When it comes to rugby in 2020, that we got a season at all is cause for celebration.
That is something worth remembering every time frustration kicked in for Wallabies fans, at Michael Hooper ignoring the posts in favour of the sideline.
Super Rugby Aotearoa was a blast. The sight of a full Eden Park was a timely reminder of the potential for professional franchise rugby to reconnect with the masses, if handled correctly.
And while Super Rugby AU often lacked quality and fizz by comparison, it too grew into a worthy competition. Fox commentator George Gregan hailed the victorious Brumbies as “a proud rugby nation”.
The year’s crowning achievement was of course Argentina’s maiden victory over the All Blacks, made more remarkable by coming out of a quarantine hub, against a supposedly battle-hardened opponent.
The Pumas’ success was grounded in super efficiency and organisation on defence. Taken in concert with a number of attritional contests from the Autumn Nations Cup, frank commentary from England’s Eddie Jones, and refereeing interpretations favouring the defensive side at the breakdown, the year ended with many despairing of the future for attractive, running rugby.
These things tend to run in cycles. With financial backers now prominently seated at the table, there are stiff challenges in store for rugby’s lawmakers and whistle-men, but the game will continue to evolve, as it always has.
A perennial over-achiever when it comes to bitter internal politics playing out in public, Australian rugby excelled in 2020, even by its own lofty standards. Ten ex-Wallabies captains, three chairmen, two CEOs and a wiggly 37-day board member with a penchant for venturing off-piste spoke to a heady brew of misaligned priorities, inability to engage stakeholders, financial wobbles, impatience and intolerance of outsiders, all mixed with a dash of misogyny.
Stoking the flames was a complicit News Corporation press, rugby’s broadcast partner on one hand, but intent on trashing its own product on the other.
Amid a plague of negativity, one standout was Jessica Halloran reporting on a purported Wallabies player revolt over Rugby Australia’s $3 million pursuit of teenage prodigy Joseph Suaalii. In truth, Rugby Australia were never interested to remotely that extent, never had the money if they were, and ask yourself, which Wallaby would actually forgo playing Test rugby in protest at the signing of a promising junior player?
By year end, things had settled somewhat under interim CEO Rob Clarke. This was partly a result of him clearly articulating a list of challenges and ticking them off calmly and methodically, and partly because the same press that mercilessly hounded Cameron Clyne and Raelene Castle backed off, providing him and new chairman Hamish McLennan with clear air.
A hint as to why was provided by one of the dissenting ex-captains: 129-times-capped Stephen Moore, who stated to ESPN recently that he had “no regrets” at his actions, while also conceding that he signed the letter without actually knowing what the catalyst for change was.
Anyone who believes that Moore would sign such an incendiary letter without understanding why now has an insight into why he played ten Bledisloe Cup series against New Zealand without ever touching the silverware.
With the list of demands contained in the blueprint offered up by the ex-captains being overwhelmingly rejected or ignored, reconciling that with how some of those same ex-captains have been publicly supportive of the new administration leads you closer to the truth.
The original letter was really about removing Castle, and the board members who backed her, because she didn’t have established networks, didn’t inherently understand Australian rugby and because she wasn’t Phil Kearns. And because she’d upset Nick Farr-Jones with her ‘mistreatment’ of Israel Folau.
If anyone happens to run into Moore, I’m sure he’d appreciate you letting him know.
Another head scratcher was Seven boss James Warburton – in the middle of an almighty stoush with Cricket Australia, having just twigged ten years after everyone else that it’s not Australian broadcasters who determine cricket’s schedule but the BCCI – taking an unsolicited swipe at Nine/Stan for paying too much for rugby’s broadcast rights.
This from a bloke who pays someone to dress up as a cow every morning to hand out tens of thousands of dollars to housewives. And before you ask, if it’s the same cow suit infamously worn by Nick Phipps a couple of years back, I’m sure it’s been through the laundry.
And how about the New Zealand Herald’s Gregor Paul teeing off at the “unsustainably deluded thinking” at the heart of Australian rugby, for declining to trash its own professional rugby structure and shut down franchises, in order to accept the meagre crumbs on offer as invitees into Super Rugby Aotearoa?
“If they (Australia) were to be invited en masse again to partake in Super Rugby Aotearoa next year, they would just be victims. Thumped every week and outclassed by the colossal weight of rugby talent in New Zealand,” Paul wrote.
Only a fool would deny the performance imbalance between New Zealand and Australian Super Rugby sides in recent years. Only a bigger fool would thump their chest so hard they would lose sight of the necessity for rugby to remain strong across our whole region.
On August 9, in the midst of what was an ugly trans-Tasman slanging match, I pondered what Super Rugby would look like in 2021.
“My money is on a few more hand grenades being tossed back and forth across the Tasman, with increasingly less ferocity, before both parties shake hands like old friends and agree on a ten-team competition, comprising five sides from each country.”
Inevitably, by mid-November both sides had come to their senses, the minutes were agreed to, and the matter was settled.
Also settled was an argument at the headquarters of the Georgian Rugby Union. The union’s vice-president shot the coach of the men’s sevens team. No messing around with blueprints there!
My favourite on-field moments included eight and a half crazy overtime minutes in Wellington’s first Bledisloe Test, Richie Mo’unga kicking off to himself and regathering against the Blues, Jordie Barrett clearing the crossbar from 58 metres with space to burn, and Aaron Smith almost single-handedly turning a 0-24 deficit against the Chiefs into a 33-31 away victory.
And who could forget the Rebels needing seven points to beat the Force and play finals rugby for the first time in their history, and with time almost up, hooker Efi Ma’afu scoring a try under the posts, only for none of the match officials to notice!
