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

sheek Roar Guru

By sheek, sheek is a Roar Guru

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    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.

    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.

    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.

    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’.

    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.

    A former rugby lock, cricket no.11 bat and no.10 bowler, and surfboat rower. A fan of the major team sports in Australia.

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    The Crowd Says (98)

    • December 11th 2017 @ 8:28am
      Unanimous said | December 11th 2017 @ 8:28am | ! Report

      Thanks. Interesting read.

    • December 11th 2017 @ 8:43am
      Onside said | December 11th 2017 @ 8:43am | ! Report

      The ARU drained the main dam on its farm to catch more yabbies.

    • December 11th 2017 @ 11:54am
      Mat said | December 11th 2017 @ 11:54am | ! Report

      I think the ARU and Rugby folk in Australia got complacent after they turned pro and RL was busy tearing itself apart with the super league war. Then the Rugby world cup came to Australia in 2003 and further cemented the view that Rugby would soon overtake RL in NSW and Qld.

      Unfortunately since 2003 its been nearly all down hill. RL has shown itself to be amazingly resilient and the cashed up AFL moved into rugby strongholds in the east and north of Sydney and started competing for kids at the grassroots level.

      I don’t know what the answer is from here as Rugby seems to be at it’s lowest ebb in the professional era. Whoever takes over from Pulver has got a monumental job just to stop the slide let alone improve the game into the future.

    • Roar Guru

      December 11th 2017 @ 12:44pm
      John R said | December 11th 2017 @ 12:44pm | ! Report

      The more things change, the more they stay the same hey

      • Roar Guru

        December 11th 2017 @ 1:38pm
        Train Without A Station said | December 11th 2017 @ 1:38pm | ! Report

        I stopped reading halfway through tbh.

        I think the comment that got me was saying that after cutting the Force our national presence is less than 1996 – despite that being nowhere near the case.

        It’s just, as a professional game, less than July 2017 for example.

        Actually I read on in the end and found a classic sheek bugbear:

        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.

        Sheek you don’t think the explosion of Island heritage people moving to Australia for employment opportunities and then raising families was maybe a factor?

        Of the Islander or Maori heritage players that made their Wallaby debuts 2000 to the end of 2009, only the following weren’t Australian born:

        Steve Kefu
        Lote Tuqiri
        Radike Samo
        Rodney Blake
        Digby Ioane
        Quade Cooper
        Pek Cowan
        Huia Edmonds.

        And then of them, I believe only Radike Samo came to Australia after the age of 16. Most came here with their families.

        • Roar Guru

          December 11th 2017 @ 2:11pm
          John R said | December 11th 2017 @ 2:11pm | ! Report

          That’s what modern day Australia looks like, and same with New Zealand.

          • Roar Guru

            December 11th 2017 @ 2:13pm
            Train Without A Station said | December 11th 2017 @ 2:13pm | ! Report


            For some reason it appears some people seem to find it difficult to understand that people of PI descent are the same as many other immigrants. And we are a nation of immigrants.

            Seemingly a athletes whose parents immigrated to Australia from the UK are seen as more Australian than an athlete whose parents immigrated here from Apia for some.

            • Roar Guru

              December 11th 2017 @ 2:15pm
              Train Without A Station said | December 11th 2017 @ 2:15pm | ! Report

              I’d find the criticism a bit more understandable if it was based around players like Henry Speight who only found themselves in Australia because of professional opportunity in rugby.

              But Speight is in the minority here.

              From what I understand, of the overseas born Wallabies, only Speight and Nabuli came to Australia on the lure of a contract.

              • Roar Guru

                December 11th 2017 @ 3:01pm
                John R said | December 11th 2017 @ 3:01pm | ! Report

                Speight had spent a fair bit of time in NZ with the Chiefs program I understand as well.

                Hoopers folks are from England, but there doesn’t seem to be too much fuss around that.

        • December 11th 2017 @ 2:44pm
          sheek said | December 11th 2017 @ 2:44pm | ! Report


          I am grateful for you being one of only six respondents to date! Even if you only read it halfway.

          The first Islander to play for the Wallabies was Aquira Niuqila (Fijian) in 1988. He was followed by Willie Ofahengaue (Tongan), Sevasi Tabua (Fijian), Daniel Manu (Samoan), Fili Finau (Fijian) & Toutai Kefu (Tongan).

          Despite Islanders having migrated to Australia for over 100 years, only six hd played for the Wallabies by 1999.

          Yes, compared to the 20th century, what has happened in the 21st century is definitely an “explosion”.

          Prior to 2000, many Islanders played grade rugby, but either they were disinclined to make themselves available for the Wallabies, continued to represent their Island of heritage, or were here when their playing days were done, or almost done.

          No doubt in my mind, two things contributed to the explosion of Islanders making themselves available for the Wallabies. Both of these factors forced upon them by external events.

          One, with the coming of professional rugby, the Islands were deemed to have nothing of value, ie, concentration of population & suitable disposable income, other than their athletic talent.

