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Horror weekend for Australian Super Rugby teams makes Castle's broadcast rights a hard sell

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Expert
16th February, 2020
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Where are the rugby players in Australia that kids and adults can follow fervently and chant their names when they make spectacular plays for their teams?

The most depressing aspect of the third round of the 2020 Super Rugby season, a horror round for Australian teams, was their drab play and the lack of any player with crowd-pleasing magic in his play.

Let us be honest here. There is not one player in the Australian franchises who would be an unassailable first choice in any of the top-tier national rugby teams.

And the results of Super Rugby matches involving the Australian sides are just as depressing as this lack of star players.

The Waratahs and the Reds, historically the fountainhead of any greatness in the Wallabies, have lost their first three Super Rugby matches this season.

As well, the Australian Super Rugby sides are 0-6 against foreign teams this season. And, to be fair, the South African and New Zealand sides and, suprisingly, the Sunwolves are playing attractive and effective rugby.

The Sunwolves had a crowd of nearly 18,000 at Chibunomiya Stadium to watch them go down 17-43 in a feisty display to the Chiefs.

To be fair, once again, the Brumbies lost 22-23 to the Highlanders, losing the lead in the last play of the match in the rain at Canberra.

The loss ended a run of 11 winning matches at Canberra.

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Tevita Kuridrani of the Brumbies

(Tracey Nearmy/Getty Images)

The Brumbies franchise has been noted as the Australian equivalent of the Crusaders – a smart, well-drilled side with clever attacking plays being a feature of their play.

But against the Highlanders the Brumbies were disappointing, with a rollerball obsession for their scoring tries from boring driving mauls.

This rollerball game should take them to the top of the Australian Super Rugby table. But it is unlikely to worry the best of the South African and New Zealand sides.

It is also – and this is critical at this time – unlikely to evoke any enthusiasm from supporters and from television viewers.

The Reds had a terrific first half against the Jaguares in Buenos Aires, leading 24-12 at half-time.

They should have been even further ahead but lacked the composure to be deadly with their execution in the final and decisive plays.

In the second half the roles were reversed. The Reds hardly got their hands on the ball at all. The Jaguares smashed them in the forwards and carved them up in the backs.

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Emiliano Boffelli runs the ball for the Jaguares

(Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

The 43-27 win for the Jaguares turned on a controversial decision midway through the second half when the Reds scrum was penalised on the Jaguares’ five-metre line for smashing their opponents into a pile of bodies.

The ruling was made that Taniela Tupou didn’t scrum straight. This was nonsense. The decision was in line with several other penalties and interventions by the TMO that seemed to go against the Reds when they were in an ascendant situation.

The penalty count was 12-3 in favour of the home side.

But the real reason the Reds lost was that they lacked any real leadership on the field compared to, say, the Highlanders and their last-minute assault for victory, which actually embraced the need to score near the posts for an easy and winning conversion to be made.

One of the worst headless chook offenders was Tupou. He became a menace for his own side with his off-the-ball attacks and his general inability to focus his aggression to ensure a good outcome for his side.

I noticed one play in the second half that summed up the problem of not taking the right options that the Red face.

Tupou had gone on a rampage against the Jaguares and was jogging back into position after making a smashing tackle on one of his opponents.

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The Reds halfback waited until Tupou got back into position on the short side and, instead of delivering his pass to a backline in position to make an attack, tossed a pass to Tupou who promptly dropped the ball.

Taniela Tupou of the Reds

(Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

Now, while the Australian Super Rugby teams – with the exception of the Reds – are giving a new meaning to the words ‘boring rugby’, the chief executive of the Rugby Australia Raelene Castle is trying to sell a five-year deal for the broadcasting rights for virtually all rugby played in Australia to anyone who is prepared to pay her price for it.

The only slightly good news in this frightening scenario, given that the Australian rugby product right now is about as enticing as cold porridge, is that Fox Sports needs Super Rugby for its sports portfolio almost as much as Rugby Australia needs a strong settlement to keep the game afloat in this country.

As Andrew Webster noted recently in the Sydney Morning Herald: “The attacks on RA from News Corp press have slowed in recent days … both are playing poker with bad hands – because both need each other.”

What Rugby Australia needs to fear, though, is that Rupert Murdoch gave the financial go-ahead for Super Rugby because of a charismatic player of Tongan origin with phenomenal athletic skills – Jonah Lomu.

Sitting in his office in Los Angeles, Murdoch watched the All Blacks monster England in the semi-final of the 1995 Rugby World Cup.

Jonah Lomu played the single most devastating match a winger – or probably any other player in any other position – has ever played in the history of Test rugby. England defenders were simply smashed, run over and sometimes run around as he was a one-man wrecking ball destroying any semblance of England defence.

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Murdoch saw the carnage being wrought against England and asked his advisers: “Who is this player? We must have him.”

Rugby World Cup, England v New Zealand, Jonah Lomu of New Zealand heads towards the try line

Jonah Lomu at the 1995 World Cup. (Mark Leech/Offside/Getty Images)

Televised sport is sport, but it is also entertainment. It lives off the ‘Jonah factor’.

Hand on heart as you answer this question: is there any rugby player currently playing with the Australian franchises who attracts a crowd, who wins matches and is so charismatic that his nickname identifies him anywhere in the world?

Is there, in other words, any Australian player with the ‘Jonah factor’ that entranced Rupert Murdoch to invest hundreds of millions of dollars into rugby?

