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Two decades on, Australian rugby's hope and dreams remain elusive

A wet crowd of Wallabies supporters before the opening game of the Bledisloe Cup series between the Wallabies and the All Blacks at ANZ Stadium in Sydney, Saturday, Aug. 16, 2014. (Photo: Paul Barkley/LookPro)
Roar Guru
10th December, 2017
98
1762 Reads

Last weekend I finally got around to clearing my study of unwanted books, magazines not revisited in many years and reams of scrap paper with double-up scribblings.

Then I happened upon a large, thick magazine, which was a ten-year commemoration of Rugby Review and Australian Rugby Review best writing from 1992-2001.

Spiro Zavos was one of the excellent writers for these magazines, which also included John Blondin (editor-in-chief), Greg Thomas (consulting editor), Peter Jenkins, Greg Growden, Keith Quinn, Dan Retief, Gordon Bray, Mark Ella, Peter Fitzsimons, among many other fine writers.

The period covered is quite possibly the most significant and dramatic in both world and Australian rugby history.

The magazine began with two reviews – one of the recently concluded 1991 world Cup won by the Wallabies and the other a retelling of how the tournament came about in the 1980s.

In the course of the decade, we saw a returned Springboks win the World Cup on home soil in 1995 and the Wallabies triumph again in 1999.

But the most significant event was the transition from amateur to professional rugby in 1995-96.

Flicking through the years, my eyes settled on several very telling and informative articles from 1997, which just so happens to have been 20 years ago.

Reading this, I was reminded of the saying that the more things change, the more they stay the same. At least in some key respects.

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For example, humanity has come a very long way since the caveman days, but we still wage war with each other and to date, there is no cure for the common cold.

Reading an interview by John Blondin with John O’Neill and then an article by Peter Jenkins, it occurred to me that the hopes and dreams of Australian rugby remain elusive. Some of these key hopes and dreams are no further advanced than they were in 1997.

Let’s begin with John Blondin, representing ARR, speaking with ARU chief executive John O’Neill, in his second year in the job of running Australian rugby. Note: the SWOT philosophy (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) philosophy was very popular in the late 1990s.

The following are edited highlights.

ARR: What are the current strengths of Australian rugby?

JON: Well organised, well structured, containable and well identified.

I would suggest that in 2017 this is no longer the case. It appears to me that the ARU has no long-term vision for the game, only a short-term holding pattern.

ARR: What are the weaknesses?

JON: Lack of player numbers in regard to international competitiveness. The hurdles are that in NSW and Queensland, AFL, ARL, super league and soccer are being played in our heartland. We are a fourth-fifth rated sport in a coded sense.

In rugby we are yet to jump the big hurdle to say we’re right up there with player and audience participation as experienced by AFL and NRL.

We’re kinda back where we started here in 2017. We’re still the fourth-ranked footy code despite reasonable improvements in player numbers. But the other codes have also improved significantly. Our national presence has gone from two provinces to three to five and now back to four. Disenfranchising an entire state is no way to expand the game successfully, and we still don’t have a significant national profile.

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ARR: What are the opportunities?

JON: Enormous. Rugby league is in disarray. Fans, supporters, sponsors and broadcasters are disillusioned and disenchanted. This [Super Rugby] is as good as it gets for football [rugby] when compared to rugby league. It’s national, it’s global, it’s played across three continents.

Now in 2017 it is rugby fans that are disillusioned and disenfranchised, while rugby league has reinvigorated itself. Super Rugby was exhilarating back in 1997 but somewhere over the past 20 years it lost its way. One of its former strengths, being played across many countries is now a drawback. Fans don’t care about what’s happening offshore (by comparison), they want to see their best players on home soil.

ARR: And the threats?

JON: We don’t have a national presence. It’s played mainly in two states. Competition is all about survival. Many of the old school state that we should not forget the loyal states and we should not forget the heartland.

But if we are to grow the game as a national code beyond these limited horizons, it’s more than just a private school game.

There were changes in August 1995 and rugby is now a professional. Unless we’re truly competitive, we won’t survive as a popular sport.

Amen to all that. Our national presence is still far less than desirable. Even more so after the culling of the Western Force. We’re still too east coast-centric and too private school-orientated. We’re stuck in the 1997 time warp because we continue to do many of the same old things.

All up, many of John O’Neill’s answers were very sensible and his warnings were prescient. His initial tenure as Australian rugby supremo 1996-2003 was generally outstanding. His second tenure 2007-13 was less successful as I think by then he was a somewhat embittered man.

