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The Wrap: No Super Rugby off-season while World Rugby gathers in Sydney

These are difficult times for Wallabies coach Michael Cheika. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)
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23rd September, 2018
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The Wallabies are now ensconced in Port Elizabeth, pondering how to improve on their 2019, 2-5 win-loss record against a resurgent South Africa and Argentina.

Included in their number is the uncapped Angus Cottrell, a replacement for Lukhan Tui, who in the wake of a family bereavement and well-publicised incident with a fan is taking a break from the game.

Cottrell is a rugby journeyman who was unwanted in his home state Queensland before finding his feet in Super Rugby at the Western Force. The 2018 season brought a serious knee injury and the exclusion of the Force from Super Rugby before Cottrell resurfaced again this year in Melbourne, vying for one of the few remaining spots on Dave Wessels’s roster.

Watching on from the sidelines I posted to a WhatsApp group of rugby colleagues that I had never seen anyone train with the intensity and purpose of Cottrell. Weeks later, with a contract in place, what impressed me even more was that Cottrell’s work ethic and intensity level never dropped off, securing him a starting role over Wallaby Lopeti Timani and now a Wallabies tour.

Cottrell is no fancy-stepping ball-playing No.6 in the way say Vaea Fifita is or what Caleb Timu might one day be. What he does offer, however, is a hard shoulder in defence and a willingness to run through brick walls and empty the tank for the team cause – qualities that make him an obvious fit for Michael Cheika.

Last week’s loss to Argentina hurt Cheika not just because of the result but because his sides in the past have often been able to paper over skills and tactical deficiencies with Cottrell-style guts and determination – the recent 23-18 win over South Africa a case in point.

But there were signs emerging at Robina that his players were starting to tune out – or it was at least a demonstration of how at test level fire and brimstone and the shedding of blood for the jersey, though important, are insufficient and/or impossible to sustain.

Michael Hooper

(Phil Walter/Getty Images)

Mark Ella in the Australian over the weekend pointed a disapproving finger towards Cheika’s assistants, Steve Larkham and Nathan Grey, and offered up the potential for creation of a coaching dream team which might include Brad Thorn (defence and set-piece), and either Wessels or Daryl Gibson (attack).

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For his part, that’s a discussion Wessels is having no part of, telling me over the weekend, “I’m flat chat doing the job I have right now”.

To illustrate, it is revealing to look at Wessels’s workload since the 2018 Super Rugby season ended for the Rebels, when Waisake Naholo smashed a flying Jack Maddocks into the Forsyth Barr turf.

What is immediately apparent is that being a Super Rugby coach is no ordinary job, and for Wessels – and no doubt all of the Super Rugby coaches – the term ‘off-season’ is a complete misnomer.

The review process started with accepting how, despite his team coming within a whisker of being the first Rebels side to make the play-offs, they weren’t good enough to do so.

“While not making the play-offs magnified our disappointment, in some ways it was a good thing for us. It certainly provided a platform to have more honest conversations and a more vigorous review process”, Wessels explained.

That undertaking has been impressively thorough, including multi-level player reviews and coaches poring over statistics and benchmarking to identify where gaps existed relative to the top-performing sides. Wessels again: “This raised questions about tactics and personnel, which led into discussions about technical aspects and where we needed to bring in outside expertise.

“This then flowed into more discussions about our identity, to keep refining a signature style of play that the players can readily identify. We made a lot of progress there during the season, and it’s a critically important aspect because once the whole group understands this, it helps builds confidence on the field, provides parameters for our leadership group, and then it starts to inform our performance program, skills development, recruitment and selection.”

Dave Wessels Super Rugby 2017

(Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)

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Wessels is also a believer in himself and staff getting involved in external programs – finding anything that works in other environments that can provide the Rebels with an advantage, even down to detail like how to schedule and run better meetings, manage medical services and so on.

“Some of the backroom stuff we got from the Melbourne Storm has been really valuable,” he explains further. “We’ve had coaches in Europe and Japan and I’ve done some work with Simon Goodwin of the Melbourne Demons.” The Demons this weekend bowed out of their first finals campaign since 2006.

Wessels’ workload shows no sign of easing off just yet, and while he isn’t directly involved with coaching the Melbourne Rising NRC side, he is observing training and matches closely to identify players that he can invite to training and provide the same opportunity that was provided to Cottrell at the start of this season.

The 2019 Rebels squad is indeed taking shape, with recent signings Isi Naisarani and Luke Jones to provide size and muscle to the loose forward mix and promising centre Campbell Magnay set to return to Australia from Japan.

Matt Toomua will also join the side for the later part of the season once his Leicester commitments are complete. Whether this is to play at No.10 or No.12 will depend on whether the much talked about opportunity to play Jack Maddocks at playmaker transpires or not and where Quade Cooper finally lands – and background discussions about how and where to apportion Cooper’s contract are continuing.

Forgotten man Jordan Uelese is another noteworthy mention, having successfully worked through rehab and being on target for an early season return to Super Rugby.

