, especially intelligence and smart strategy on the field, was coming from the Wallabies and the Brumbies.
The moral here is that the wheel does turn. The South African Sevens side beat New Zealand at the Gold Coast on Saturday, for instance, for only the 11th time in 48 contests, Kenya had their boilover against Australia.
The only predictable thing about the future is that we can’t predict it. And this is why Australian rugby fans need to keep the faith.
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.
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