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The Wrap: Only one Australian finalist a poor Super Rugby return

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16th June, 2019
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In 1976 the film ‘The Song Remains The Same’ documented a series of 1973 concerts by legendary rock band, Led Zeppelin, held at New York’s Madison Square Garden.

What is little known is that the delay between the concerts, and the film’s release was due to the original director, Joe Massot, being replaced, in acrimonious circumstances, by an Australian, Peter Clifton, who duly discovered key sections of footage to be missing.

In true ‘Spinal Tap’ style, Clifton recreated the New York shows at a replica Madison Square Garden, which was actually a set built at Shepparton Studios in the UK. Dogged by financing, continuity and costuming problems, the end result was, to quote one of the band’s greatest tracks, ‘Dazed and Confused’, with lead singer Robert Plant ultimately describing the film as “a load of bollocks.”

It was a ‘dazed and confused’ Waratahs and Rebels that served up a ‘load of bollocks’ on Friday night, to limp out of the finals race and leave the Brumbies as not just the only Australian franchise still in contention, but the only local team playing consistently competitive rugby.

It is true that after zero wins against New Zealand franchises in 2017 became three wins in 2018, and five wins this year (from fewer total games), there are some specific areas, across the Australian franchises, where improvements can be identified.

But that’s rather like a golfer at the US Open shooting 92 in the first round, 88 in the second, then (being generously allowed to ignore the cut) signing for 84 in the third round.

The numbers may have shifted a little, but the song, indeed, remains the same.

Tolu Latu

The Waratahs are struggling. (Photo by Albert Perez/Getty Images)

It is of no consequence that the Waratahs were missing five starting players in Invercargill. All sides have rotated and rested players and had to cope with it (and in the case of the Jaguares, flourish because of it), at some stage.

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42-7 at halftime spoke to the chasm between the speed of ball movement, handling skill and physicality of the respective sides.

At least Mack Mason took the opportunity to redeem himself, instrumental in both Waratahs tries, and importantly, he will go into next season with self-belief that he can perform at this level.

But whichever way you slice and dice it, six wins and ten losses represents a step backwards for a Waratahs side not able to adequately replace the scoring power of Taqele Naiyarovoro, nor do better than break even up front.

It was a dispiriting night in Melbourne, where the Chiefs gradually won the physical battle in the first half, which provided them with the foundation to springboard away in the second, in the process turfing the Rebels out of the top eight for the first time this season – unfortunately for them, at precisely the wrong time.

In retrospect, it was a finals spot they are neither deserved or are yet ready for. As has been their want in the latter part of the season, the Rebels brought pressure to bear on themselves through injudicious kicking and curious decision-making.

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For the second week running the Rebels played on after the half-time siren, despite being in their defensive half and, for the second week running, the cost was seven needless points and a negative vibe entering the sheds.

That’s a sure sign of a lack of mental toughness, perhaps illustrative of the fact that of the Rebels’ match-day 23, only two players, Will Genia and Quade Cooper, have ever played in a Super Rugby finals match.

As fate would have it, both had poor nights. Cooper was directly involved in no fewer than five Chiefs tries, and Genia, after sitting out training during the week due to the debilitating effects of an old knee injury, once gain kicked too often and without effect.

Quade Cooper with Will Genia in support

Quade Cooper and Will Genia. (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

It is natural and justifiable for much of the discussion about the two sides to focus on the respective coaches, and certainly Daryl Gibson and Dave Wessels will have plenty to ponder in their upcoming reviews. Gibson for one, being unable to bring through sufficient new talent into his playing group, and Wessels yet unable to impose his methods and stamp a sufficiently robust, durable identity and style of play, that is suitably matched to his personnel.

Paramount to this is solving what to do with Genia – an undeniable match-winner on his day, (such as in the second match this season against the Brumbies) but for whom the trade-off is that so much of the real-time decision making, and Rebels play – too much – is required to pass through him.

While Isi Naisarani left AAMI Park with his reputation enhanced, what is also needed is a pack leader with grizzle and grunt and heavy miles under his belt – someone who would have taken stock when the Rebels’ season first started turning south, against the Stormers at home, and not allowed any space for younger minds alongside him to develop self-doubt.

To be fair, these Alun-Wyn Jones types don’t grow on trees, especially Australian gum trees. And just like bedding down a good red wine, you can’t accelerate the maturation process.

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Most of this Rebels side has played twenty or fewer games for the club, ditto the coaching staff, and every single Super Rugby franchise – successful and unsuccessful – would agree that the single-most factor determining success at this level is player experience and continuity built over a period of time.

To illustrate this further, two of the Chiefs’ best on the night were Angus Ta’avao and Jack Debreczini, both of them moderate performers at Australian franchises, now flourishing in Hamilton.

A fortnight ago we discussed the rise to prominence in the English Premiership of Nic White and Will Skelton, both of them demonstrably better players than when they were in Australia. And early yesterday morning, Richie Arnold won the French Top 14 title, starting at lock for Toulouse, in their 24-18 win over Clermont.

