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The Wrap: Truth the first casualty in rugby’s propaganda wars

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14th October, 2018
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A week is a long time in rugby. For New Zealand and Australian fans the exhilaration of last week’s stunning comeback Test victories gave way to the more unobtrusive, subtle delights of the Mitre 10 Cup and NRC.

For some it was a chance to crank up the lawnmower, wash the dog or gather up stray receipts to piece together the tax return. Or perhaps ponder the irony in ex-All Black Richard Loe being anointed a ‘Worksafe Ambassador’, fronting a new farm safety campaign.

To be fair to Loe, his coming together with Wallaby Paul Carozza was in the days when a rugby pitch was a rugby pitch, before it became a ‘workplace’.

The literary minded might have chosen to swap the Charles Dickens classic of last week for another classic, George Orwell’s 1984. By way of background to his most famous work, Orwell once described how “history stopped in 1936 – after that there was only propaganda”.

Eighty-plus years later, when it comes to Australian rugby, it seems that Orwell was on to something.

Reaction to Australia’s 45-34 win against Argentina was a mix of relief at the win, respect for the players getting things right in the second half, and derision for a first-half display that encapsulated all of the frustrations associated with Michael Cheika’s team over the last two seasons.

With Rugby Australia keen to find reasons not to dismiss Cheika ahead of next year’s World Cup, the recovery in Salta came just in the nick of time.

Nobody in Australia’s dressing room has been forthcoming about what it was that Cheika actually said in his now famous spray, although Cheika’s admission that his address “did not contain any technical information” is believable.

Michael Cheika

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

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I referred the matter to the resident lip-reading expert at my house, but the best she could come up with, at the moment Cheika grabbed at Bernard Foley’s chest, was, “If you lot don’t pull your finger out, this bloke gets the arse, and I’m bringing back Quade!”

With his job secure, it afforded Cheika the luxury of last week, of acknowledging his numerous critics; “We haven’t been winning and so that’s what happens. You get critics and you accept that.”

These critics don’t include ex-Wallaby coach and broadcaster Alan Jones who, writing in The Australian on Friday, proclaimed Cheika as “almost coach of the year”, and how he “should be applauded, not interrogated”.

Really? Coach of the year? What do you think?

It’s all too clever by half. It’s hard to imagine Cheika being overjoyed at being used as a stalking horse by Jones against Rugby Australia, but such are these strange times.

Jones is a party to the Brett Papworth led ‘Australian Club Rugby Association’ who recently wrote ‘A Clarion Call’ to all Australian rugby clubs seeking support for – well, something that isn’t overtly clear from the document itself.

The letter has the feel of an invitation to one of those suburban pub ‘Over 38s’ evenings; a pre-amble whinge about how things are no longer as great now as they were in the 80s, and an invitation to pop on the rose-tinted glasses and pretend that dodgy dance-floor moves that might once have done the trick for eligible ladies loaded to the gills on ‘West Coast Coolers’ are somehow relevant for today.

As far as palace revolutions go, it all feels a little underwhelming. After all, wouldn’t it take only a single phone call from Jones to NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian to have the Sydney Opera House adorned in the colours of Sydney’s Shute Shield clubs and be done with it?

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The letter, of course, is important, if only for the fact that it is framed by a steering committee made up of some important figures in Australian rugby.

But its credibility took an instant hit when the new organisation claimed to have the support of the Australian Rugby Union Players Association (RUPA), which prompted RUPA to immediately issue a statement saying that they were “completely blindsided by the letter”.

RUPA also referred to a quote used in the letter taken from a private email from their representative Damien Fitzpatrick, stating; “It is taken completely out of context, and nowhere in that email has RUPA endorsed the formation of an Australian Rugby Clubs Association”, and “further references to RUPA within this document include other inaccuracies and they do not represent the views of RUPA.”

Also raising eyebrows was the proposed governance structure; a six-person committee stacked with three representatives from NSW, one each from Queensland, ACT and WA, and none at all from Victoria – this despite the letter purporting to be from, in their own words, “the entire grassroots of the game of rugby in Australia”.

The group also fails to articulate what rugby will gain by them setting themselves up as antagonists to Rugby Australia. What consideration has been given to working constructively with the game’s administrative body?

Why not a letter instead to air concerns about lack of rugby expertise on the board, about schools rugby and developmental programs, and disconnection of the central administration from the game’s grassroots, pre-empting an offer to work in concert with Rugby Australia and the major state unions to try to find a better balance between the community game and the realities of competing in a global rugby market in the professional game?

One reason might be that there is a hidden agenda and a propaganda war to be won. Another might be that this group, whose heyday pre-dates the professional era, has little understanding of the commercial battleground that is now global rugby.