          Two, thus sidelined by international rugby (apart from world cups), the players sought professional contracts overseas, in countries like Australia. However, in the late 90s, because of the rules in place, players of Islander heritage had to forego their Island status & make themselves available to play for the Wallabies if they wanted a pro contract.

          Ideally, this arrangement might have suited the individual, but doesn’t really help either Australia or the Pacific Islands.

          Had we had in place a system, whereby islanders could play for Aussies provinces, but still represent their Island of heritage, this would have been a much better & fairer system for all.

          The same thing has happened in rugby league & the Kangaroos. Being able to play state of origin is so lucrative, Islanders are climbing over each other to be identified as NSWmen or Qlders.

          Okay, I get it. This is the age of “instant gratification”. We watch sport to be entertained “in the moment”. Whether we remember the engagement in a week, or month, or year, is irrelevant.

          Similarly, who plays for whom & how much “emotional investment” they bring to their country, whether they were born here, came here as a youngster, have heritage ties, or whatever, is irrelevant. As a fan, just sit back & enjoy “the moment”.

          I guess that takes some getting used to.

          • December 13th 2017 @ 9:28am
            Drongo said | December 13th 2017 @ 9:28am | ! Report

            Islanders are good at it. Australia is a country of immigrants. Put those two facators together and you have the explanation for the ‘explosion’.
            From my experience most, almost all, express genuinely how proud they are of representing Australia and their cultural heritage. They don’t have their fingers crossed when they recite the oath of allegiance. What could be better than that? That is the essence of Australian non-indigenous culture, since the first fleet.
            I would also like to see a lot more indigenous Australians playing the game, but the competition is beating rugby there.

        • December 13th 2017 @ 5:58pm
          Bakkies said | December 13th 2017 @ 5:58pm | ! Report

          ‘I stopped reading halfway through tbh.’

          As I expected from a paid employee.

    • December 11th 2017 @ 2:22pm
      Rhys Bosley said | December 11th 2017 @ 2:22pm | ! Report

      “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.”

      I’m sick of reading your comments singling islanders out as not really being Australian enough for Australian teams Sheek. With all the virtue signalling that goes on on the Roar these days, you would think that constant comments by one prominent poster on one race wouldn’t be allowed, as it shouldn’t. I reckon your behaviour stinks and that you should take a look at yourself.

      • December 11th 2017 @ 2:47pm
        sheek said | December 11th 2017 @ 2:47pm | ! Report


        Unfortunately, you seem to fail to understand the point I’m making.

        I guess that is partly my fault in not expressing myself well enough, & partly your fault in not wanting to understand the angle I’m coming from.

      • December 11th 2017 @ 3:12pm
        Onside said | December 11th 2017 @ 3:12pm | ! Report

        Rhys , I see Sheeks notes about the gradual growth of P I Aussies
        in a less harsh light than you seem to have interpreted them.

        NRL teams come close to 40 % – 50 % of players with PI heritage.

        PI Aussies are similarly represented in lower grades in both Union
        and League. ( plenty on the Sunshine Coast / happy and welcome)

        Talking about it is racist, but not in any evil way.

        The changes in two decades are obvious, so lets try to understand it.

        The influence of PI Aussies on rugby (Union and League) is having
        an effect on the grassroots level.

        As most PI Aussies are much bigger than other kids , parents are
        wary of their children playing the game because they get smashed.

        Occasional video clips on this site show a young PI Aussie running
        through the opposition team, who are unable to cope with their bulk.

        This is neither good nor bad ,but instead simply the way it is, in much
        the same way from just reading players names, the influence of soccer
        players whose families have European Heritage,has had on the game.

        It would surprise nobody in another two decades if a Wallaby side was
        represented by 80%-90% of PI Aussies ..

        We gotta talk about witnessing a gradual change Rhys, its a fact of life.

        If rugby is the game they play in Heaven, St Peter might smile and say ‘bula’

        • December 11th 2017 @ 4:20pm
          Onside said | December 11th 2017 @ 4:20pm | ! Report

          Hi Mods, decision ?

        • December 12th 2017 @ 1:13am
          elvis said | December 12th 2017 @ 1:13am | ! Report

          What do you mean it’s neither good nor bad? Watching small kids get smashed by bigger kids and then leave the game for AFL or soccer is definitely bad in my book.

      • Roar Guru

        December 12th 2017 @ 4:01am
        Harry Jones said | December 12th 2017 @ 4:01am | ! Report

        Just an observation:

        Pocock (Zimbabwean)
        DH-P (Saffa)
        Moore (Irish, born in Saudi)
        Hooper (English)
        Cheika (second generation Lebanese)

        Australia is a magnet for global talent.

        But of course, some places are closer!

    • December 11th 2017 @ 3:03pm
      Rhys Bosley said | December 11th 2017 @ 3:03pm | ! Report

      We all understand what you are saying and no half-smart weasel words will hide it from somebody with half a brain.

      • December 11th 2017 @ 3:16pm
        Onside said | December 11th 2017 @ 3:16pm | ! Report


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