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Australian rugby can turn this corner, but only if it wants to

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3rd December, 2018
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Discussion among the rugby faithful last week is really only intensifying the pressure on Rugby Australia to make some tough decisions around the Wallabies coaching set-up.

But the handling of the whole Jake White phone hook-up last week also showed that RA has a few more debacles up its sleeve yet.

That White got in touch with Rugby Australia and flagged his interest in returning to international coaching via the Wallabies should have surprised no-one. That news of RA’s interest in speaking with White and scheduling a phone call last week leaked to the media shouldn’t have surprised anyone either.

But RA then cancelling the chat because the news found its way to the media made absolutely no sense at all.

I initially thought that word of the White call leaking might have originated from RA themselves, even thinking that maybe this was their way of very publicly telling Michael Cheika that his roadmap ahead to the Rugby World Cup was going to have to be not just bloody good, but also very well presented to the board on December 10.

“There are potentially other options out there, Michael, and we’re going to make a few enquiries.”

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RA hanging up on White before they even dialled his number makes me now think the leak came from White himself, though. And that wouldn’t surprise me; he’s as good a media player as his little mate, Eddie Jones.

But regardless of where it came from, why RA would willingly close the door on White for such a seemingly trivial matter has bewildered just about everyone.

Even if they spoke to White and worked out very early on in the discussion that he wasn’t going to be the right fit for the Wallabies and Australian rugby more broadly, what harm would the call itself have actually caused?

If anything, it might have moved a few other potential candidates around the rugby world to get in touch, too.

It kind of begs the question, “Why?”

But then, the answer would quickly come back, “this is Australian rugby”.

And just as I’ve long argued that Australian politics has nothing on Australian rugby politics, it remains true that no other professional sport in this country can shoot itself in the foot quite like rugby. Cricket is having a good crack at this title currently, and even football has its moments, but both trail rugby in the self-wounding stakes.

Jake White as Brumbies coach

ACT Brumbies’ coach Jake White (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

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As the discontent around the Wallabies results grows louder, even former ARU CEO John O’Neill has emerged to have his say.

“They have to act in the best interests of Australian rugby and the reality is the statistics don’t lie and a radical overhaul is an option that must be considered seriously,” O’Neill told Fairfax Media over the weekend.

“The health and wellbeing of Australian rugby relies inevitably and conclusively on the success of the Wallabies. The current state of the Wallabies’ performance, and therefore Australian rugby, needs urgent repair on and off the field,” he said.

I couldn’t help but wonder what the health and wellbeing of Australian rugby might have been like had O’Neill not so quickly killed off the Australian Rugby Championship after one season in 2007, at the behest of the Sydney clubs.

‘Rest’ is going to be a keyword and fresh battleground in 2019, with Cheika and RA High Performance Manager Ben Whittaker having discussions around resting key Wallabies during next year’s Super Rugby season, a move that’s been in vogue for the last couple of Rugby World Cup years.

But even a move like this, a move that makes a decent amount of sense on the surface, ‘best interests of Australian rugby’ and all, is obviously not going to be so simple to find a consensus.

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Long-term Roarer Rhys Bosley argued over the weekend that resting Wallabies next year will “…sacrifice Australian rugby’s chances of rebuilding the sport in Australia through Super Rugby improvement,” while also very correctly pointing out that “…Cheika has had opportunities to practice what he preaches on managing player workload management but flogs his best players during the international season by playing them constantly.”

But while I agree with ‘Boz’ to a degree, this plan for 2019 is exactly the sort of thing that needs to be established early among all parties, and executed so that it doesn’t impact the Super Rugby sides in an unbalanced way.

Surely, it has to be an ‘everyone rests or no-one rests’ policy if Australian derby games are earmarked, for example, remembering that one of the Brumbies’ beefs with Cheika’s request to rest players from a Sunday game ahead of the June Tests was that the Waratahs were able to use their full contingent on the Friday night.

As long as a balanced, equitable, and staggered approach to resting players can be found – and that the resting is done early in the season, not on the eve of finals – then the greater good needs to be put before self-interest.

That in itself will be an achievement. Self-interest has long ruled supreme in Australian rugby, and that was all-too evident in many of the comments on Sunday. “I’m just focussing on [insert Australian Super Rugby team] in 2019” was a common sentiment expressed.

Forgettable seasons will do that. No clear plan or way forward for the game does lead to confusion, which in turn forces people to literally look after their own patch. That’s precisely why the concept of the Australian Rugby Clubs Association has come to be.

The clubs in Sydney feel unloved by their state body, and so feel the only way forward is push for a voice on the board of the national body.

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Michael Cheika Wallabies

Wallabies coach Michael Cheika (Photo by Jason O’Brien/Getty Images)

Yet for all this agitation, and for all this evident desire for not just tweaks, but proper generational change at all levels of rugby governance, the key powerbrokers of New South Wales and Queensland remain silent.

They could call an extraordinary general meeting and overthrow the Rugby Australia board and Chairman Cameron Clyne tomorrow if they wanted to. They are the ones who could lead the way in overhauling the game nationally at every level, if they wanted to.

So why haven’t they? Because that would also remove their power. The ones with the power to enact change for the good of the game in Australia don’t dare use that power for what it would mean for their own patch.

Jones himself hit on this topic at Twickenham last week, saying in defence of Cheika, “…you have to look at the system and if I was involved in Australian rugby, and I am not, you cannot have two of your biggest provinces bankrupt and still having all the control in the game,” after England’s win over the Wallabies to end the Spring Tour.

December 10 will come and go, and as I said last week, I’ll be pleasantly surprised if there is any great change at the helm of the Wallabies.

And Australian rugby will continue to stumble in a direction we’ll convince ourselves is forward, only not shooting ourselves in the foot when forced to stop and reload.