A moderately talented American is said to have observed that history doesn’t repeat, but it often rhymes. So it may be with today and an earlier era.
At the beginning of 1998, Australia had a new coach, following the termination in disastrous circumstances of the previous coach’s divisive tenure. Selections, tactics, wildly inconsistent performances and an inability to beat New Zealand marked the regime of the late Greg Smith.
Interstate tensions were also marked. One Australian team performed well in 1997’s Super Rugby season and in 1998’s Super Rugby season it was even worse, as no Australian side made the finals. NZ sides were the clear pace-setters in Super Rugby and by the end of the 1998 Super Rugby season, NZ sides were the only ones to win the expanded competition.
At the end of the Smith regime in Australia in September 1997, there was real uncertainty as to who should play ten for Australia, the back row had been unsettled with controversial selections having backfired, there were arguments about what qualities were needed in key positions, halfback was also an unsettled position, and no-one was clear as to our best centre pairing.
There were also complaints about the interpretation of the laws of the game around the ruck – it was said that the game was becoming league-like, with attacking sides being able to recycle endlessly. Offside was an issue, scrums were an issue and the softness of rugby in the south versus the hard, grinding style of the north was often raised.
Everyone hated England (including the English sometimes), the All Blacks were cheating thugs, the South Africans were just thugs and Australia was, well, not much at all. South African sides complained about travel. Canterbury won the 1998 Super Rugby final (on their way to a three-peat). I am sure that has no chance of happening again – mainly because the Crusaders have already just done a three-peat and a four-peat could surely not be on the cards.
The Brumbies had been a bright light for Australian rugby in 1997, making the final and losing creditably to a NZ side in wet and nasty conditions. Queensland had been competitive but blew games they should have won. They had a good forward pack, and a tough, no-nonsense coach who had been a forward. New South Wales played like millionaires, throwing away opportunities, looking like they could do anything and managing in the end to do not much at all. They were mired in coaching controversy.
Fast forward to 2020 and I am sure you will agree that things are vastly different. Promoting touch judges to assistant referees has eliminated the scourge of offside at the ruck, there are no concerns about the laws and the ruck is an area of legal serenity, with concerns about the game turning into a kind of crypto-league nowhere to be seen. Everyone is at ease with scrums and how they are managed.
Australia has a new coach, but unlike 1998, this is after a settled period of glory and the transition was smooth. Last season the Australian provinces in Super Rugby performed like prodigies and the Brumbies were not the sole bright light. NSW no longer squander opportunities. Queensland are a mighty force again. We know exactly what we want in our key positions. Each of the spine positions is settled at the national level. The states (and territories) work in unison to drive the success of the Wallabies.
And now it is time to return from the land of dreams…
At the end of a whole round of Super Rugby in 2020 there are a lot of things that don’t seem to have changed much.
The usual bugbear areas of the laws remain. They will stay bugbears because they are central to how you win the game. Coaches will try to find loopholes and will coach their teams to play to the absolute limits of the laws. The team going forward will tend to get the rub of the green on contentious decisions and teams will infringe rather than give away a try. At the level where the laws and their interpretations are determined there will always be turbulence as different countries push for decisions that will accord more with their vision of how the game should be played and what will advantage them.
There will also be debate, sometimes well informed, about what to look for in key positions on the field (and even whether the number on the back of the jersey matters). For example, Queensland have a very talented, courageous ten in Isaac Lucas. He has a nice touch with his short-passing and he has explosive pace to keep defences guessing.
However, there must be a question over his long kicking game and his survivability in defence – not because he is a poor tackler but because he is so small that he is already attracting a lot of traffic and his small stature is allowing teams to make ground in contact with him. Do these things matter more than his positive qualities?
David Knox faced similar questions, although his tackling was rarely described as courageous. He was a fine player, however, and he had his share of outstanding matches at every level at which he played.
How much and when and how to kick remain a question for Australian sides. However, in 1997 and 1998, Queensland and the Brumbies were happy to kick for territory. Queensland had a young gun at ten in Elton Flatley and although David Knox had a pretty short kicking boot, the ACT used Joe Roff, Rod Kafer and ‘Bernie’ Larkham (and sometimes the very talented Adam Friend) to hoof them out of trouble with raking, long kicks.
