Australian rugby: Down but not out

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    This is the third article for The Roar I’ve written in two years, on my third account, because I forgot the username and password for the other two.

    I’m no author or writer and to be honest finishing this one was pushing me.

    My first article lamented the Waratahs’ pathetic bowing out of the 2015 Super Rugby finals after reaching such great heights the year before.

    The second one was a complete and utter piss take, where I named a Wallabies team comprising a forward pack of flankers, and a backline of Fijians. Boy, replying to some of the comments was funny.

    Both articles were inspired by the trials and tribulations of Australian rugby, which has yielded a lot more pain than pleasure in recent times.

    This article will be no different. I am disappointed at the standard of our Super Rugby teams. I am baffled by the axing of the Western Force over the Melbourne Rebels. And make no mistake I am well and truly dead inside at the thought of the Wallabies of 2016, 2017 and likely for the next few years.

    Despite these fairly commonplace opinions one that stands out at as controversial is this – I believe Michael Cheika is a great rugby coach and is definitely the right man for the Wallabies gig.

    This man has proved his affinity, on the domestic stage, not once but twice. He has also shown to have the potential for greatness with the Wallabies after taking them to the World Cup Final in 2015.

    However, these facts are considerably outdated as we now contemplate the 54-34 flogging at the hands of the All Blacks, as you must be thinking.

    Why are his coaching selections so consistently and blatantly idiotic to the entirety of the supporters base? Why is Michael Hooper captain? Why is Nathan Grey still the defensive coach? Why is Cheika not doing this or that?

    I think that it is important that we, as supporters, respect the huge, huge difference in perspective between our external viewpoint and the opinion of the boys in camp Walla, slogging it out, day by day with each other for a living.

    Michael Cheika thinking

    (AAP Image/Dave Hunt)

    If you do a little bit of digging and have a think you’ll actually find that it’s no surprise Hooper has been named as captain. He hasn’t built up his reputation for never giving up and trying hard out of nowhere.

    It is clear that he is a highly respected and admired member of the squad and is someone who his teammates respect. The position of captain his highly personal and means a lot more to the team than to us, sitting behind our laptops and spitting out hate.

    We may never understand the real reason why, but we must all acknowledge that Hooper is a talented player.

    The way I like to think about it is, picture Hooper as a Kiwi. Learning the ropes at a Super Rugby club over there, his stand out ability would have been noticed, guided and nurtured by their well structured system as, from when Hooper first appeared around 2012. I believe he would have been an All Black by now, and certainly without as many caps, he would have been a much greater player for the experience.

    Ditto Skelton. When he came onto the scene he was a monster. Remember the 2014 Tests against France? It may have taken him much longer to get there in the end, but the man mountain would have been treasured by New Zealand, not insulted and criticised the moment he had a drop in form.

    New Zealand recognises the cyclical nature of players and when and when they need a tune up to get them back in the fast lane. Case in point, Julian Savea.

    Too often Australian rugby will lose the gems they unearth and it seems utterly wasteful. Take Jesse Mogg, a player who definitely debuted for Australia too early because of the shallow pool of talent during that 2012-2013 period.

    Now let’s consider the Australian back three from Bledisloe I 2017. Henry Speight, Curtis Rona and Israel Folau.

    Three ball running wingers, with one slotting in at fullback. If only there was a seasoned, mature outside back with strong kicking ability, to relieve the pressure on Foley whose exit kicking is probably one of the worst in the top 10 or 15 countries in rugby.

    I believe that Cheika is strongly influenced to make selections against his will. The looming threat to Australian rugby are its rival codes, namely NRL. Schoolboys being snatched up by the extremely well marketed, well developed and well funded system that is rugby league in Australia. How does this 20-year-old kid, as talented as he may be, jump the queue and end up in a Wallabies squad with seasoned players such as James Hanson lying in wait?

    Rugby needs players. Players become good when playing throughout their childhood. When it is seen that there is the potential for U20s to jump into the Wallabies, and for teenagers to play Super Rugby, this is meant to create inspiration and value in the rugby union pathway.

    Israel Folau Australia Rugby Union Championship Bledisloe Cup Wallabies 2017

    (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

    This stems from the lack of a strong domestic competition. As a promising youngster having reached the fork in the road, the strength and reputation of the NRL pathway is far more attractive than the messy oblivion between club and state rugby.

    As seen in the amazing numbers for the Shute Shield this year, there is an adequate desire and market, there just needs to be something well structured, funded instilled with long term intentions to recapture the jaded fans.

    The core supporters in Sydney and Brisbane will always remain, however the longer the ARU wait, the more 50–50s will fall away. Before we know it we’ll be back to square one.

    The axing of the Western Force, for me, a born-and-bred New South Welshman, hurts more than the Wallabies’ demise. Look at these guys. Essentially the scraps of the other teams, belted season after season, having bred all of their Wallabies save Polotau Nau.

    The promising debut season at the helm of the Force by Dave Wessels has been highly admired and is still undervalued. The ability to turn a low profile group into one that is succinct, clear in mindset and of relative success in Australia should be looked on with greater respect.

    The success stories in recent years have spurned from the same situation. The Lions began their transformation in 2014 under Ackerman with a similarly non flashy, scrap heap style squad, and built themselves into a successful team, even though they didn’t win outright. It was similar with the Highlanders who went from a very poor 2013 to the Championship in 2015.

    And yet they were chopped due to financial reasons. This is not long-term thinking. This has been the same fundamental mistake made by Australian rugby for decades. A strong domestic competition should have been established long ago, and would now be keeping the sinking ship afloat.

    By making his controversial selections, Cheika is politically and subconsciously contributing to the short-term and medium-term success of the sport as pressured by the ARU. He is a smart coach and has crumbled under the surrounding pressure imploding the game in the country, understandably or not.

    Had he been in another country, for example New Zealand, he would not have had to deal with all of this bull***t.

    Fundamentally the basic skills of the Wallabies are lacking and this is the primary reason for their on-field inconsistency and at times disaster. But these problems stem from a far deeper source and we must as supporters acknowledge this, instead of resorting to a personal attack of the players and coach.

    Bledisloe I was the most appalling display by the Wallabies I have seen. Ever.

    Australian rugby is down but not out. The contributions of people such as Twiggy Forrest are extremely valuable and bear resemblances to the reformative period of the 90s. Rugby will always be around. It’s just a matter of time until someone with more brains than boof has the bravery to make bold changes to the structure of the game within the country for its long-term success.

    Am I an optimist or pessimist?

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