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In the early part of this decade the ARU reversed the historical flow of players from union to league and for the first time in its history actively recruited three high profile players from rugby league. Wendell Sailor, Matt Rogers and Lote Tuqiri were all lured to rugby union with lucrative contracts amidst much hype and fanfare. Six years after the first signing all that remain are Tuqiri, resentment and a lot of questions. But was the great rugby league experiment given a fair go?
It all began shortly after the turn of the millennium with rumours that one of rugby league’s biggest names, Wendell Sailor, was about to join rugby union. Rugby union in Australia was enjoying a boom period at this time with both the ACT Brumbies and the Queensland Reds fielding competitive teams in the still new Super 12 competition. At international level, the ARU had just guided the Wallabies to a second World Cup win and were looking forward to hosting the 2003 version of the event. A British and Irish Lions tour was just around the corner and we were all suspecting that some time soon we’d be fare welling one of the most respected sporting captains Australia has seen, John Eales.
In the background, rugby’s newfound professionalism had enabled some rather low key acquisitions of rugby league players by the Super 12 provinces. The ACT Brumbies had signed Andrew Walker and Peter Ryan whilst the Queensland Reds had signed Willie Carne. Interestingly all three had played rugby union at schoolboy level with Ryan being part of the great Downlands College team of 1987 that included Tim Horan, Brett Johnson, Brett Robinson and Garrick Morgan.
Whilst Ryan made solid contributions at provincial level, Walker’s sublime ball skills, quicksilver footwork and long range kicking game deservedly took him to the international stage. However despite his footballing ability, Walker was not a man made for celebrity. He neither chased the spotlight nor seemed comfortable in it and often gave the impression that he would rather just play the game than be asked questions about it.
In fact across the entire Wallaby landscape there were no players who could take the game from sporting back pages to the tabloids front pages. There were no Austin Healeys, Gavin Hensons, Freddie Michalaks of David Campeses. John Eales was a gentleman’s captain and was surrounded by a generation of players who showed their appreciation of rugby’s move to professionalism by acting professionally.
Players like Matt Burke, Ben Tune, Jason Little, Tim Horan, George Gregan, David Wilson, Richard Harry and Toutai Kefu seemed to fit perfectly with Eales’ clean cut personality. Even the mercurial Stephen Larkham, a man whose genius could afford him some Campese-esque latitude in his public persona has, to his eternal credit, maintained a direct and rather humble public persona throughout his career.
Rugby league on the other hand had more than enough players whose lives outside of football were well commented on. Terry Hill, Anthony Mundine, Gordon Tallis, Brad Fittler, John Hopoate, Julian O’Neil and Craig Gower all provided plenty of copy for the east coast newspapers. Regardless of whether or not their behaviour was good or bad, these players commanded the media’s attention.
No rugby union player attracted as much media attention of any of the above group however rugby union’s growing popularity meant the media were now always watching. In 2000 several of Eddie Jones’ ACT Brumbies were disciplined for an incident in Cape Town that occurred after they had been out drinking. Compared to his predecessor, Rod MacQueen, Jones had allowed off-field standards to slip during his tenure as Brumbies coach, a theme that would re-emerge later when he coached the Wallabies.
Despite the negative publicity the Cape Town incident generated, the ACT’s reaction in immediately disciplining the players involved compared very favourably against the NRL’s involvement in an almost hidden incident in rugby league that had occurred only a couple of years earlier.
In 2004 journalist Roy Masters discovered an incident that occurred in 1997 where the then Super League CEO, John Ribot, had covered up a woman’s complaint involving misogynistic behaviour towards her from several Canterbury Bulldogs players by paying her off to keep quiet. The Bulldogs player’s behaviour was alleged to include amongst other things, several players urinating on her leg whilst she did her job as a make-up artist on a promotional film shoot. Ribot’s actions ensured the complaint was not made public at the time and that no one was held accountable for their actions.
