The simplest fix for Australian rugby will just be having the Wallabies win more games.
Trophies in the cabinets strongly correlate with bums on seats and dollars in bank accounts so any plan for Australian rugby needs to answer how it’s going to make us win again.
Of course, winning more games is much easier said than done. How do you go about doing this in practice?
The first thing you do is pick your best players. We’re not spoiled for choice so I’d scrap the Giteau rule and make it open slather. If you make yourself available from June through to October (i.e. outside the northern hemisphere club season) then you’re eligible. Will Skelton (28), Liam Gill (27) and Sean McMahon (26) are all enormously talented, in their peak playing years and they have less than 60 caps between them. That’s ridiculous. It would be one thing to turn our backs on these guys if we were winning everything. Very different story when we’re ranked seventh in the world and going backwards.
Would scrapping Super Rugby and abolishing the Giteau rule lead to a massive player exodus? Almost definitely. As noted in Part 2, the system would be designed to keep the top 25 players in the country and the top 25 juniors but beyond that the players are left to fend for themselves. Some would certainly leave and go to France or Japan, make good money, improve as players and get some life experience. Some would probably end up in the NRL and some would go back to their clubs, play as amateurs and join the workforce. The question is not whether there would be an exodus. The question is whether it would actually be a bad thing?
The comparison people typically draw is with the Socceroos or the Brazilian football team but this is flawed for two reasons. Firstly, we’ve got enough money and good enough competition to keep a core group of players here year-round. Secondly and more importantly, even if they did all leave, we have a clearly defined annual international season, which sees the best players playing in Australia for Australia so it’s not like they’ll be totally lost to the Australian public.
Based on my experience of watching and playing rugby, there are five factors that go into creating a winning team: raw talent, physical conditioning, experience, cohesion and team culture, and mental resilience. I’ve just made this framework up but I think it works so here is how I would approach each in my new system.
There is no i in team, but there are five in individual brilliance.
Finding and recruiting the best players is fundamental and yet somehow there is not a single person anywhere in Australian rugby who has this a job description. So that would be step one — put someone in charge and have them fly around the country watching club and school footy to find and recruit the best young players.
The goal here is not to find physical specimens and try to mould them into footy players. It’s the opposite. Find the best footballers and turn them into better athletes. With a couple of notable exceptions (such as Jonah Lomu), the greats of the game rarely dominate through pure physicality. Instead they are good athletically and exceptional at reading the play, making the right decisions and executing their skills under pressure and fatigue.
Step two would be the contracting model I outlined in Part 2. Rugby needs to be competitive with the other codes in what it can offer to young players financially. Otherwise, instead of playing Bledisloe they’ll be playing State of Origin.
All of that said, rugby is still a physical game and the better conditioned the team is the better they’ll perform. This is one area in which reducing the number of centrally contracted players probably helps. Rather than having 150 players scattered across the states all working to different strength and conditioning programmes, all 50 contracted players would now be under a centralised regime.
I would take this one step further as well and publish players’ testing results in terms of strength, speed, agility and endurance. This would allow people outside of the system (either because they are overseas or otherwise) to know what standards they should be trying to hit and it’d give the public insight into the work going on behind the scenes. People loved reading about the All Blacks’ bronco results a few weeks ago so why don’t we see more of that?
When was the last time the Wallabies won a big game in bad weather? Or won a big game playing ugly like South Africa did against Wales in the World Cup semi-final? I honestly can’t even remember. The 2011 World Cup quarter-final against the Springboks, maybe? But I don’t even think the weather was that bad and even if it was, we won because David Pocock single-handedly dominated them, not through strategic superiority.
The pool game against Wales in 2015 was pretty good as well but that was all about defence and didn’t have much to do with tactical nous. We have an inflexible mentality that running rugby is superior, which just isn’t setting us up for success, especially in big games and in bad weather.
This is where having international club experience as part of a standard rugby career trajectory is actually a huge benefit. A few seasons spent playing through the European system will give our players way more exposure to these tactics and these conditions than they would ever get playing Super Rugby. Might we have won a few more games at Eden Park if our players had more experience in bad conditions? It surely wouldn’t have made it worse.
Resilience and mental strength
Leadership and ability to perform under pressure are intangible but hugely important skills. How do you foster them? Adversity.
Taking players straight out of school and coddling them in professional academies for their duration of their careers fosters the exact opposite. Players are told where to be, what to wear, what to eat and what to say. They no longer have to think for themselves at all. And this tends to show on the field. If they’re in their comfort zone they can look like world beaters but when they’re put under pressure they lack adaptability.
This is why I think it would be great for all of these guys to spend some time in club rugby. It may not be glamorous but getting smashed around at training by a disgruntled second grader on a wet Tuesday night under poor lighting should be an important part of any rugby career.
Almost every great Australian cricketer from the past three decades was dropped at some point in their career. It was only after getting dropped and working their way back into the team that they prospered — I think there is a lesson in this for Australian rugby.
Cohesion and team culture
There is a school of thought that says cohesion, rather than skill or coaching or athleticism, is the key driver of performance. Alternatively, others argue psychological safety and acceptance of vulnerability are the more important dynamics. Either way, there’s no doubt that a culture is a key driver of performance.
On one hand, my proposals fly in the face of this because it disperses the players to their club teams rather than a smaller number of Super Rugby teams but on the other I’m still talking about an international season that runs for four months so I don’t buy the argument that that’s not long enough. The Queensland State of Origin team spent approximately six weeks together every year and that was plenty.
The thing that really kills teams is factions. It’s fine if not everyone is best buddies with one another but when there are two clear camps it can get pretty toxic pretty quickly. Rumour has it that this has been the Wallabies for the past few years with a rift growing between those of Pacific Island descent in the Wallabies camp and everyone else. Apparently, this existed before the whole Israel Folau saga but that can only have made things worse.
In terms of how you fix this going forward, I have no idea. Apparently this is one of Dave Rennie’s strengths so fingers crossed he gets everyone singing from the same song sheet.
Other ways to win more games
Beyond the ways to improve our performance listed above, there are two other ways to win more games, which my system achieves albeit somewhat inadvertently.
Firstly, the new international calendar reduces the number of hard games we play (i.e. against New Zealand and South Africa) and increases the easy games by adding teams who we’d back ourselves to beat (initially Fiji and Japan). Also we’d effectively be playing for the Bledisloe in one-off Tests every year, which would definitely increase our chances of winning it every now and then.
Secondly, the biggest loser in scrapping Super Rugby would definitely be New Zealand. Their international dominance has been built on their Super Rugby dominance and if Super Rugby goes away, there’s good reason to think they’ll come back to the pack a bit.
One way or the other, improving on-field performance is an absolute non-negotiable for Australian rugby. Australians love a winner, so if we start getting some better results, it’s only a matter of time before people start to appreciate the game itself.