His second tenure lacked the energy, imagination and vibrancy of his first tenure. He basically balanced the books and not much else second time around.

Peter Jenkins then gave some wonderful insights in an article titled: ‘Money makes the game go around’. Some of the sentiments given back in 1997 continue to reverberate today in 2017.

The following are edited highlights.

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Mobile phones, managers and mega-buck contracts. Show me a backline star and I’ll show you a BMW.

Ten years ago it was “For Love Not Money”, as penned by Simon Poidevin. But with the advent of professionalism, the game has changed.

The players might complain of exhaustion, of over-training, of the burn-out factor. But they have been caught in the wheels of change, one of the spokes that will just keep turning.

Since the game shed its amateur ethos in 1995, after more than a century of no pay for play, the off-field action has been every bit as intense and at times as exciting as the shop-front window, the actual matches in the stadiums.

Within Australia alone, the commercialisation of rugby has not been a slow and evolutionary process. It has blown like an active volcano.

We seem to be arguing or discussing many of the same issues in 2017 as in 1997. Player exhaustion? Player burnout? Then there’s the revealing paragraph about how the administrators quickly turned from lecturing us on retaining the ethos of rugby, to running headlong to get their snouts into the money trough.

Jenkins goes on to reveal how the world changed on the day before the 1995 World Cup began, when the following respective union chiefs Louis Luyt (SARU), Leo Williams (ARU), Richie Guy (NZRU) and David Moffett (SANZAR) announced they were receiving US$555 million from Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp over a decade to showcase all their major matches (international and national) on their programs.

Jenkins then provides a brief history of the early years of Super Rugby, especially the rapid rise of the ACT Brumbies.

Finally, Jenkins broached the issue of a change of Wallaby jersey, at the time a highly controversial decision.

There was a tidal wave reaction to the decision last year (1996) to change the Wallaby jumper.

The all-gold jersey was much loved, and while its origins dated back only three decades [it was actually first used in 1961], the tug of sentimentality was strong.

The debate raged for several weeks but the bottom line was that five letter word. Money.

The ARU was being paid $6 million over three years by Reebok for the Wallabies to wear a jumper designed by them.

Clearly, they wanted a different design to the old strip, for effect, for publicity, for a Reebok stamp of individuality.

The green, gold and white number finally agreed upon by the two parties was, says O’Neill, among the most conservative.

But tradition was being tampered with and the traditionalists were outraged. For the old all-gold to have stayed, it would have cost the ARU over $4 million in revenue.

That sort of money could pay the contracts of Australia’s top seven players for a year.

The moral of the story here is for sponsors to work with the sport’s history and traditions, not against them. The third year of the contract saw a redesigned jersey with green armbands and green southern cross, one which was much loved. Why didn’t they think of that in the first place?.

From 1998, there was another article worth sharing, as its contents continue to reverberate today. The article was headed, ‘Wanted: Australians only’.

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The following are edited highlights.

The exodus of players from the southern hemisphere to cash-rich clubs in England, Italy and Japan has reached almost epidemic proportions in recent years.

The presence of so many foreign imports raises the question of what effect this is having on the development of local talent. It is a fear many critics believed is being realised in the UK. The shambling performance of the Home Nations surely reflect the damage it is doing.

In Australia, the three Super 12 sides all had “imports” in their squads in this year’s competition [one forward and one back per S12 franchise].

The number of players is relatively small, but the SARU, unlike administrators in the northern hemisphere, sees the use of these players as counter-productive.

The union quite rightly wants to ensure the development money pumped into the game in this country to expand the player base results in local talent coming to the fore.

ARU managing director John O’Neill is clear on this policy: “If you don’t nurture your own backyard, it is going to affect the quality of your national team”.

In May [1998] the ARU decided that from next year only players eligible to play for Australia will be allowed to play in the super 12, or in any of the national representative sides, and Super 12 teams tempted to look overseas to bolster their squads will be prevented from doing so.

I’ve long wondered why there was an “explosion” of Islander heritage players in Australian provincial and national teams in the mid-2000s. The answer is partly found here.

Seeking a professional rugby contract in Australia wasn’t enough. Players had to basically forego the Island nation of their birth or youth if they wanted to play professional rugby in Australia. A case of unintended consequences perhaps, which ultimately helps neither Australia nor the island nations.

Well, that’s it folks. I could have added so much more. But I wanted to give fellow Roarers a snapshot of the rugby sporting landscape as it was back in 1997, and how in the big issues of hopes and dreams, well, we’re still mostly hoping and dreaming.