There are a lot of problems confronting our game in 2020. Some of them are a result of money intruding into our sport, many are not.
There is no doubt many things need to change, but just wishing back the good things from the amateur era is wishful thinking.
My dad recently asked me if I could remember the circumstances of Mark Ella being suddenly elevated to the captaincy. It only rang a bell, or quite a few, with the order of events eluding me. So, I checked it out (thank you, Peter Jenkins, for Wallaby Gold).
The ’81/’82 Wallabies held high hopes for their UK tour but after narrowly beating Ireland, lost the next three Tests. Despite being badly outplayed in the forwards they scored eight tries to three, but Paul McLean had a poor run with the boot and the team arrived home to a lot of criticism.
Coach Bob Templeton was overlooked for Bob Dwyer in 1982 for two home Tests against Scotland and a 14-match tour of New Zealand. Dwyer’s appointment was not well accepted north of the Tweed and this was compounded with the selection of Mark and Glen Ella for the first Test at Ballymore, with Roger Gould and McLean relegated to the bench.
The short story is that Australia did not get the forward parity it expected or the consequent backline dominance, and Michael Hawker as part-time goal kicker got one from five. Following that loss, Gould and McLean were restored and Australia crushed Scotland with McLean recording a record individual score in his final test.
The euphoria was dampened with the subsequent withdrawal of nine Queenslanders from the winning team, including captain Tony Shaw, for the tour of New Zealand. It was widely speculated that this was a protest against Dwyer and, as a young New South Welshman, this is the way I have remembered it.
While this may have been a factor, it turns out that those players issued a statement at the time expressing their support for Dwyer and the Australian team. Many of those players were longtime Wallabies and felt they could no longer financially afford to continue and many of them subsequently retired.
I suppose at the time it was just another complaint about money by Australian sportsmen and it made no sense to a young man like me. 40 years later I look back and see that, for a bunch of maturing men, some with up to ten years’ service, there was a cost. Three months in the northern winter of 1981/82 and then a seven-week tour of New Zealand in the winter of 1982.
Together with the training and playing in between, it was a ridiculous ask. Amateur rugby had passed its ‘use by’ date. David Lord’s first attempt at an eight-nation professional ‘circus’ almost got off the ground and which delivered a significant impetus for the push for a World Cup.
Being an amateur player was not sustainable in 1980 and if there was to be an elite rugby game in Australia in 2020 it had to become professional. The big challenge for Rugby Australia is to transform the game to restore the values that sustained it for more than a hundred years before it became professional.