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The Wrap: Rugby’s off-again, on-again, rollercoaster a test for players and coaches

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22nd March, 2020
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Since Super Rugby was shut down last weekend there has been much discussion and conjecture around financial concerns (what does this mean for the future of the game in our region?) as well as rugby matters (how soon can games resume and in what form?)

It is pointless speculating on the former in any detail. That outcome depends on too many variables that are either unknown or changing by the day.

When the dust eventually settles and all of the effects of COVID-19 pass, when unknowns become known, only then will the true extent of the damage be able to be assessed, and a roadmap for the future determined.

The answer to the second question was thought to have partially been answered with plans well advanced for domestic competitions to take place in Australia and New Zealand, to begin in a fortnight, but with flexibility built into the schedule to allow for the potential of sides being put out of action for a period if one of their number becomes infected.

But with Australian states moving into lockdown mode – no doubt precipitated by the sight of thousands of idiots enjoying party time at the beach – events are moving much faster than what rugby administrators can possibly hope to keep up with.

In the meantime spare a thought for the players and coaches having to ride a roller coaster of being seven weeks into their season, to having it swept from underneath them, to having to get their heads around stepping into a new competition at short notice and now having that one swept away too – at least for the moment.

In the case of the Melbourne Rebels, coach Dave Wessels is charged with walking a tightrope between keeping his squad on a ‘business as usual’ footing, while at the same time, keeping abreast of developments and being grounded in the same realities that affect all of us, across all walks of society.

Head Coach Dave Wessels of the Rebels looks on

Head Coach Dave Wessels of the Rebels. (Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)

“Obviously, everyone is aware that this situation is a much bigger thing than sport or rugby,” Wessels explained to me over the weekend. The clear implication is that whatever edicts are passed down that impede their ability to play will be met philosophically and adhered to professionally.

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“We didn’t immediately realise the significance of it,” he admits. “We had been building momentum and had used the bye week to conduct in-depth reviews on players and what we were doing as coaches. Out of that we identified the need to focus more on a couple of technical areas, and also to stiffen our set-piece, which had slipped from the level we demand from ourselves.”

“All of our energies were focused on the match against the Sunwolves, and preparation for our tour to South Africa, and it wasn’t until it was officially cancelled that we fully comprehended the extent of things.”

And how difficult was that with respect to the morale of the group?

“We were very disappointed, to be sure. But that only lasted a brief time. One reason is that we were aware of how hard people were working behind the scenes to provide us with rugby. And the other reason is that we resolved as a group to use this situation as an opportunity to get better.”

Like all franchises, the Rebels have implemented measures to try to give the squad the best chance of remaining virus-free. The group has been made as small as possible.

Commercial and non-essential support-staff are required to work from home, the gym has been downgraded from Collingwood AFL’s Lexus Centre next door to a makeshift shed in the car park, and meals and coffee are now taken in-house.

Contact time with the players is shorter, but more intense. “That’s one thing about the guys being locked down at home. They come in to training full of energy and ready to tear into it, it’s like a release for them.”

With the Rebels having the bye the week prior to the shutdown, one interesting outcome is that by the time the new domestic competition begins, the number of injured players one might normally expect at this stage of the season is markedly fewer than usual.

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Dave Wessels Super Rugby 2017

Melbourne Rebels head coach Dave Wessels. (Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)

The downside of this is managing the expectations of players who might have expected to play more rugby, but through a quirk of fate aren’t presented with that opportunity. “It’s disappointing for them,” Wessels explains.

“We’d already indicated to a couple of guys that they would be playing against the Sunwolves. We’ll continue to balance things with respect to bringing guys in whose work at training puts them in the frame for selection, with the need to get some experience into some younger players, with the need for continuity.”

At the end of the day, no matter how the players are juggled – and the puzzle is the same for every Super Rugby coach – Wessels reminds me that all of the squad are acutely aware that in elite professional sport, there are no guarantees for anyone, only the hope that hard work will eventually open up opportunities.

And what if the proposed competition is prevented from starting? Wessels answers by relating a story told to him by his father, whose first boss was a businessman imprisoned by the Nazis in World War II.

While in detention he and other motivated professionals determined that they would use their plight as an opportunity to do something profound – thus they identified chronic deficiencies with the Netherlands’ transport system, designed a fix, and laid the foundation for what exists today.

And before excited Melburnians write in, no that doesn’t mean we should expect Marika Koroibete, Billy Meakes and Anaru Rangi to be solving congestion on Punt Road/Hoddle Street any time soon – although it will be interesting to see what they come up with.