Will Skelton of the Waratahs is tackled by Marcell Coetzee of the Sharks

Will Skelton is a far better player now than he was in Australia. (AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts)

Notably, all of these players have stepped into programs at their respective clubs, that are well established, where the identity and culture is strong, and allows for seamless integration of new players around an existing, solid core.

Over the years in Super Rugby it is only the Brumbies, of the Australian sides, who have ever developed such a distinct identity – the 2011 and 2015 winning seasons for the Reds and Waratahs respectively were despite, rather than because of this. It is something that the Rebels and Reds say that they recognise, but despite making some steps along that path this year, the last few weeks have shown how far they still have to go.

When probed about the differences between the Australian and New Zealand set-ups after the match, Debreczini pointed to the respective domestic competitions, the Mitre 10 Cup and the NRC, serving to provide a greater pool of Super Rugby-ready players in New Zealand compared to Australia.

There will be those whose take-away from the Waratahs, Rebels and Reds finishing as also-rans is to call for Australia to withdraw from Super Rugby, and/or abandon the NRC as exercises in futility, and to ‘start again’ from a domestic base.

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Such a (and I hesitate to use the word) ‘solution’, completely ignores the point made by Debreczini. Player wages in New Zealand’s Mitre 10 Cup might be modest by northern hemisphere standards, but are still sufficient to engage all of the best players not in the All Blacks program, and allow them to train and play, as professional rugby players, for an extended period.

Rugby is a professional game, period. What would be achieved by widening the gulf in professional player development?

The current rugby Australia administration led by Raelene Castle has been dealt a raw hand by previous incarnations failing to solve the domestic puzzle that is Australian rugby.

Raelene Castle

Raelene Castle has been dealt a raw hand. (AAP Image/Daniel Munoz)

Of course this is no easy task, particularly as two key impediments seem to be impenetrable.

The first is the unwillingness of key people involved in Sydney club rugby to accept the need for, let alone support, a professional layer above them.

The second is the inability of the sport in the Australian market, to sufficiently fund that layer, in whatever form it might take i.e. to pay players and coaches as professionals

A month ago this column suggested that the NRC as we know it today, is likely to be shelved, in favour of a hybrid model that draws from some of the tribalism associated with club rugby and blends it with some of the existing franchise/state based teams.

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Queensland Country NRC Grand FInal

What now for the NRC? (Photo by Brett Hemmings/Getty Images)

Given that no announcements have been forthcoming, any potential changes will almost certainly not be introduced until the 2020 season, although it is fair to say that detail around exactly what form this year’s competition will take, and how it will be broadcast, is being eagerly awaited by the organisations and players who are expecting to compete in it.

Certainly the timing is problematic with Fox Sports, initially seen as a driver of a refreshed national competition, doing a fair impression of Christian Lealiifano crossing paths with Taniela Tupou’s shoulder, announcing cost-saving measures that included redundancy notices for a number of sports directors, and rugby commentator Sean Moloney.

At the annual Weary Dunlop lunch in Melbourne last Thursday, an impassioned Wallaby great, Stirling Mortlock, spoke about the need to resist the scourge of parochialism that pervades Australian rugby.

Yet if recent events in Australian racing are anything to go by – where NSW have mounted a brazen attack on Victoria’s Spring Carnival – it is clear that advancing one’s own interests, and bugger the national good, is the Australian way.

All of which means that there may or may not be a workable national domestic competition, that may or may not pay players sufficiently well to be able to train as professionals, that clubs and fans in Sydney may or may not give their imprimatur to.

Hardly a basis to be preparing players for professional rugby against the best players from New Zealand, or anywhere around the world, is it?

And for as long as that keeps happening, despite the optimism that naturally infects all franchises at the start of the season, and despite the Brumbies still carrying a fighter’s chance into the finals series, it is hard to envision our imaginary US Open golfer shooting par or below, any time soon.

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By Sunday morning it was established that things had fallen the way of the Bulls, Sharks, Chiefs and Highlanders for finals spots 5-8. All of them entirely deserved because they were the four sides that stood up and claimed final round wins when they needed to do so.

The Stormers must have felt it was their day when they led throughout against the Sharks, only to fall in the 81st minute, when Seabelo Senatla made a poor read in defence, allowing Lukhanyo Am to step inside to score the winning try and, in turn, be crushed by a pile of jubilant teammates.

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The Lions must have felt it was their day too, when Hacjivah Dayimani scored a remarkable opening try, directly from the kick-off, a mere 15 seconds after the opening whistle.

But the Bulls have a nice balance about their play at the moment, and were never really troubled on their way to a 40-27 win – even rolling out an old-school ‘flying wedge’ in the process, which brought a stunning try to Marco van Staden.

Despite all these four sides entering the finals on an upswing, it is hard to look past the top-seeded home teams in each quarter-final. Perhaps the most interesting match looms in Buenos Aries – the Chiefs have won there this year already, and are now playing much better.

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But so, for that matter, are the Jaguares. And don’t forget, for anyone other than the Crusaders to claim the trophy, somebody is going to have to win in Christchurch.