There has been a lot of bed-wetting around the supposed impending death of Australian rugby.
Most look to one or two recent causal factors, however the rot set in back in 2013 and we have been slow to correct course.
At the outset, it is important to note that Australian rugby has had a rough few years, yet the framework for success is there, and there were some very positive signs about the game pre-COVID-19.
Most notable are the health of the traditional clubs in Brisbane and Sydney, the under-20s players coming through the system, improved Super Rugby form for most provinces, stability in coaching staff at Super Rugby level, a new coaching set-up with promise for the Wallabies and Rugby World Cup bids and Lions tours to look forward to.
There have been several causal factors given for the demise of Australian rugby performance and support over the last seven years. However, most of the factors were in play when rugby was in rude health in the early 2000s.
The main issues being reported on in the media are as follows.
1. The Super Rugby format
Many have pointed the blame at the travel and time zone issues associated with Super Rugby with teams disappearing for overseas tours to South Africa and Argentina. But is this really the main problem with the competition?
This is not a new issue, yet the Brumbies, Waratahs and Reds have played in front of packed houses with solid TV numbers during successful years. While ideally teams wouldn’t disappear from prime-time television for a long period of time, this hasn’t negatively impacted the support for the competition in the past.
When ideas were put in place to remedy this problem (more local derbies in the conference format), the remedy was then blamed as the cause of the illness, and we are now back with every team playing each other once (presuming Super Rugby continues in 2021 as planned).
While the format was confusing, it is remarkably similar to the Heineken Cup format, where the top teams from each pool make it through, and then a ladder is formed for the highest performing second teams to decide the final spots.
The Heineken Cup is popular in Europe, there is no reason a similar format shouldn’t work in the southern hemisphere.
2. Super Rugby expansion
This one has some legs, but as above, the Waratahs and Reds won their lone Super Rugby titles respectively in 2014 and 2011 when Australia had five teams. The Brumbies have made the final in the expansion period as well in 2013.
While expansion has diluted Australia’s talent across the board, there has been significant success during the expansion period. It’s also worth noting that the Wallabies were one kick away from winning a Lions series, made a World Cup final and competed at around the same win ratio during Robbie Deans’ reign (hovering around 60 per cent) as in prior years.
3. The laws
This is perhaps the most frustrating argument. With the usual knockers coming from rugby league, there has been a chorus of noise from the usual galahs to make the game faster and more expansive.
While I would agree with some of the sentiment around scrum repack and ball in play time, all these issues have been in place for a long period of time.
Three points for penalties, ruck interpretation and the offside line are often put down as reasons for poor support of the game by neutrals. As above, these laws have been in place during Australia’s successful years.
4. Free to air
Again, Super Rugby has never had a prominent place on free-to-air. While this is certainly a problem for growth of the game, it shouldn’t be the killer blow to the sport in general.
5. Poor Super Rugby and Wallabies form
And finally we have the reason for the lack of support. This is obvious, but why has there been a lack of success on the field since the 2015 World Cup final?
I see two main culprits, money and coaching.
Australia has lost a lot of talent to European and Japanese clubs in the last ten years. The talent we tend to lose is not the top-flight players, for example Bernard Foley, Michael Hooper and David Pocock, who have stayed as they are regular Wallabies starters with top-up contracts, but the second-tier players.
Players like Nic Stirzaker and Jesse Mogg are perfect examples of players in their prime, who were not regular Wallabies starters and searched for riches overseas.
As it’s usually non-Wallabies players who are leaving our shores, the importance of this can be missed. When the good players who are on the fringe of Wallabies selection start leaving, it creates huge holes in Super Rugby squads. The holes are often filled by players who aren’t up to the same standard or who are too raw in their development to properly fill the gap.
This issue also creates problems in continuity, and to borrow from Ben Darwin’s mantra, the cohesion of Super Rugby squads. There is a constant turnover each year of players moving on, even if the players coming in are on par or better, they still have to adjust to new players and new systems.
For the Wallabies, it means there are not players plying their trade in crucial positions who sit just underneath the top players ready to fill the breach for lack of form or injury. Competition for places becomes weaker, and the players at the top can rest on their laurels, knowing they are far more experienced and capable at this stage of their careers than the understudy.
This was most evident during the flyhalf crisis of 2016 to 2018. Australia only had one viable flyhalf choice available in Foley. Quade Cooper was not seriously considered as an option, the Brumbies had a non-eligible ten in Wharenui Hawera, Jono Lance was never considered a realistic option and Jack Debreczeni was never allowed to develop on the promise he had.
So much talent in our ten stocks – Christian Lealiifano, Matt Toomua, Berrick Barnes, Kurtley Beale – were overseas, and arguably would have had a shot to take the position off Foley on his form over those two years.
The high turnover of players means it is difficult to know the stars of the game. Even an avid watcher of the game finds it difficult to intimately know their team squads from season to season, and makes it difficult for kids to pick their heroes.
I see this as the biggest issue in Australian rugby since 2013, and there have been moves to fix it in the last few years, which has resulted in better performances at Super Rugby level.