New competition, delayed competition or no competition, Wessels and his players remain grateful. “It’s obvious that there has been an incredible amount of work going on behind the scenes, at Rugby Australia and at our board level to ensure Victorian government support. Also, our CEO Baden Stephenson has been outstanding, working very long hours and then providing us with daily communication as events develop.”

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Matt Philip looks on

Matt Philip looks on. (Photo by Kelly Defina/Getty Images)

All of which makes the latest comments from The Australian’s Alan Jones laughable – even by his low standards.

Jones used his prominent back page column on Friday to draw equivalence between COVID-19 and Rugby Australia; “A virus also infects our game. The response to rugby’s health owes more to the supermarket behaviour than it does to the urgent need for change.”

Jones went on to praise the AFL and NRL for restructuring their seasons, to allow their competitions to continue and to give broadcasters something to work with. But not Rugby Australia.

“Rugby Australia and SANZAAR have shut the game down, offering nothing to broadcasters. It’s the rugby equivalent of the supermarket panic. But it would not be the first time the Rugby Australia chief executive, and the board, have made rushed and botched decisions under pressure.”

Unsurprisingly, Jones fails to explain how, with New Zealand and Australia closing off their borders, Rugby Australia and SANZAAR could have done any different – the decision to shut down Super Rugby was made for them.

The truth is, the SANZAAR nations have all been working very hard to try to get rugby back onto our screens, for the same reasons that the AFL and NRL continued on. The players want to play, the majority of fans want them to play, and their highly leveraged financial positions demand that they play.

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But with the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 rising by the day, and social distancing guidelines being wilfully ignored, the reality of the situation – and where professional sport fits – has begun to hit home.

If there is no rugby – now or in the coming months – it certainly isn’t for a lack of intent or competence on the part of rugby’s administrators.

Another positive has been the interaction between Rugby Australia and the Western Force, with the Force quickly being brought back into the fold for inclusion in the proposed domestic solution.

The Force are now headed by ex-Harlequins player, coach and CEO Mark Evans, who also served as Chief Executive for the Melbourne Storm in the period immediately post the exposing of large-scale, salary cap rorting.

Ostensibly hired to head up Global Rapid Rugby, Evans brings no emotional baggage to a table that has been overladen with it. He has a sharp commercial brain, and an intimate understanding of Australia’s sports market.

It is far too soon to be projecting anything with regard to the future of SANZAAR and Super Rugby – or Global Rapid Rugby for that matter. Even more so with this global crisis landing right at a critical juncture in SANZAAR’s broadcasting rights cycle.

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But out of all good crises comes opportunity, and the fact that there is now open dialogue and co-operation between east and west can only be encouraging.

Over the coming days expect to see headlines and commentary around the certainty of Australia’s professional sports being plunged into bankruptcy.

Paradoxically however, it is quite possible that the scale of this crisis – health and economic – and the scope of the government’s response, is such that professional sport in Australia, along with other business sectors, may well be provided with a safety net of sorts.

There was plenty of discomfort felt around the crude way NRL Chairman Peter V’Landys jumped in to hold out his hand for government assistance while authorities were still in the early stages of formulating appropriate medical responses.

But because this event is now so huge, all bets are off with respect to the manner and extent of government assistance that will be required to prop up every business sector. This is not the bust of a mining cycle, or an equities crash or housing market collapse, or a retail slowdown, where government might stand to the side and let things naturally correct themselves over time.

Unprecedented measures are now in place – with more to follow – to enable as many industries and businesses as possible to effectively ‘freeze in time’, until such a point that some semblance of normal order can be restored.

In this regard, professional rugby becomes no different to any other similar sized business, re the desirability and benefits of keeping it afloat.

With the medical crisis now set to run its course, the way out of the economic crisis is for pain to shared as much as is practicable – by employees, small and large businesses, their suppliers, landlords, banks and government.

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Of course, there will be casualties regardless, but in the broader sense there cannot be any winners at the expense of others, otherwise the chain breaks and the consequences will be far more dire.

James Slipper

How do the Wallabies – and Rugby Australia – rebuild? (Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

V’Landys got it wrong trying to claim that rugby league deserved special treatment. But perversely, he (and Rugby Australia) might be saved by the crisis being deeper and more widespread than first imagined.

Long term, sport isn’t going anywhere, and rugby, with hundreds of thousands of participants in community and club rugby all over Australia, has a solid foundation upon which to re-emerge when time allows.

The massively successful World Cup in Japan showed the depth of support and commercial appeal for the professional game. Also, don’t underestimate the financial strength and the will of World Rugby to play a role in ensuring that the game remains secure in all of its main global markets.

It may not look like it right now, but don’t be surprised if rugby in Australia emerges from all of this bruised and battered, but largely intact, and ultimately, wiser and stronger.