Much debate was sparked last week by the ‘revelation’ from Queensland journalist Jim Morton of possible plans to stop Wallabies players playing for their states prior to the British and Irish Lions tour.
I say ‘revelations’ because we were told at the logistics day last week that the plan, as presented by Morton, was yet to be decided on.
So where did Morton got his information from – and what was the purpose of the leak?
In both instances, I don’t think you have to be too clever to work out the answer. Suffice to say those who leak ‘privileged’ information generally only have their own ends in mind.
The situation did generate interest overseas, and possibly provided an insight into why Australian rugby still, in some areas, lags well behind South Africa and especially New Zealand.
Speaking to a South African counterpart later in the week, I was told the South Africans were amused there could be any debate at all as to the approach to be taken around preparing for a Lions tour.
As my mate noted, Lions coach Warren Gatland had basically given us the pointer when he complained recently that if Australia took out its top players from the state games, it would impact on the Lions’ preparations for the series.
If that’s not reason enough to do it, my South African friend reasoned, then recent experiences in first up Tests off limited preparation certainly was!
Of course I thanked him for reminding me of the losses to Samoa and Scotland in 2011 and 2012, although I certainly saw his point, which crystalised my own thoughts with regards to the right way to go.
The preparations for both of those Tests were rubbish.
In 2011, half of the Reds guys were on the social bend for most of that week – understandably so after winning the Super Rugby title the weekend before – and so were in no way ready to play a Test.
Robbie Deans rested a fair few of them, but those who did play bombed.
Even consummate professional Willy Genia acknowledged later he wasn’t mentally ready to play, while the rest of the team struggled after what had been a very limited preparation on a few days of training.
Scotland was even worse: one full training run together against a team coming off a Six Nations campaign, hardened by a full season of European rugby, and in tailor made weather conditions (although we could hardly blame preparation for the weather!)
Given that history, is it any wonder that Robbie and the ARU have put a lot of thought into what preparation time is needed before the first Lions Test?
Both, I would suggest, have taken heed of what worked for South Africa in 2009, New Zealand four years earlier and also Australia in 2001 (when current ARU board members John Eales and George Gregan were in the Wallabies and didn’t play the Lions for their respective states).
Ewen McKenzie, who headed up the criticism in the Morton article, opens himself up to the charge of being hypocritical by wading into all of this.
He was part of the Wallabies coaching team, as Rod Macqueen’s coaching coordinator, when many of the top Test players sat out the state games during the Lions tour of Australia in 2001.
Although that fact was conveniently omitted from Morton’s article.
South Africa, I was told, basically took on board what New Zealand had done, with senior figures in the team hierarchy getting together with the South African board to make a plan.
While there were some concerns from the provinces around the affect on crowd numbers, they went along with it, recognising the needs of the Springboks were of primary concern.
And that was rewarded with a 2-1 win in a tight series.
In New Zealand, there is never any doubt the All Blacks get what they want.
Just how much so surprised me when talking to some of the All Blacks after last year’s spring tour, but you certainly can’t knock the approach – look how it’s worked for them results-wise in the last decade.
This includes the 2005 Lions tour, which the All Blacks won 3-0 after taking their top players out of the provincial games.
And this is, in a nutshell, the crux of the question this issue raises for the game in this country. Shouldn’t it be about Australian rugby, that being the Wallabies, first?
If it has been decided that taking players out of the state games will provide the Wallabies with the best preparation for the Test series, surely it’s a no brainer?
Certainly the precedent of 2001, 2005 and 2009 suggests this is the right way to go, so one would be within their rights to question the motives of those who are challenging it.
The players love playing for their states, but to play for Australia is the ultimate, and always will be, especially when you only get one shot at playing the Lions if you are lucky.
To appreciate the significance of what is coming up for the Wallabies, you only have to look as far as Nathan Sharpe. He played Tests for the Wallabies for 11 years and has missed out!