I have no idea who will, or should, play at nine or ten for Australia when the Test season comes around. The season of Super Rugby ahead may provide clarity, or it may not. I thought Will Harrison and Noah Lolesio both looked to have quite solid all round skills and both made quite good starts. There is promise there.
Lucas will be more contentious, because much will depend on what you want your number 10 to be able to do. He is clearly a prodigious talent. Matt Toomua is hard to assess, as his side was so poor. I thought he was okay in a pretty awful side. Similar things can be said about nine.
Of course, the thing about comparisons is that, as the saying goes, they are odious. As much as there are similarities, there are also considerable differences. Although the end of Greg Smith’s tenure involved a lot of uncertainty about key positions, there were experienced players available and there was a degree of consensus about who the best couple of candidates were. Larkham’s emergence at ten was reasonably unexpected, however. At the end of 1997 he was really a utility player who had played ten, 13, wing and 15 for the Brumbies and he had been a halfback for his club at one point. He had played ten but he was not settled there.
I would also suggest that Australia’s coaching situation was less dire. There was really no need to look off-shore as there were plenty of promising local candidates. There was also a Kiwi in Sydney (John McKee) doing good things with Eastwood. He ended up getting gigs with other national sides (including Fiji quite recently).
The decline in coaching at all levels in this country has also been visible in our players. For at least 20 years we have been off the pace in terms of fitness (although I am pleased to say that after the nadir in 2016 and ’17, this has now started to improve) and increasingly skills. We also have fallen away in producing players with rugby smarts and we have largely ceased to set the trend in terms of playing and have increasingly been (late and slow) followers of trends. In late 1997 and heading into the 1998 Super season, few if any of these things would have been said of our players.
Rugby was also just entering the professional era, the drain of players off-shore had not really started and, indeed, there were a number of Test players from the north playing in Super Rugby (Ireland’s hard man, Peter Clohessy, for Queensland in 1996 for example). The southern hemisphere was quite dominant in terms of winning Test matches and it was the northern hemisphere that was struggling to come to terms with professionalism.
Our provinces were also arguably in better shape than they are today. Queensland had a settled squad, there was no debate about ‘Knuckles’ Connolly’s credentials and although they had a poor 1997, they had won the Super comp in 1994 and 1995 and topped the home-and-away part of Super Rugby in 1996. The Brumbies had massively exceeded expectations in their first season in 1996 and were deserving finalists in 1997, losing to an Auckland side that had beaten the British and Irish Lions in 1993 and had won the Super Rugby final in 1996.
NSW had a deep well of playing resources, but they probably do represent a point of unfortunate continuity. They had coaching turnover and struggled to play consistent rugby within a game, let alone stringing together a run of good games. They had an infuriating ability to punctuate periods of intelligent, grafting play with moments of utter stupidity and they were masters of turning the ball over at critical times.
I will end on a positive. In both periods I have chosen for comparison, this country was producing talented players. The consensus was that under-performance was largely about things like selection and game plan. There was optimism that Rod Macqueen, a hard-nosed bloke who could get the best out of players, would bring about a marked improvement. Dave Rennie is a not dissimilar type of personality and it is not unreasonable to feel a similar level of hope.
But bear in mind that Macqueen also had an early setback with disappointing results against Argentina and rumblings about preferential selections of Brumbies and not being able to play a Brumbies style at Test level. His subsequent record and reputation were not all smooth sailing, or pre-ordained.
Greg Smith was an example of how thin the line between success and failure can be for a coach. He tried out a number of things (with mixed results) that would be taken up by Macqueen with more success. His overall win-loss ratio was higher than most of those who have coached Australia in the professional era. He took over the job of national coach at a difficult time and in difficult circumstances.
I have often wondered if his biggest weaknesses were with getting players to buy into his ideas and managing the extreme pressures of the top job when there is so little patience. There might be an argument that he was also promoted ahead of a more credentialled candidate, but he was not an unmeritorious choice. He died in 2002, after a struggle with cancer.