Enter Cabous Eloff, with both the pink jocks and the presence of mind to pick the ball up and re-score the try!
A special mention here for the efforts of the Force and Rebels squads, at a distinct disadvantage throughout Super Rugby AU, but in particular the Rebels’ contingent of Wallabies players and coaches, some of them separated from young families, who endured hub life from mid-July until early December.
Crystal-ball time now, and one of my intended predictions for next year has already surfaced, with England hooker Steve Thompson last week announcing a diagnosis of concussion-related conditions, in the process claiming that he couldn’t remember winning the World Cup.
Once the jokes were out of the way (cue Michael Cheika: ‘I can’t remember winning the World Cup either’), serious consideration kicked in. There is now almost indisputable evidence linking rugby (and other collision sports) with brain injury, and conditions such as early onset dementia, and more.
What rugby does about it – while maintaining the essence of the game – is an existential challenge for the sport. But it is a matter for the whole game at the highest level – not just Australian TMO Damon Murphy deciding off his own bat to reinterpret rugby’s clean-out laws, as he did last week.
Better management of concussed players and lowering tackle heights aided by harsher sanctions for offending players helps, but potentially offer only marginal improvement. This is because there is growing evidence that it is the accumulation of all (even minor) head knocks over a player’s life time – known as sub-concussive hits – that is most harmful.
Thompson and his cohorts will likely have a difficult time in a legal sense. They will either have to prove negligence on the part of those who make and administer the laws, or link their conditions to specific concussions and cases of mismanagement.
In the face of more empirical evidence, World Rugby will be forced to do more to make a game that has got too big and too powerful, safer for participants. Player associations will finally have to step up to the plate and force real player welfare outcomes. This is an area we will follow closely in the new year.
Also watched with interest in 2021 will be the slowly but steady encroachment of private equity firms, and how they shape the future of rugby.
A logical long-term outcome might be nations relaxing eligibility criteria and clubs expanding or combining, to establish a global footprint similar to the Manchester City model, where players can be shifted from competition to competition as required.
Rather than piecemeal cash injections into disparate groups of national unions, clubs and competitions around the world, an obvious solution is for rugby and potential investors to come together, lay everything on the table and – safe in the knowledge that there is enough money for everyone to prosper – reconstruct global Test and club seasons.
But for as long as clubs in France and the UK maintain nine-and-a-half-month-long playing seasons, and national unions scramble to fit Test schedules around and on top of that, there is little hope. Perhaps the concussion/player welfare issue ultimately forcing fewer matches and less full-contact training offers a small ray of light.
As for the Wallabies and All Blacks, both will anticipate improved seasons in 2021. Dave Rennie looked shell-shocked after last week’s 16-16 draw, with the realisation that taking training-track form and good vibes around his squad and translating that into Test victories is a bigger task than he might have imagined.
Players who can potentially carry the Wallabies forward to the 2023 World Cup – James O’Connor, Jordan Petaia, Tate McDermott, Lachie Swinton, Harry Wilson, Taniela Tupou, Matt Philip and others – will need to keep improving. On other players, hard decisions will need to be made.
Across the Tasman, Ian Foster has to figure out how best to counter fitter and increasingly more skilled opposition, keen to drag the All Blacks into in-your-face arm-wrestle rugby, or else come up with another transformational leap in style.
He’ll continue to be offered no shortage of advice from fans and media, although with Scott Robertson now given the green light to seek Olympic Breakdancing gold, one of his main challengers is set to drop by the wayside.
From the republic, expect any day now South Africa to confirm their 2021 schedule as follows.
• Jan-Mar: bask in the glory of being World Cup champions and number one ranked side
• Apr-Jun: players to undergo 500 minutes of preparation
• July-Aug: Springboks to play a Tri Nations series against Azerbaijan and the Tokelau Islands
• Sep-Dec: bask in the glory of being World Cup champions and number one ranked side
And so, for those who have valiantly battled their way through to the end, here is my annual indulgence: The Wrap music honour roll.
It was obviously a crap year for live gigs, and frankly, not a great one for new album releases too. Sarah Jarosz branched out with the assured ‘World on the Ground’, even if the hand of producer John Leventhal pushed some of it a little too close to his work with earlier protégé, Shawn Colvin.
Malian singer/guitarist Afel Bocoum’s ‘Linde’ was a treat – many thanks to Roar poster and world/folk/jazz music authority Tony H for the tip!
If there was one speck of light to be found in Melbourne’s extended lockdown, succumbing to Spotify to accompany the daily exercise led to a re-connection with gems that were somehow overlooked or underestimated first time around.
Into that category fall Jeffrey Foucualt’s soulful ‘Stripping Cane’, Neilson Hubbard’s tender ‘Cumberland Island’, and Louisiana swamp man CC Adcock’s bristling ‘Lafayette Marquis’.
The North Mississippi Allstars and Anders Osborne are individually renowned for their blistering live sets, but their 2015 collaboration ‘NMO Freedom and Dreams’ is remarkable for its restraint and stellar guitar interplay between Osborne and Luther Dickinson. Spotify’s numbers don’t lie: this wins my most-played award for 2020.
The rugby year finished on a musical high too, with Brandon Paenga-Amosa giving it everything behind Sydney’s Olivia Fox in her rendition of Australia’s national anthem in the Indigenous Eora language.
For a sport that has experienced many missteps in recent years, here was a giant stride in the right direction for Australian rugby.
So, let’s hear it. What were your rugby highs and lows of 2020?
Best wishes for a safe and happy Christmas to all.