Ribot was not alone in absolving misbehaving rugby league players of their responsibilities. In 1999 the then Australian Rugby League coach, Chris Anderson, announced at a press conference that Craig Gower was forced out of the test team due to a groin strain. Days later it was revealed that Gower had not in fact damaged his groin but had exposed it to an Irish tourist whilst under the influence of alcohol. Despite mounting media criticism of the NRL’s handling of the affair, Anderson chose to defend his decision to lie with the statement “I don’t think we should have to make public our disciplinary standards”.
In other words, the coach of the National team did not think rugby league players should be held publicly responsible for their actions. In Anderson’s eyes, rugby league players were no longer required to represent their club or nation but merely to perform for them.
The argument that the personal conduct of professional sportsmen should not be held up to such public scrutiny holds little merit. A constituency expects their elected politician to represent them in both performance and behaviour in much the same way a company expects a CEO to represent them, a school expects their school captain to represent them or indeed an employer expects employees at an external work function to represent them.
When rugby league administrators started to describe the game as a ‘product’ they indicated their intent of selling the game at all costs. This requires keeping the most famous players in the public eye as much as possible, either on the field or off. With such ends in mind there is little room to consider discipline or accountability.
And so to February 2001 and the signing of Wendell Sailor, perhaps the biggest star in rugby league at the time. Of the three recruits, Sailor had the most difficult time of making the switch to rugby union. However of the three it was perhaps Sailor who made the most improvement in his game.
Sailor’s fortunes under the two ARU CEOs, O’Neil and Gary Flowers, are as markedly different as the leadership styles of those two administrators. No strange coincidence that during O’Neil’s tenure, Sailor was able to concentrate on his game and despite never seeming as comfortable in union as Tuqiri, his hard work did lead to better performances.
Under Flowers, the story for Sailor and his team mates was very different. The following list details bad behaviour incidents by Wallaby players and staff that occurred under Flowers’ administration.
* Mat Rogers alleged to have assaulted a member of the public at an Edinburgh nightclub
* Lote Tuqiri, Wendell Sailor and Matt Dunning were all fined and handed out punishments of suspended two-match bans for their part in a late night incident in Cape Town. Matt Henjak sent home for his part.
* Cameron Shepherd suspended for damaging private property whilst under the influence of alcohol
* Matt Dunning was fined after damaging a taxi.
* Wendell Sailor was fined and suspended for an incident in a nightclub in Cape Town
* Wendell Sailor banned for two years after returning a positive test for cocaine.
* New South Wales Waratahs player Kurtley Beale was found guilty of drink-driving while unlicensed
* Eddie Jones, Ewen McKenzie and John Connolly’s publicly argue via the media
* Lote Tuqiri pushes team mate Sam Norton-Knight in the back after Norton-Knight made a poor on-field decision
* Lote Tuqiri broadcasts Michael O’Connor’s opinion of Peter Hewat in front of Hewat and other team mates.
It is unfortunate that after buying into rugby league’s player pool, the ARU also bought into its culture of no accountability. By trying to compete with rugby league using league’s own stars, rugby union opened itself up to league’s problems. This has nothing to do with a player’s upbringing, schooling or the social position of their parents. The absence of accountability in an organisation is to do with the leadership of that organisation and the culture they choose to pursue and develop.
When Former US President, Bill Clinton left office he reportedly advised George W Bush that al Qaeda would be his biggest concern. When John O’Neil left office he may well have told Gary Flowers that the great rugby league experiment would be his. With or without the warning, Flowers, like Ribot before him, ignored the accountability issue to his own and rugby union’s detriment.
Ironically the legacy of Gary Flower’s decision to follow rugby league’s administrative direction is the failure of the great rugby league experiment.
The signings of Sailor, Rogers and Tuqiri could have produced much better results for Australian rugby. O’Neil’s recent action in ensuring the correct disciplinary measures were meted out to Tuqiri after the winger’s failure to attend a team medical are the first steps in getting rugby union back on track. Whether that track leads to more rugby league signings remains uncertain given that it was O’Neil who was at the helm the first time around.