If you cast your mind back to 2013, Australia had very good coaching set-ups at all most all Super Rugby franchises. The Reds had Ewen McKenzie with recent success in 2011 and a finals appearance in 2012, Michael Cheika had just taken over at the Waratahs, fresh after unprecedented success with Leinster in Ireland, and South African World Cup-winning coach Jake White was looking after the Brumbies.
The Force and Rebels had inexperienced coaches in Michael Foley and Damien Hill, but both were seen as quality coaches. To top it off, the most successful Super Rugby coach of all time was leading the Wallabies in Robbie Deans. Australian rugby was in good health in the coaching department with a well recognised head coach for the national team, three viable options to take over if things didn’t go well, and two up-and-coming coaches.
Things didn’t go well. Deans lost the Lions series, largely down to Kurtley Beale missing a match-winning kick after being selected fresh from being released from a rehabilitation clinic. It was a disastrous selection and combined with the previous failure at the World Cup, Robbie Deans was gone.
This is where the rot set in. McKenzie was picked as the Wallabies coach and had some success but lasted just a year before leaving his post after an ugly incident with some senior players. White left after not being selected for the Wallabies role, and Cheika replaced McKenzie for the Wallabies. All three top Super Rugby coaches at the traditional powerhouses of Australian rugby were lost with all their IP.
Foley stayed on until 2016 before being replaced by the rookie coach Dave Wessels. The Reds went through a horror run with Richard Graham, before sacking him in early 2016 before the season started, replaced by both his assistants in a dual coaching role. There could be a book written about the Reds’ coaching debacle between 2013 and 2017, I will leave that for another time.
The Waratahs went with continuity, and had rookie head coach and former Cheika assistant Daryl Gibson appointed. The Brumbies had young head coach Stephen Larkham at the helm since 2014. The Rebels had Tony McGahan, possibly the most experienced head coach in Australia’s Super Rugby sides.
At the beginning of 2016, the Australian Super Rugby sides had three rookie coaches, with Larkham a young up-and-coming coach and Tony McGahan the only experienced campaigner having led Munster in Ireland and holding a previous role as a Wallabies assistant.
It proved disastrous. It was a terrible Super Rugby season for the Australian sides. As for 2017, it was the worst year on record for Australian Super Rugby sides. Nick Stiles got the nod ahead of Matt O’Connor at the Reds, and was sacked within the year to promote Brad Thorn. The Reds stagnated with high turnover of players and staff from 2013 to 2018.
The Waratahs were average under Gibson before his shock resignation in 2019. The Brumbies lost Larkham to the Wallabies set-up before he was moved on as a part of the review of Australia’s poor performance in 2018. The Western Force were axed and Wessels moved onto Melbourne.
It was a lot of turnover at all the Super Rugby sides, and it was chaotic for player movement. Cheika was critical of the fitness of the Wallabies players coming into camp, and it showed on the field. The crowds steadily dropped from the heights of the 2011 to 2014 period for the Reds and Waratahs. The Brumbies have had significant drops in crowd numbers. Sadly, the Force had strong home-ground support right up to their Super Rugby exit.
Out of all this, there appears to be some sense of continuity returning to Australia’s Super Rugby franchises. The Reds have kept Thorn for a third season with marginal improvement, but a young, exciting and maturing squad being largely kept together.
The Waratahs are rebuilding, have some talented young players and hopefully Rob Penney sticks around to rebuild. The Brumbies are winning again and have kept continuity in their playing ranks, with the usual post World Cup turnover. With a good coaching set-up, there is no reason not to be optimistic if you are a Brumbies supporter. Dan McKellar looks to be Australia’s next top Super Rugby coach.
The Rebels have stuck with Dave Wessels, now in his fourth year as a head coach of the Force or the Rebels. He is a great personality for the game, even if the results in 2019 were poor considering the star-studded squad and good start to the year. Bringing in the highly rated Dave Rennie, it appears that Australian rugby has something to look forward to in 2021.
This is why it is so hard to fathom some of the criticism coming now. Australia is on the improve, there is a bright horizon, yet all the criticisms and calls for heads to roll should have happened between 2016 and 2018. The captains letter came three years too late, and with little context or content on what the fundamental problems are or how to fix them.
Issues around free-to-air broadcast deals, the laws and scheduling difficulties do create problems for supporters, however these are problems that create a lack of resilience in the game that contributes to poor crowd numbers. They are not the primary cause of the rot. The real problem of poor on-field performance was due to lack of quality and experienced coaches at the Super Rugby level, and a high turnover of players lost to Europe and Japan.
It is not to say that the other issues shouldn’t be fixed to create a stronger game, but to point to them as the main reasons for our decline isn’t looking at the game holistically and fixing them might not be the panacea that some hope. The answers for Australian rugby are somewhat simple. The Reds have shown the way with signing a host of the young brigade to long-term contracts and keeping their coaching staff in place over three years despite modest results.
Continuity is the answer. Long may the continuity continue.
Please note that I have ignored the COVID-19-related issues, as there is too much uncertainty in the broadcast deal and player contracts to provide any clarity at this point.