Last weekend’s Super Rugby matches finally produced an assertive 29-17 victory by the Waratahs over South African franchise the Lions.
As the powerhouse of rugby talent in Australia for nearly 150 years, the game here always thrives on and off the field if the NSW representative side is successful in producing great talent (often to prop up other franchises) and strong results on the field.
The Rebels defeated the Highlanders in Dunedin in a confident upset 28-22, a scoreline that flattered the home side.
The Rebels have been underperforming in a tough environment. So far, unfortunately, the franchise has not been able to successfully graft on the Western Force transfers into its local cohort.
Unlike the Brumbies, another manufactured franchise, the Rebels over the years have not been able to develop a distinctive culture and a successful way of playing that fits the circumstances of the club.
There are certain characteristics about the Brumbies culture (like that of the Crusaders) that have remained constant and successful since the early days of Rod Macqueen.
Dave Wessels, the Rebels coach, is hardworking and enthusiastic, and it is important for the future of rugby in Australia that he somehow emulates the Brumbies in creating a franchise that has a winning culture.
This is important because there are significant voices in Australian rugby that are arguing for only three Super Rugby franchises. This reasoning places the Rebels in the line of the firing squad.
This is exactly the wrong path for Australian rugby.
A central proposition for Rugby Australia is to work towards the viability of a fifth franchise based in Perth.
There could come a time, probably in a decade or so, when Super Rugby will be concentrated in the Australia-Japan-New Zealand-Pacific Island groupings. A fifth Australian side based in Perth would become a valuable asset for Australian rugby in this configuration.
The Rebels victory against the Highlanders at their fortress in Dunedin is hopefully a sign that the franchise can move forward to become the rugby force that it needs to be.
And the Reds, in front of 13,323 spectators in Brisbane, were defeated 22-33 by a tough and occasionally brilliant Sharks side that should be a contender to win the tournament at the end of the season.
Although these are early days in the tournament, we can see signs that the performance of the Australian sides in this year’s Super Rugby tournament, especially the Brumbies, could be better or should be better – these things are never guaranteed in a contact sport like rugby – than, say, they were last year.
Some young players of great promise are emerging too in the key positions of playmakers, the back row and even in the front row.
More seasoned players, like James Slipper, Tom Banks and Pete Samu, are lifting their games to higher levels that provide some hope for a stronger Wallabies side that seemed possible before the Super Rugby season started.
And off-the-field the Rugby Australia administrators, especially director of rugby Scott Johnson, are coming up with ideas and initiatives that show a welcome embrace of the leadership role they have in the game here.
For instance, Johnson has opened up a debate with World Rugby about the rolling maul and what new laws need to be introduced to restore some rights for the defence to stop a maul that has been well set.
The point here is that a successful rolling maul involves a fundamental breach of the offside laws of rugby.
Moreover, as well as players being allowed to play in front of the ball in a maul, they are also allowed to breach other laws that allow players in the maul to stop defenders from attacking the ball by stopping them from getting access to it.
The Sharks, for instance, produced a stunning maul that used the dispensations allowed by the laws on the maul to effectively sink the hopes of the Reds on Saturday. After the backs joined the maul, Greg Martin made the comment that there was “nothing the Reds could do legally to stop it”.
This is the point: a well-constructed maul is virtually impossible to defend.
The basic principle of rugby, as enunciated by World Rugby, is that the game is about a constant battle for possession. The laws on the maul work against this basic principle.
It is an excellent sign that Johnson is going to show some leadership by starting a needed discussion and review of a rugby feature, the maul, that needs an overhaul to ensure that rugby remains the vibrant spectacle it is when the ball is accessible for a contest.
Australian rugby administrators have always been at the forefront of making rugby a more exciting spectacle and have pioneered a number of initiatives, from the kick into touch laws (the Australian dispensation of the 1920s) to John O’Neill’s initiative on the preserving and enhancing the advantage law and Rod Macqueen with the experimental law variations.
It is good to see Scott Johnson following in this tradition.
But it is important to acknowledge that there is a shadow that still hangs over Australian rugby. That shadow is Rugby Australia’s management of the Israel Folau sacking.
This week Sekope Kepu’s affidavit to the Federal Circuit Court in November was made public. This document provides the first evidence of what really happened to players who disagreed with Rugby Australia’s action against Israel Folau.
The document refutes a number of the assertions made by Rugby Australia.
The Wallabies, according to Kepu, who was under oath, were a split team. Many players resented Folau’s sacking. It made them unsafe, Kepu’s statement insisted, off and on the field.
Rugby Australia’s claim that the Wallabies were a happy and united camp after the sacking were convincingly refuted by Kepu.
Many players felt threatened by the sacking. People who doubt this should ask themselves why Samu Kerevi is playing rugby in Japan and not in Australia.
It has to be stressed that Kepu made his assertions under oath. Samu Kerevi, also on oath, made similar assertions.
Kepu also made it clear he was virtually gagged – after being stood down from the captain’s run – from supporting Folau, who he described as a loving and supportive Waratah and Wallaby, on and off the field, a figure of great respect among the players, especially those with a Pacific Island background.
He also provided an insightful account of why Folau’s presence at the Rugby World Cup would have helped the Wallabies to get into the semi-finals, at the very least.
Kepu’s inside account of Folau’s presence on and off the field with the Wallabies is in contrast to the savage trolling that Folau was exposed throughout the entire sacking saga.
The heart of the problem for players like Kepu and Kerevi – and Folau – was that they were uncertain as to what beliefs they could safely express without being under threat of being sacked.
Kerevi was critical too of Folau being sacked for expressing his religious beliefs when other players who actually had committed “serious misconduct” were allowed to remain in the game.
Rugby Australia and the Rugby Union Players Association promised after the sacking of Folau that some sort of an agreement on what could and could not be said would be reached with the players.
Essentially what Kepu and Kerevi said their statements is that the Folau sacking is still a live issue with many of the Wallabies and Waratahs.
Around the time of the Rugby World Cup in Japan, I contacted RUPA to find out how the agreement was coming along. I must say that the person I spoke to was argumentative to the point of being obnoxious when he was pressed on why no agreement had been reached on what the players could or could not say within the code of conduct that protected religious beliefs.
I think that for Rugby Australia to move out of the shadow of the Folau affair, with its repercussions on a large number of the players, the organisation needs to admit that there remain serious problems with its action that need to be redressed.
Some official statement from Rugby Australia that allows especially the Pasifika players to feel safe proclaiming their Christian beliefs, what they can and cannot say, is needed urgently, as promised.
Then, with the shadow of the Folau sacking finally lifted, the way is finally clear for an uninhibited revival of rugby in Australia to take place.