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Imagine this: It’s mid-May and the Melbourne Rebels are in a hole.
They recruited well in the off-season, signing mobile forwards Isi Naisirani and Luke Jones, but their big-name recruit, Quade Cooper, has struggled to fit in since moving from the Queensland Reds.
The five-eighth’s addition was meant to spark up a near-Wallabies backline including Will Genia, Marika Koroibete, Reece Hodge, Jack Maddocks and Dane Haylett-Petty, but it’s taken longer than hoped for Cooper to click with his new teammates.
The 2019 season was meant to be their breakthrough year when they’d qualify for the Super Rugby finals for the first time in their nine-year history.
It’s round 14 and the Rebels host the Bulls on Friday night before a trip to Japan to take on the Sunwolves.
That’s followed by the Waratahs in Melbourne and a brutal finish with games against the Crusaders away and the Chiefs at home.
They probably need to win at least three of their last five matches, so coach Dave Wessels plans to pick a full-strength side to take on the Bulls.
Wessels is in the last year of his Rebels contract and he’s been told by the Rebels board that he needs to make the finals if he’s to get a new deal.
He’s well regarded by overseas clubs, but they need to see him steer a strong roster to the finals if – at the age of 37 – he’s to be considered as a head coach in Europe or Japan.
Scott Johnson has been in his role as Rugby Australia’s new Director of Rugby for two months. His task is to oversee a new National High Performance model similar to the one he led in Scotland and also used successfully in Ireland and New Zealand.
His directive is focused on getting the Wallabies to improve significantly with the World Cup only four months away and lifting expectations of downcast fans following a dismal 2018.
Part of that is managing the workload of Wallabies players. Johnson, as well as Wallabies coach Michael Cheika, want Adam Coleman, Genia and Maddocks to miss the Rebels’ clash with the Bulls.
They’ve been bashed around a bit over the past month and need a rest. Plus Johnson wants Hodge to play at outside centre, while Wessels wants him at fullback.
Wessels is seeking to create history and he’s under pressure. He’s chasing victories for the players, fans, fellow Rebels staff and sponsors – while there’s understandably a large personal incentive to do everything he needs to try to retain a job he cherishes.
Johnson isn’t invested in Melbourne sentiment; he’s driven by what’s best for Australian rugby. But if the Rebels make the finals, it would be a great milestone for the growth of the game in the Victorian capital, the Melburnians shout.
Johnson shrugs his shoulders – “So what?!? It’s all about the Wallabies.”
This scenario is an example of the potential tug-of-war that’s facing Australian rugby this year.
At the announcement of Johnson’s appointment in December, Rugby Australia chief executive Raelene Castle and chairman Cameron Clyne declared it a “milestone day” for Australian rugby and talked optimistically about achieving “greater alignment” between the Super Rugby clubs, RA and the Wallabies.
“This is a proven model, it demonstrates success,” said Clyne. “While we’ve been working on it for 12 months and talking about the type of changes that would deliver it, I think the key element here was actually getting someone of Scott’s capability who’s actually delivered this sort of program.”
It all sounds upbeat and bullish. However, the changes have seemingly been made not through governance reforms, but rely instead on goodwill, a spirit of collaboration, and perhaps most heavily on Johnson and his experience with Scotland.
It’s optimistic. Or do RA plan to exert some leverage over the Super Rugby clubs with threats to reduce funding allocations if they fail to comply with Johnson’s demands? Will there be repercussions for non-compliance? RA only top up salaries, right? So why should they be able to throw their weight around?
Will the fans even be aware of Johnson’s plans – be it selection, workload management, fitness, even playing style? How far does his control extend?
Or does RA believe that given the Wallabies have been so poor recently and need all the help they can get, they’ve effectively been given a mandate by Australian rugby fans to fix it – even if that’s to the detriment of the four franchises?
Do they therefore think they hold the upper hand in the PR battle if the inevitable clashes between franchises and Johnson and RA are fought openly in the media?
The new plan sounds grey and a bit loose, and threatens to undermine the Super Rugby competition.
Yes, the five New Zealand Super Rugby clubs plan to rest their All Blacks this season. And Irish provinces thrive in European competitions with their centralised model of managing Test players at club level.
The All Blacks and Ireland are the two best Test sides in the world. It’s a “proven model, it demonstrates success”, said Clyne.
The centralised model of a common goal all sounds good in theory. But when there are different motivations – competing motivations – amongst the power holders and with job security, ego and financials on the line, then the so-called national alignment can become fragile.
A lot seems to be riding on Johnson and his experience with Scotland, not on structural changes. If Castle and Clyne want greater control, don’t they need to be offering the franchises something more tangible than a repeated mantra about greater alignment and cooperation?
Wessels wouldn’t have to leave Melbourne to chat with someone who knows about the friction that can be generated between state/club and country.
Andrew McDonald, Victoria’s cricket coach, defied Australia coach Justin Langer by refusing to bat Aaron Finch as an opener in his final Sheffield Shield match before the first Test against India.
McDonald views Finch as a middle-order batsman. Cricket Australia view the Sheffield Shield as a breeding ground for international cricketers, not as a hard-fought competition for state supremacy.
Of course McDonald wants Australia to be strong and successful, but he’s primarily driven to win titles for Victoria.
Alignment and centralisation – their success is proven in the rugby sphere, but for Australian rugby fans, don’t expect smooth sailing.