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The Wrap: Where did rugby’s offseason go?

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26th January, 2020
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On Friday night, when the Blues and Chiefs kick start the 2020 Super Rugby season, it will still be January. If that feels wrong – and it is on many counts – spare a thought for the Super Rugby coaches and their staff.

These are men who never sleep. They simply don’t have the time. Think about the conflict between the need for physical and mental recuperation for their core playing group, with the desirability of offseason skills and body development.

Not to mention the assessment of new talent that turns out to try their luck, without contracts, in the train-on squads.

Throw in also the task of managing the re-integration of Test players, and that’s an unholy puzzle for anyone to sort out. That’s before playing patterns are bedded in, before opposition analysis is contemplated, and before the bounce of the ball or a tight refereeing call in the first two rounds goes the wrong way, and fans and media start to pile on the pressure about how they’re simply not up to the coaching caper.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record in only the first column of the year, those readers located in a franchise city could do a lot worse than get along to a training session and get a feel for the effort being put in by players and coaching staff, before consigning their coach and players to the dustbin.

A little bit of context goes a long way.

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None of which excuses a couple of Australian franchises failing to respond to a fairly basic and hardly onerous request by The Roar for comment from their head coaches about their 2020 squad and prospects.

The Roar is a passionate supporter of rugby, and Australian rugby, and in times where many fans no longer feel as engaged with the sport as they did before rugby went professional, and where rugby needs everything it can manage to go its way, it is disappointing that some franchises too easily provide reasons to disenchant.

Yes, it is a busy time of year for media managers and coaches – which is kind of the point. It’s exactly the time of year when fans are looking to reconnect with the game and are thirsty for information: for example, about which up and coming players might have impressed the coach over the offseason.

Think of produce farmers at harvest time, accountants at tax time, and now, Prime Ministers in bushfire season. Fair or unfair, some burdens come with the territory.

Thankfully, that’s all the whingeing out of the way for week one – unless you happen to be an Exeter fan still wondering how and why your side is still regarded as the runner up in last year’s English premiership.

There’s an old saying that yesterday’s news is tomorrow’s fish and chip paper. It doesn’t translate so well in the digital age, but the premise, nevertheless, holds true. And never has it been so well illustrated by the sharp rise to prominence of Waratah’s and Australian Under 20 fullback, Mark Nawaqanitawase.

Mark Nawaqanitawase in action for the Waratahs

Mark Nawaqanitawase in action for the Waratahs. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

There is real joy for rugby fans to be talking about, so early in the season, a Waratahs back three player whose initials are not IF. And to be talking about him for his deeds on the rugby field, not off it.

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With every touch of the football, Nawaqanitawase, the Reds’ Isaac Lucas, and a number of other promising young players spread across all four Australian franchises, demonstrate how the many critics who piled into Raelene Castle for settling the case with Folau, totally missed the point.

Australian rugby badly needed a circuit breaker. The offseason, short though it was, provided some of that as a matter of course. But for the first time in recent memory, there is a sense that the 2020 season, notwithstanding important concerns about the game which remain, is beginning in clear water.

It is only three months since Michael Cheika turned out his last Wallabies team. And less than that since Israel Folau dominated the nightly news, dragging Rugby Australia through daily torment.

Happen to catch the headline on national radio and television last week about Folau apparently in talks with a New York rugby league franchise to potentially become their marquee player?

This news was reported as a prominent lead story, one that a number of commentators half-heartedly tried to tie back to Rugby Australia losing the stoush with Folau, now suffering further humiliation because Folau not only received a payout, but now will be paid a huge contract in New York – perhaps even as much as your average Go Fund Me campaign.

Lost in the detail was the small matter that the said New York franchise will be a third division team – up against the North Wales Crusaders, Rochdale Hornets, London Skolars and others – and that both parties are actually a long way from finalising any arrangement.

Israel Folau

Is Israel Folau coming back? (Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images)

Nonsense like this masquerading as real news is a circus sideshow in its own right. But – and here’s the point – no longer is it an opportunity to hold Australian rugby up for derision. Folau is now an ex-rugby player.

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Rugby Australia has taken the opportunity to wrest back the media narrative, via a series of senior coaching appointments and announcements, and the willingness of new Wallabies coach Dave Rennie to present himself to the rugby public as a thoroughly likeable gentleman with a sound strategy in place to take the Wallabies forward, and bring supporters along with him.

Note also, now with Cheika out of the picture, how Scott Johnson is starting to become more prominent in his role as Director of Rugby. It is exactly as it should be: Rennie is, after all, his man.

