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The Wrap: Australian rugby’s strange parallel universe

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24th November, 2019
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Anyone with a passing interest in Australian rugby is entitled to feel mightily confused right now.

On one hand we had Rugby Australia last week announcing the appointment of Dave Rennie as new Wallabies coach, contracted up until the completion of the next Rugby World Cup in 2023.

Unsurprisingly Rugby Australia hailed this as a coup, with Rennie, one of only a small handful of qualified (and available) candidates for the role of head coach at a major rugby nation, now safely locked away.

The confirmation not only puts an end to distracting speculation, but it also allows rugby fans to move on from the disappointing five years experienced under Michael Cheika with a sense that under Rennie, Scott Johnson and a team of soon to be announced support coaches there is now a broader, collegial brains trust working to improve the Wallabies’ fortunes.

Reaction to the appointment ranged from ex-Wallaby Tim Horan saying, “I think he’ll do wonders for Australian rugby,” to the ever-predictable Alan Jones, who said, “I do not support the appointment of Dave Rennie as the Australian rugby coach, nor do I support the sycophantic endorsement of him in the press release distributed by Raelene Castle.”

There were other important positives from the announcement. By getting onto the front foot and obtaining Rennie’s commitment ahead of New Zealand Rugby appointing the new coach of the All Blacks, Rugby Australia neutered any potential criticism that they would be accepting ‘leftovers’.

It also allowed Rennie to demonstrate his unfettered commitment to the Australian job, and it is fair to say that while his judgment day awaits, he handled himself impressively enough in his early communication to earn the guarded confidence of many fans.

Dave Rennie

(AAP Image/SNPA, David Rowland)

In normal circumstances a ‘the king is dead, long live the king’ scenario provides an opportunity to reflect momentarily and then look beyond the past to frame an optimistic view of the future under new stewardship, which is exactly where Rugby Australia sits today with respect to the Wallabies.

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In one universe.

In Australian rugby’s parallel universe an angry mob interpreted both the process and outcome of Rennie’s appointment as evidence of further dysfunction and mismanagement at Rugby Australia. It signals that when Rennie lands in June next year he will be greeted by an atmosphere of scepticism and hostility.

Some of that criticism comprised barely disguised xenophobia, Jones stating that, “We are behaving like a rugby minnow by hiring a second-rate Kiwi coach,” and, “I know at least five Australians who, in my judgement, would be outstanding Wallabies coaches”.

Jones declined to name those five, almost certainly because they don’t exist. But why bother letting facts, reason and a lack of viable alternatives get in the way of a personal, political agenda?

During last week respected ex-Wallaby Dick Marks put his name to website www.letsfixaustralianrugby.com.au listing a litany of grievances about the current state of rugby and rugby administration in Australia and, by way of a petition, calling to arms Australian rugby fans to demand the resignation en masse of the current board and to support the formation of a “war cabinet” to restore rugby to its former glory.

It is not the place of this column to downplay the playing and administrative career of Marks, or of Jones as a grand slam-winning Wallabies coach for that matter, but by going public in this way Marks’ claims and objectives are entitled to be tested.

It didn’t take long for the premise to unravel.

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A major problem for the dissenters is that while it is one thing for them to agree on what they are against – Rugby Australia, particularly soon to be departing chairman Cameron Clyne – there is little agreement on specifically what it is they want.

Comments made by supporters on Marks’ website draw out the same parochial mistrust that has always dogged Australian rugby – dominance of New South Wales and Queensland – and the paradox that is rugby supporters in Western Australia falling in behind the very same anti-Rugby Australia plotters from the east who offered them no tangible support when they most needed it, prior to the Western Force being excluded from Super Rugby, and who believe the future of Australian rugby revolves around the Shute Shield.

The document identifies two main problems with Australian rugby: one that “the wrong people are running the game” and the other, echoing Jones, to “stop copying New Zealand and getting their coaches”.

If Marks was hoping to helm a groundswell of discontent large and vociferous enough to prevent Rugby Australia appointing Rennie, the confirmation of Rennie’s appointment has blown a torpedo-sized hole in his battleship before it has even left Woolloomooloo.

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Things didn’t improve much when diving deeper into a list of 13 ‘mistakes’ made by the current board.

Raelene Castle

(AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts)

Number one is a complaint – referencing ex-Rugby Australia business manager Di Patston – about “giving a woman authority over hardened Wallaby campaigners.”

Whatever questions there might have been at the time – over six years ago and predating over half of the current board – about how Patston acceded to her position, Marks’s credibility is immediately sapped by couching such an objection and in such crude terms.

Many people reading this article, including hardened rugby men, will have had or currently have female managers and are the better for that experience. In what way are the Wallabies any different?

‘Mistake’ number two is the “Western Force fiasco,” although it isn’t made clear if the objection is to the Force being excluded from Super Rugby at the expense of the Rebels or the Brumbies or the fact that Australia reduced its presence from five teams to four, never mind that this decision was made by SANZAAR, not Rugby Australia.

‘Mistake’ number eight is Rugby Australia “involving itself in social issues best left to governments” that “got them into all sorts of legal problems”.

Is Marks seriously suggesting that it was Rugby Australia, not Israel Folau, who initiated the situation that currently has both parties facing a court hearing next year?

