Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
– WB Yeats, ‘The Second Coming’
‘The Second Coming’ was published in 1920, the final year of the Spanish Flu pandemic which claimed the lives of around 50 million people.
Irish poet William Butler Yeats must have known something. One hundred years on, his words still resonate deeply. Another deadly pandemic is spreading across the face of the Earth and there is no sign of an end to it.
The disintegration he talks about is infiltrating, as surely as a virus, into every fibre of Australian rugby life.
Central to those issues was the removal of CEO Raelene Castle, and her replacement by a Fox Sports pundit, ex-Wallabies hooker Phil Kearns. Among other issues, that would mean the replacement of a woman by a man, and a New Zealander by an Australian.
Are the anarchic powers of sexism and xenophobia raising their heads above the parapet? One of the doyens of Australian rugby writing, Peter FitzSimons, certainly thinks the first is true.
“If you were to measure the antipathy against Raelene Castle, about a half of it, in my view, is because she’s a woman and there is an in-built discrimination,” FitzSimons said on Sports Sunday.
“There is a lot of people in the rugby community who say, ‘We can’t have a woman running rugby’… I’m not making it up. That’s the truth of it.”
If Kearns was to take over from Castle, Australian rugby would likely also look inwards for its future motivation and professional playing schedule, rather than outwards. Geoff noted in his article that “Kearns and followers have immediate withdrawal from SANZAAR as a central tenet”.
This time last year, Kearns was accusing the Jaguares of “making a mockery” of Super Rugby by picking the majority of the Argentinian national team in their provincial side:
“They’re the national team… they shouldn’t even be in the comp. If you want national teams put them in a comp. This is a provincial competition. I think Argentina have been incredibly smart and have hoodwinked the rest of SANZAAR, because they’re going to have a magnificent World Cup team.”
Jaguares head coach Gonzalo Quesada quietly pointed out that Kearns did not understand the internal problems of Argentine rugby which was “still really far behind” – with its best players still plying their trade abroad, and a large base of raw, under-20 talent in the Jaguares.
In the event, Quesada was proven right and Kearns just as comprehensively wrong by events at the 2019 World Cup, in which the Pumas failed to get out of their group for the first time since 2003.
The real issue with the potential axing of Castle is that it would probably remove both her and the Wallabies head coach-in-waiting, fellow Kiwi Dave Rennie, from the equation. If Castle steps downs or is voted out by the board, Rennie is unlikely to take up his appointment.
“I had a lot of time to think about it. I got an approach from Australia reasonably early on, so I did my homework,” Rennie said upon his appointment.
“Raelene flew to Jersey, we had a sit down for a few hours. She really impressed me. Smart and tough, really keen for change, and driven.
“The fact I know [director of rugby Scott Johnson], I felt the leadership here was really strong, I felt they’d have my back. That was a big part of it.”
Take away that trust and you take away Rennie, and quite possibly his defence coach at Glasgow, Matt Taylor. Scott Johnson’s authority would also take a big hit.
Australian rugby would risk losing most of its relationship with significant intellectual property outside the country, and there is no coach of Rennie’s stature waiting in the wings. I doubt either Dan McKellar or Dave Wessels would say that they are ready, as yet, to take on the Wallabies job.
One centre which most definitely can ‘hold’, and whom I would expect to be at the core of Rennie’s plans if he comes, is Fijian-born Tevita Kuridrani.
Kuridrani moved to Australia in 2007 and began his senior career with the Brumbies five years later. In the absence of Samu Kerevi, Kuridrani is the biggest and best man in midfield, and he is still improving.
His defensive contribution to the Brumbies’ 26-14 win over the high-flying Chiefs in Round 4 of 2020 Super Rugby was vital. The Brumbies had established a 26-0 lead when the inevitable second-half hometown comeback began.
Kuridrani’s task as defensive captain in the 13 channel is to communicate and organise the defensive line, and in the process to neutralise two of the most potent, anarchic attacking threats in the whole of Super Rugby, Aaron Cruden and Damian McKenzie.