The Wallabies are currently ranked seventh in the world – bad enough, but consider that in terms of commercial influence and power, both Italy and Japan would jump above them, relegating Australia to the ninth most commercially influential rugby nation in the world.

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Adam Coleman

(Photo by Daniel Jayo/Getty Images)

That’s not a criticism of anyone, just a reflection of the relative size of the ‘rugby market’, the sports broadcasting environment, and the extent of domestic competition from other successful sports.

Why is this important? Because in a global, professional sport, this is what determines Australia’s ability to generate sponsorship, broadcast rights revenue and to contract leading players – and from there, win World Cups and fund its domestic amateur/community game.

Any strategy that turns its back on the rugby world in favour of warm and fuzzy dreams of returning to the glory days of Coogee Oval ignores reality and is doomed to destroy Australia’s competitiveness at the elite level, and shrink the game towards field hockey status.

As if any reminder was needed, ex-All Blacks Steven Luatua and Lima Sopoaga highlighted the cost pressures faced by the Australian and New Zealand unions, hinting that they expect more players to follow their lead to play their rugby in the northern hemisphere.

Now playing in the English Premiership for recently promoted Bristol, reputedly earning NZ$1.3m per season; Luatua said late last week; “With all the awareness around concussion, and awareness in general that we’re not going to play forever, I tend to agree with Lima that it will start opening up and guys will start to see the reality that if the pay gap is going to be that much different then you’ve got to look after the family.”

For Australia, the issue is not whether fans agree that Wallabies captain Michael Hooper is worth A$1.2m per year, or would rather that money be spent instead on tackling bags and oranges for country juniors.

Luatua and Sopoaga – not a national captain like Hooper, but probably New Zealand’s fifth-ranked flyhalf, reportedly earning NZ$1.1m per year at Wasps – place Hooper’s contract into ‘fair market value’ perspective.

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In an enlightening interview with The Times, Sopoaga expressed delight at the local price of avocados and blueberries, and shut the door on Coventry’s car salesmen, indicating that he won’t be spending any of his contract money “to buy stupid cars and stuff like that”. In more ways than one, Sopoaga provides a real contrast to the man he replaced at Wasps, Danny Cipriani.

Another report to drop last week confirmed that the NSW Rugby Union has denied World Series Rugby (WSR) the opportunity to base a team for their 2019 competition in Western Sydney – although they did indicate that the door was potentially open for 2020 and beyond.

As flagged by this column recently, it should come as no surprise that NSW or Rugby Australia would decline to let Andrew Forrest – or anybody – set up a new team at short notice, without having a full understanding of the ramifications for the existing professional and club competitions, and the manner in which players in Australia are centrally contracted.

It may well be that WSR eventually has a place in the Australian landscape beyond Western Australia but, given the compressed time period and degree of uncertainty, it was always going to be too big an ask right now.

Remember also how WSR was sold by Forrest as a means to provide high-level rugby for the Force players and WA rugby fans, and an opportunity to expand the game into Asia.

Western Sydney was part afterthought, part opportunistic land grab, and with respect to its original premise, WSR loses nothing from this decision.

In a non-issue situation where there really is no villain, the West Australian nevertheless defaulted to Orwell, pointing to “roadblocks” being set up by the NSW Rugby Union and Rugby Australia – no doubt to keep anti-establishment fires stoked.

Forrest himself cut a relaxed figure at Saturday’s NRC match in Perth between the Force and the Fijian Drua, doling out sunscreen to what was a very healthy crowd.

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One thing this impressive rollout demonstrated was the benefit of NRC teams having a strong identity and connection to an existing fan-base. Obviously, it is easier in this case, because the Force are the same squad that fans have been already following throughout the year, but there are lessons here for Rugby Australia.

Andrew Twiggy Forrest

Andrew Forrest. (AAP Image/Richard Wainwright)

For the NRC to grow, the remaining sides must be more strongly connected to existing supporter cohorts – through the Super Rugby franchises and their social media teams, connectivity to club rugby and through better-resourced promotion on the ground, to help rugby people better understand what the NRC is and why it is worth watching.

The players and coaches are doing their bit – this is a substantially improved competition, on the field, over previous years. There should be no reason why all NRC teams don’t have an active supporter base of at least 20-25 per cent of their notional Super Rugby team.

As well as telling us that Jordan Petaia has a long Wallaby career ahead of him, the weekend confirmed the four finalists, with the Drua, via a strong second-half performance, edging the Force 33-28, to claim home ground advantage for the playoffs.

They can be a bit shy at scrum time, and get frustrated when the opposition retains possession and bores them out of the game. But with the ball, when things click, the Drua are a delight to watch. They will be very hard to toss from here.