Without comment I offer the opening sentences of an AFP story. It appeared, for one, on the Fox Sports website headed, ‘That didn’t take long! Chants of “Izzy! Izzy!” as Israel Folau scores just FIVE minutes into debut’.

Israel Folau has marked his English Super League debut for Catalans with a try as the Dragons ran out 36-18 winners against Castleford Tigers.

Folau scored a try with his first touch of the game and had French supporters on their feet every time he touched the ball in Perpignan.

His name was cheered when it was read out on the sound system at Stade Gilbert Brutus pre-match, and again after his try as the crowd broke out in a chant of “Izzy! Izzy!”

Well, Folau is out of Australian rugby and in terms of generating interest and success in the Waratahs and the Wallabies his unique rugby skills are being sorely missed.

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Rugby supporters were sold a condescending claim by many rugby experts that Folau’s absence would be easily covered by Kurtley Beale.

The truth is that Beale is now one of the main problems for the Waratahs. He makes the occasional flashy pass or makes the occasional break but the rest of his play is ineffective. Moreover, he refuses to tackle unless an attacker actually runs straight into him.

I write this as someone who saw Beale play his first game for Joeys First XV as a 14-year-old and enjoyed vicariously his splendid play over many years for the Wallabies and the Waratahs.

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The hard truth for the 2020 Waratahs is that their young players are too inexperienced in terms of producing matchwinning performances and their senior players don’t have the legs any more, especially Beale, to produce the magic of past years.

It is all very well for Karmichael Hunt to insist that ‘senior stars’ must step up.

It is all words. The step has gone. Moreover, the remaining senior players, including Hunt himself, were carried for several years by Folau’s brilliance in the air and his fabulous ability to score tries, even though he was played out of position at fullback.

The fact is that the management team at the Waratahs, which includes the former chief executive Andrew Hore and the former head coach Daryl Gibson, left the Waratahs a weaker force in every respect than it was before they became involved in the franchise.

Paul Cully in the Sun-Herald (‘Penney for your thoughts: coach handed a broken side’) has pointed out that the new coach has inherited a side with no number one tighthead prop.

» George Gregan on Australian rugby’s changing of the guard

The tighthead prop is the cornerstone of any successful team. The Waratahs do not have a Super Rugby level tighthead prop.

Cully might have added that there is no No. 10 in the squad with any detailed experience at the Super Rugby level.

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There is no size in the forwards. Nor much heart. Nor an attacking game.

There is no one in the backs, and this includes Hunt, who has the nous and skills to organise a backline and set up the appropriate plays as the game unfolds.

I would say that this is the worst Waratahs side I have seen for decades, even taking into account those sides in the early days of Super Rugby that were ‘coached’ by Matt Williams.

And where is Andrew Hore now?

The answer is in his Wikipedia biography: “Andrew Hore suddenly left the NSW Waratahs in early October 2019. His unexpected departure came just days after he appointed yet another New Zealander to the coaching job at the Waratahs. Hore moves to a rival franchise, the Auckland Blues.”

Waratahs players react after a Super Rugby loss

(Ashley Feder/Getty Images)

The Rebels completed the only victory by an Australian Super Rugby side over the weekend by defeating the Waratahs 24-10 at Melbourne.

It is interesting to note that two of the Rebels tries were scored by Andrew Kellaway, a former Waratahs youngster with a ton of potential and a prolific try-scorer, for instance, in the world under-20 tournament.

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But Kellaway’s potential remain untapped at the Waratahs. This is another bad mark against the Waratahs franchise.

Kellaway has had to play out of Australia to keep his career afloat and has come back to the Rebels where at least he has been given the occasional chance to show he remains a player with the potential to be a useful Wallaby.

My complaint with the Rebels is that it is a franchise that has underperformed. The injection of the Western Force players to the franchise has not been a successful operation.

The entire exercise has been a case of two into one doesn’t work. The fact that the franchise is using a couple of South Africans to beef up the pack indicates this.

The irony is that the Western Force franchise, surprisingly, is in much better shape than the Rebels.

A rugby culture based around the Western Force franchise is being created in Perth through the efforts of Andrew Forrest, the billionaire rugby enthusiast and former player, which has much more chance of long-term success than the Rebels franchise in Melbourne.

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Andrew Forrest, for instance, has recently announced details of the inaugural season of Global Rapid Rugby, which kicks off on 13 March.

There are six teams in the tournament: China Lions, Malaysia Valke, Fijian Latui, Manuma Samoa, Hong-based South China Tigers and the Western Force.

The Chinese Rugby Football Association will link up with New Zealand’s Bay of Plenty franchise to create the China Lions.

The teams will compete for a $1 million prize pool, with a season of 30 games over six rounds and a one-off grand final.

The vision behind this tournament and its emphasis in linking Australian rugby with Fiji, Samoa, China and New Zealand is fascinating and the possibility of long-term benefits for rugby in Western Australia.

The Bay of Plenty link perhaps suggests that Forrest is not getting much support for his project from Rugby Australia.

Or it could mean that Forrest has not forgiven Rugby Australia for booting the Western Force out of the Super Rugby tournament.

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Anyway, I’d feel more comfortable about the outcome of the broadcasting rights negotiations if Rugby Australia could somehow get Andrew Forrest, with his flair for making a deal and his promised $50 million to invest in rugby, somehow involved in the process.