Wallaby inside centre Matt Toomua

(Tim Anger)

One Super Rugby challenge for the Rebels that might not be all it should is the Sunwolves, who last week announced that Jamie Joseph was stepping down from his coaching role to focus on the Japanese national side leading into the World Cup.

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“Next year we need to be peaking about now, in September, and certainly not in February when Super Rugby starts”, Joseph said. Understandable enough in terms of prospects for the Brave Blossoms, but for the battling Sunwolves, after a 2018 season that saw them notch a ‘best-ever’ three wins but still finish last, it’s hardly the kind of news that will help a besieged SANZAAR attract fans back to Super Rugby.

Joseph’s player-management strategy is no different to that of Steve Hansen or any other World Cup coach – reflective of the commercial demands of professional rugby resulting in there being too much rugby for fans to readily digest and for players’ bodies to sensibly accommodate.

In that light it was interesting to note the response by Australia’s Rugby Union Players Association to the Tui incident. They sent a letter to all Australian contracted players criticising the security provided for the players and calling on Rugby Australia to “educate” the fan involved in the incident.

Well-intentioned as it may have been, the letter smacked of picking off low-hanging fruit. If players associations from all around the world really want to do something to benefit their players, they should get serious about calling World Rugby and representatives of the professional club competitions to the table to talk seriously about player welfare and the construct of a proper, sensible global calendar, where players aren’t subjected to a tug-of-war between club and country, and expected to play continuously.

Timothy Lafaele

(The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP Images )

Welsh Rugby Union CEO Martyn Phillips spoke optimistically last week about the potential for change, but speaking before yesterday’s Sydney Rays versus Fiji Drua NRC match, World Rugby head Brett Gosper hosed down the prospect of any change to the global calendar, preferring instead to focus on the potential to provide more meaning to international rugby by shifting the mix from ‘friendly’ fixtures to more competitive games.

Given the lengthy, tortured process undertaken taken last time to achieve what was at best a modest realignment, Gosper’s comments are acknowledgement that there is little stomach within World Rugby for trying to get the English and French clubs and the national unions to simultaneously agree to pare back their seasons and take the revenue hit that would accompany that action.

It is only player power that can more realistically facilitate that change; however, with a couple of notable exceptions, player advocacy to date has been underscored by leadership that, fearful of seeing player salaries diminished, has failed to understand the bigger picture and to deliver outcomes of real value.

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The agenda for this week’s World Rugby meeting, which is being hosted in Sydney by Rugby Australia, also comprises a Governer-General’s reception and various select committee meetings, including regulations, audit and risk, budget, and specific updates on Pacific Islands, as well as a women’s rugby forum.

Critics may ask how Rugby Australia, faced with a number of pressing domestic issues, can afford the luxury of playing host for four days. The reality, however, is that this is a scheduled World Rugby meeting, and no matter the negative landscape for the sport domestically, governance of the global game, in which Australia plays a leading role, cannot be left to sit idle.

Raelene Castle at a Rugby Australia press conference

(AAP Image/Daniel Munoz)

Also speaking yesterday, Rugby Australia CEO Raelene Castle pointed out how this was a good opportunity for Australia to press its claims for hosting rights to the 2021 Women’s World Cup and to lay an early marker in the sand for a bid for the 2027 Men’s World Cup.

With the sport largely having dropped out of the general public consciousness in Australia, there is no better way to frame rugby in a positive light than through hosting such major events, never mind the potential financial benefits that might also accrue.

With rugby’s heavy hitters in town, on Saturday leading rugby writer Wayne Smith of Australian penned an open letter to World Rugby, lamenting the current state of the local game and imploring them to use this visit to repay some of the help Australia has provided them over the years.

Specifically what help was being asked for wasn’t made clear; nevertheless, in my view, and acknowledging my respect for the tireless service to the sport of Smith, this is precisely the wrong approach. Any type of financial handout or regulation designed to keep Australian players out of the hands of marauding French and English clubs would only be papering over the cracks.

Australian rugby’s core problem is that it comprises a complex, disjointed array of organisations that for the most part have low regard for where each other sits or for rugby as a whole. These state, school and club bodies exhibit little understanding that without being part of a larger, purposeful, integrated coalition – such as that adopted by other successful nations – Australian rugby is denied a governance and operational structure fit for purpose in the professional age.

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Looking wider, Australian society is today riven with special interest groups and individuals consumed by a handout mentality, who want somebody to blame and someone to fix their own problems, all in the name of notional ‘fairness’.

It is sad, but hardly surprising, that Australian rugby reflects this.

Nobody involved in the game anywhere in the world would want to see Australian rugby slip any further, on or off the field. But concern is one thing; intervention is another matter altogether.

For one, there are other more deserving nations in the Pacific Islands who have suffered far more damage, and for longer, as a result of the global commercial imbalances in professional rugby.

Just as Wales has been working hard to remedy its chronic domestic problems, it is Australia’s responsibility to fix up its own mess. And when it finally does, it will be all the better for having done so itself.