A simple but instructive example of Kuridrani’s basic work without the ball occurred in the 46th minute, with the Chiefs encamped deep in the Brumbies’ 22:
Kuridrani does not rush out of his channel as automatically as he did a few years ago. As soon as he identifies Anton Lienert-Brown will be the ball-carrier, he stops and holds to make an all-enveloping tackle on the All Blacks centre, slowing the ball down at the tackle and reducing the Chiefs’ options on second phase.
When he gets up after making the tackle, Kuridrani responds rather than reacting automatically. He begins to regroup to the far side of the ruck, then sees the threat is more likely to materialise in the other direction. At 46:03, you can see him directing Noah Lolesio to the far side while he splits to the near.
Kuridrani was proved right later in the sequence:
All the defenders on Kuridrani’s side are primed to rush up ‘one in’ on their opposites.
The critical period of the game arrived in the 53rd minute, after James Slipper had been yellow-carded (although Pete Samu was sacrificed prior to the first scrum).
Kuridrani could not prevent the Chiefs’ second try on the comeback trail, but his lively defensive foresight was still evident:
With no No.8 at the back of the Brumbies scrum, openside Will Miller really has to make that first-up tackle on Chiefs 8 Pita Sowakula when he picks up at the base. When Miller misses, both the Brumbies’ number 10 and 12 are drawn into a desperate goal-line tackle, and Kuridrani cannot call over the wrap by Rob Valetini quickly enough on the following phase:
As the yellow card period wound on, so Kuridrani’s influence on defence waxed rather than waned:
This is a perfect example of a number 13 defending the attacking chip (from the boot of Cruden). Kuridrani does not commit to the rush upfield until he knows the call is pass, not kick:
At the critical moment, there is a tight triangle of Kuridrani, Irae Simone and Andy Muirhead around the ball, and there is no way through for the Chiefs chasers onto Tom Banks.
When, at the very end of the clip, Kuridrani uses his size and physicality to clean up Sam Cane one-on-one, it was already the second time in the game he had done it:
Ultimately, it was Kuridrani’s ability to manage Cruden and McKenzie in the wide channels which got the Brumbies through their sticky period in the third quarter of the game:
Here is Kuridrani, evading the block and waiting for McKenzie’s step inside off his left foot, building a platform for the counter-ruck with a dominant tackle on the Chiefs fullback.
Here he is again, hurling Cruden backwards in contact to set up another counter-ruck win:
Finally, here he is triggering the rush on McKenzie and pushing the Chiefs’ attack into the side-line and a position in which they cannot resist Kuridrani’s power at the cleanout.
Gone are the days when Tevita Kuridrani would blindly rush out of his 13 spot to hit anything that moves. Now he is as complete a defender of that channel as you’ll find, anywhere in the world:
Here he leaves the rush to Muirhead outside him, confident he will be able to fold in behind and outnumber Liebert-Brown with Banks’ assistance from fullback.
Off the playing field, the centre of Australian rugby is falling apart into dissent and acrimony, and the dark shadows of sexism and xenophobia lurk in the background.
If News Corp have their way and are able to rid themselves of Raelene Castle and install Phil Kearns as the CEO of Rugby Australia, there will be a long-term knock-on effect. They will almost certainly lose another New Zealander in Dave Rennie, who is poised to take up his appointment as Wallabies head coach because of his relationship with Castle and Scott Johnson – and they may lose Rennie’s defensive lieutenant Matt Taylor as well.
With the appointment of Kearns would come a stronger desire to leave SANZAAR, and the shared working basis it provides with New Zealand, South Africa and Argentina. Where would that leave Australia, if not isolated within the international rugby community?
On the field, Tevita Kuridrani is one centre who can hold things together for both his club the Brumbies, and the Wallabies at the next step up. Rennie will want him in place later in 2020.
At a time when the falcon cannot hear the falconer, we can only hope Dave Rennie is close enough to call out his name on the team-sheet – and that he hasn’t been drowned out by the louder voices of isolationism circling around Rugby Australia.