And with Raelene Castle tasked with leading Rugby Australia through a difficult broadcast rights negotiation phase, it is essential that the organisation projects, through Johnson, an aura that that the rugby program is in competent, committed hands.

Rugby Australia Chairman, Cameron Clyne, is now only two months out from stepping out of his role, and while there will be intense interest around his replacement and debate as to his legacy, what will be most interesting is to observe the progress of Castle in the wake of this change.

Since her appointment two years ago, Castle has enjoyed the strong backing of her Chairman. There is no reason to think that this won’t continue under Clyne’s replacement, but there is always the potential risk of the dynamic changing.

The paradox for Castle however, is that no matter the strength of her own relationship with Clyne, she stands to benefit from being able to step out of the shadow of a man who – rightly or wrongly – will be remembered as a divisive, unpopular figurehead.

Raelene Castle

It’s the summer of Raelene! (AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts)

An obvious candidate to replace Clyne is National Party deputy leader Bridget McKenzie. If she was able to ensure that the tiny Wangaratta Clay Target Club received $36,000 in government sports grant funding, then a commensurate allocation to Rugby Australia might be in the vicinity of tens of millions. Enough to have Sean McMahon, Rory Arnold, Sean McMahon and perhaps even Bernard Foley on the first flight back home!

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If enough progress has been made in the offseason to sideline the ‘blow up the joint’ merchants for the foreseeable future – and I’d contend that it has – there is still a massive challenge ahead for rugby administrators to win back hearts and minds of fans.

Ex-Rugby AU chief executive Gary Flowers insisted recently that interest in Super Rugby was waning at such a massive rate that it needed “free-to-air exposure”, and to move away from “playing games against South African teams that nobody knows who they are, in the middle of the night.”

It seems that Flowers had not taken the trouble to familiarise himself with the 2020 draw – similar to that of 2019 – which has a total of just six Australian matches in South Africa across eighteen weeks, two of which start at 11.05pm AEST, two at 12.05am (late but manageable) and only one Brumbies match starting at 12.45am and one Rebels match at 2.15am.

Interestingly, on his ‘Linked In’ profile page, Flowers lists as a career highlight, “negotiation of SANZAAR’s broadcasting rights, and other international broadcasters for a five-year period.”

No mention of free-to-air television in there.

Reece Hodge makes a break

Reece Hodge makes a break. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

This rehash of stale arguments, unsupported by fact or acknowledgement of reality (free-to-air television networks are battling themselves to stay alive, not fighting each other to pay millions for rugby rights) from people who should know better, is disappointing.

Disappointment matched only by SANZAAR’s infuriating inability and refusal to get onto the front foot and market Super Rugby with the panache and resources befitting such a world-class competition.

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The rest of the offseason was highlighted by angst about proposed law changes which turned out not to be law changes at all, as far as Super Rugby is concerned. Do expect however, further frustration from coaches and fans as players and referees at a level below the World Cup, continue to adjust to the requirement to lower the height of the tackle.

Keen rugby fan, and World Cup flyhalf for Wales, Prince Harry, endured a testing offseason. If only he had been born a Barrett and not a Windsor, life could have been much more fun.

Jordie Barrett is still trying to figure out what happened at the MCG, humiliatingly evicted for drinking half a cup of mid-strength beer, pondering the injustice around why, for years on end, ex-Prime Minister Bob Hawke was lauded as an ‘Aussie legend’ for draining his beer, on camera.

Barrett had the last laugh, not subjected to watching a hopelessly underdone Black Caps die a torturous death, and using the time to hone his own bowling technique – his swinging yorker to skittle ex-Test captain Steven Fleming in a charity match, one of the highlights of the summer.

Meanwhile, brother Beauden, uncertain of how to fill in his days, not required to make his Super Rugby debut for the Blues until April, resorted to testing his reflexes by having Israel Dagg drill a golf ball at his head. As idiotic and as funny as it sounds.

Also enjoying a better festive season than ex-Prince Harry was Scottish Rugby CEO Mark Dodson. Dodson heads an outfit that last season won one Six Nations match, was eliminated at the pool stage of the World Cup by Japan, and shamefully embarrassed itself by believing its own potential progress through the tournament was more important than the very real personal safety and infrastructure issues around deadly typhoon Hagibis.

The result of Dodson being called to account for all of that? A handy little nudge upwards in annual salary to 933,000 pounds. Nice work if you can get it.

Yes, it’s too early, and it may not be liniment, but SP50+, that players are rubbing into their legs on the weekend. But it’s back. It’s rugby, and that, surely, is an excellent thing.

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