It is official, rugby in Australia is a punchline.
It seems everywhere you look Australian rugby has been copping it. At the recent Logie awards Tom Gleeson – before he lay waste to Australian TV – compared watching a Wallabies game to being in hell. The opening for this line, of course, was the recent Israel Falau saga that threatens the very administration of the game itself.
On top of this, on my daily meaningless cruise through social media I saw a Betoota Advocate article in which the opening line was: “In a frightening prospect for our country, national hopes for sporting success are now pinned on the national Rugby Union team”.
This time the punchline was aimed at the dismal Wallabies performance in recent years, but the real joke is that both of these examples are based in truth.
To say Australian rugby has been through a rough trot lately is an understatement akin to saying that that the Titanic had a bit of a leak.
Many times I had thought the worst was over. At the end of the last World Cup the Wallabies had pulled off a miracle to get to the final and a shimmer of hopeful light broke through the clouds. There is hope Australian rugby! But then, as predictable as an atomic clock, the Wallabies and the whole of Australian rugby went straight back to wobbling.
From a playing perspective the results just weren’t there. After a raft of veteran Aussie players exited the fold the new playing group were not up to scratch. Immediately capitulating to England at home and then twice to New Zealand – not the best start to 2016 at all.
During the rest of 2016 there were some good wins against Wales, South Africa and Argentina, but again the rest were either close wins or crushing losses, and they finished the year as they started – with a loss to England, this time at Twickenham.
The 2017 campaign started off well enough with a win against Fiji, but that was immediately followed by a disheartening loss against a plucky Scotland. The year felt slightly better than 2016 and did include a win against New Zealand, which you always take with a grin, but there were still some bitter losses. The year finished with another 30-6 shellacking at the hands of England and then a frantic blitz by Scotland, who came away 53-24 victors at Murrayfield.
At the same time Rugby Australia – back then known as the ARU – was in a firestorm of discontent. The beginnings of the Super Rugby team cull had all franchises on edge and tensions were only exacerbated by constant calls for better grassroots funding.
At this stage in 2017 I thought Australian rugby had hit rock bottom and the only way was up – in fact I stated as much in my second article on The Roar. How utterly naive of me – 2018 was to come!
The 2018 rugby year felt eerily like the previous two years. Loss of a series first up at home, this time against Ireland, then, well, you can’t even say mixed results. They were poor results. Very poor.
The Wallabies copped haunting losses against South Africa, Argentina and even our lovely UK bunny’s Wales. Combine this with the loss of the Wallabies most effective backline player, who then proceeded to be fired and turned on the game itself, and you have a nice rock bottom gumbo.
Surely this is it right? Right?
As a massive Australian rugby fan, I have to say times have been testing. My patience and faith have been pushed to the limit. But all is not lost. Tomorrow is another day and all that jazz.
If you look hard enough, there are good things happening, if Israel had kept his thumbs in their damned holsters, you would have seen more about the fantastic Australian under-20s side who made it to the final of the tournament with some excellent skills, desire, tactics and decision-making.
These are the types of things that can overturn this horrid tide of bad sentiment welling on Australian rugby.
Even the recent developments of the third parodical amigo, James O’Connor, and the immensely skilled and now well-rounded Nic White returning to the national fold are good news. O’Connor seems to have finally got the message to stop being a prat and looks to genuinely want to hold himself to account, while White has been playing good footy in Europe and his pass and game management skills are better than ever.
Both White and O’Connor give the Wallabies experience and some much-needed X factor.
Even the recent additions of Michael O’Connor and Scott Johnson to the team selection panel with Cheika have seen a much more balanced squad put forward. All three men are hard-nosed and certainly not shy about putting their opinion forwards. The debates must rage at Rugby Australia HQ, but that is exactly what we need. Cheika hadn’t been made to check-in for far too long if you’ll pardon the pun.
The first game of 2019 this weekend against a second-string Springboks side is the perfect opportunity to make a statement. Starting the year with a win in South Africa gives Australia the ability to kickstart their World Cup campaign with something positive in the media.
Then they have the chance to come back home and beat a tough Argentinian side in Brisbane. If this were to happen, it would be the first time since 2015 that the Wallabies had won the first two games of the international season, and we all remember what the Wallabies achieved at the 2015 World Cup.
The Wallabies enter the World Cup with the expectation that they will be subpar and beaten by either New Zealand or a European titan. They are the underdogs, and that’s just the type of story Australia loves.
If the Wallabies can string some wins together, the World Cup in Japan is the perfect breeding ground for hope. Japan, being in a similar time zone to Australia, makes it easy for the Wallabies to adapt to conditions and for fans to watch at home, and it has the added benefit of giving regular Aussies the opportunity to turn out in the stands. Yes, the pubs have been warned to stock up on beer and spew buckets.
But this is all just optimistic speculation from a jaded rugby fan, and we certainly have had enough of that. Now it is time to let rugby do the tweeting – I mean talking.