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Once again Marks’ timing is off. Every time Folau opens his mouth or his Instagram account Rugby Australia’s position with respect to the termination of his contract is vindicated.

‘Mistake’ number ten concerns the matter of “waste”, citing 100-plus employees at Rugby Australia as an example of excess.

Nowhere is it proffered what the optimal headcount for a $120 million business should be, nor is it noted that the AFL employs well over that number in just its media division or that England, runners-up in the World Cup and handsome 40-16 winners over Australia in the quarter-final, had 26 people in their touring coaching and support team alone.

Cameron Clyne

(AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)

However, the biggest misconception or falsehood is reserved for commentary about how “Rugby in Australia has two competitions in SANZAAR (sic) and Rapid Rugby”, and how “these administrations must eventually amalgamate”.

Global Rapid Rugby (GRR) has so far not been a competition at all but rather a series of exhibition games played under experimental laws arranged for the benefit of the Western Force and its disaffected fan-base.

An announcement is expected soon which is expected to confirm an inaugural six-team competition starting in 2020 comprising the Force and teams from Fiji, Samoa, Hong Kong, Shanghai (supported by New Zealand provincial team Bay of Plenty) and Kuala Lumpur (supported by South African provincial team Gauteng Falcons).

Good luck to the players involved and fans in all of those locations, but are we really supposed to believe that this competition will be in any way equivalent to Super Rugby?

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And, further, that this competition comprising just one Australian team and with a stated objective of growing the game in Asia not only warrants the status of ‘amalgamation’ with SANZAAR – a coalition of four national unions – but is the catalyst to returning Australian rugby to its core strengths?

The nonsense with respect to Western Australia didn’t end there, with a report in The Australian on Thursday from Paul Garvey and Steve Jackson flagging the option of Western Australia fielding a standalone side at international level. A parallel was drawn with how England, Wales and Scotland each field their own international teams.

What odds Namibia, Canada, Russia or Tonga being given short shrift from the 2023 World Cup so as to allow Western Australia to take their place? All because Andrew Forrest has more money than all of those national rugby bodies combined, many times over?

It is noted that Garvey is an ex-mining, oil and gas reporter for the Australian Financial Review and is currently reporting for The Australian on the Hong Kong crisis. Jackson is a journalist whose recent articles include ‘Stefanovics in breakfast TV battle’. Make of that what you will.

One simple inquiry to World Rugby about the governance requirements for member nations would have consigned this story to the trash before it was printed. But anything goes in this parallel universe.

Andrew Forrest with Western Force players

(AAP Image/Justin Chadwick)

What is unfortunate is that the genuine grievances RugbyWA and fans of the game in the west are served poorly every time they are fed nonsense of this type that suggests some kind of secession is not only desirable but possible.

Yes, wrongs were inflicted, but with Clyne soon to depart, the primary target for anger will have gone, and there will come a time when wise heads on both sides will re-engage for the lasting benefit of Australian rugby.

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It is interesting to observe how proponents of a total clean-out of the current board call for the injection of ‘real’ rugby people to replace them.

When exactly did Queensland great Paul McLean (31 Test caps, 100 matches for Queensland) stop being a real rugby person? Or Tim Gavin (47 Tests, 83 matches for the Waratahs, highly respected as a player and a down to earth rugby bloke)? Has there any player in recent times more committed to Australian rugby than Phil Waugh (79 Tests, 136 games for the Waratahs)?

Brett Robinson played 16 Tests, is an ex-captain of the Brumbies and has the Brumbies ‘player of the year’ award named in his honour.

Last year Hayden Rorke, president of Shute Shield club Gordon, was added to the board to ensure direct representation from and advocacy on behalf of club rugby.

Yet the parallel universe narrative says that as soon as they were appointed every single one of these rugby men by some remarkable coincidence fell foul of ‘fat cat’ long lunches, forgot where they came from and who they represented and started sneering down on rugby fans.

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Marks writes that he was disillusioned after being co-opted into a Rugby Australia steering committee on coach education, and that is a concern.

But it is also fair to say that CEO Raelene Castle, in the 20 months she has been in the job, has shown greater willingness to try to bring people from all levels of the game together than have previous administrators.

It is surely time for the malcontents to put up or shut up. Acting as a lightning rod for anyone with a whinge about rugby or frustrated about the Wallabies’ lack of success and the poor recent record of Australia’s Super Rugby sides is simply not enough.

If they are unable to provide sufficient justification for change, articulate what that change would entail, demonstrate a sustainable financial model that would provide for the wellbeing of both professional and amateur grassroots rugby, demonstrate how this would benefit rugby in all of Australia (not just Sydney and Brisbane), garner support for change in the tens of thousands (not hundreds) and demonstrate that what they are trying to achieve is both constitutionally and practically achievable, then they should at least acknowledge that they are as culpable as anyone for preventing Australian rugby escaping its negative shroud.

If not, they will have their “war cabinet”, but it will resemble Captain Mainwaring and his men: Wilson, Jones, Pike, Fraser and Godfrey. A Dad’s Army of pretend soldiers stuck in the wrong generation, shouting at the clouds, fighting a phoney war.