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The Wrap: 153 reasons why Waratahs coach Rob Penney must be left alone

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Expert
7th March, 2021
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Consider the following names. It’s a long list, but bear with me; that’s the point.

Malachi Hawkes, Moses Alo-Emile, Paul Alo-Emile, Guy Millar, Dave Lolohea, Emile Tuimavave, Sekope Kepu, Oli Hoskins, Paddy Ryan, Shambeckler Vui, Sam Talakai, Les Makin, Pek Cowan, Tim Metcher, Aidan Ross and Jermaine Ainsley.

Tolu Latu, John Ulugia, Julian Heaven, Sam Kitchen, Effie Ma’afu, Hugh Roach and Lindsay Stevens.

Luke Jones, Kane Douglas, Izack Rodda, Miles Amatosero, Lopeti Timani, Rory Arnold, Richie Arnold, Matt Philip, Will Skelton, Mitch Lees, Emmanuel Maefou, Hugh Pyle, Tom Staniforth, Phoenix Battye, Alex Toolis, Rob Simmons, Adam Coleman, Sam Carter, Harry Hockings, Jed Holloway, Sam Jeffries, Patrick Tafa, Fred Fewtrell, Esei Hangana, Lachlan Osborne, Michael Stolberg, Dave Dennis, Corey Thomas, Ben Toolis, James Moore and Jake Ball.

Scott Higginbotham, Caleb Timu, Keenan Timu, Reece Hewat, Charlie Rorke, Tala Gray, Colby Fainga’a, Adam Korcyk, Jordy Reid, Scott Fardy, Jarrad Butler, Ed Kennedy, Jake Schatz, Sean McMahon, Liam Gill, Michael Hooper, Ned Hanigan, Ed Quirk, Jack Cornelson, Ben Gunter, Warren Rahboni-Vosayaco, Lachlan McCaffrey, Brody Macaskill, Lolo Fakaosilea, Maclean Jones, Angus Cottrell, Christian Poidevin, Joe Brial and Nick Haining.

Nic Stirzaker, Nick Phipps, Ben Meehan, Will Genia, Matt Lucas, Ryan Louwrens, De Wet Roos and Harrison Goddard.

Mike Harris, Zak Holmes, Ben Volavola, Jack Walsh, Isaac Lucas, Quade Cooper, Bernard Foley, Christian Lealiifano, Sam Greene, Andrew Deegan, Jack Debreczeni, Mack Mason, San Windsor and Luke Burton.

Duncan Pai’aua, Mali Hingano, Vaea Vaea, Levi Milford, Afusipa Taumoepeau, Curtis Rona, Sione Tuipolotu, Paul Asquith, Ben Tapuai, Terrence Hepetema, Samu Kerevi, Brackin Karauria-Henry, Clynton Knox, Will Chambers, Dylan Riley, Tom English, Bill Meakes, Sam Johnson and Henry Taefu.

Henry Speight, Sefa Naivalu, Latu Latunipulu, Alofa Alofa, Peter Betham, Chris Feauai-Sautia, Eto Nabuli, Junior Laloifi, Ben O’Donnell, Matt Gordon, Taqele Naiyarovoro, Louis Lynagh, Luke Morahan, Harry Potter, Andrew Kellaway, James Dargaville, Joe Tomane, Semisi Tupou, Tony Hunt, Josh Nohra, Cam Clark and Monty Ioane.

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Jesse Mogg, Kurtley Beale, Sione Tui, Kimami Sitatui, John Porch, Guy Porter and Luke McLean.

Those are the 153 professional players either currently or previously eligible for Australian selection who are today registered with rugby clubs across France, UK, Japan, USA and New Zealand.

That’s four full professional squads doing their thing somewhere else other than in Australia.

Their number includes 33 Wallabies with a combined total approaching 1100 Test appearances. Another nine players on the list have played 231 Tests for other countries.

The list includes names instantly recognisable to any Australian rugby fan: Cornelsen, Lynagh, Poidevin and Brial.

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Of course many of these players have never been and will never be in contention for a Wallabies jersey. Some are journeymen professionals who have been tried and discarded from Australian franchises, others have bypassed the Australian pathway altogether to try their luck in better-paying markets.

But a high number would be welcomed with open arms by all of Australia’s five franchises for what they bring on the pitch, to the changing room and in the team environment, passing down their knowledge to less experienced, developing players.

This list is also the reason print and television media who have targeted Waratahs coach Rob Penney, conflating a story of a besieged coach with his neck on the chopping block, are well out of line.

Don’t be confused about reporters walking back from their original inferences to announce that Penney is now thought to retain the ‘support of the board’. Any device to keep a story in the headlines will do. And everyone in the media knows that if you say something enough times loudly enough, it will eventually come true.

In this case it’s unfair, it’s juvenile and it’s lazy.

Waratahs coach Rob Penney is seen during the warm-up

Rob Penney. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Sure, the Waratahs have lost their first three matches. Who wouldn’t be frustrated by their inability so far this season to impose themselves in the front five? But what if Penney was able to pluck a second-rower or two out of the 31 locks on this list? Would that make a difference?

Never mind a separate list containing rugby juniors signed to NRL clubs. Never mind a Waratahs back office that has dealt Penney such a dud hand.

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Rugby is a global professional sport. The market for players (and coaches) is global. When a middling club from the England Premiership offers Adam Coleman three times the salary he is on in Australia, is it any surprise that he leaves Australian rugby behind?

Will it be a surprise when Marika Koroibete – outstanding in the Rebels’ heartbreaking 27-24 loss to the Brumbies – does the same at the end of this season?

Rugby offers wonderful opportunities to play for enjoyment and money in all corners of the world. But because other markets are bigger and more lucrative, Australia can’t control the flow of players and is exposed to losing more than is desirable.

It is estimated that 70 per cent of global rugby revenue is located in two markets, France and England, with Japan a rapidly rising third. Australia’s relative share of rugby’s wealth is getting only smaller.

Why is that forgotten when coaches, scrambling to pluck replacements out of club rugby to fill the vacant roster spots of departed internationals, are made the fall guy?

That the true picture has been recognised by the Rugby Union Players Association, and a reduced pay deal struck between the players and Rugby Australia is a credit to all those involved for their pragmatism.

It is also why proponents of the abolition of rugby’s ‘Giteau law’ don’t fully understand the impact such a decision would have. The Wallabies would be poorer for being formed from entirely overseas-based players (like the Socceroos), but because of the nature of international rugby, it wouldn’t be a death sentence.

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The real devastation would be at Super Rugby level – further diminishment of standards, less money from broadcasting rights and a death spiral into semi-professionalism or faux-amateurism.

In terms of propping up domestic professional rugby, Rugby Australia has actually done a pretty fair job considering its meagre financial resources. Australian franchises are professionally run by administrators and coaches who care deeply for their charges, and the lot of a professional player in Australia – even before the home lifestyle and family is taken into account – is a pretty good one.

The lure of the Wallabies jersey remains strong, but the reality is that this carrot applies only to the 40 or so selected squad members plus perhaps another 20 or 30 players who are told that the selectors are looking at them.

Thus, unless there are family or other reasons to stay, given the salary disparities with France, the UK and Japan, a whole tier of players who would be adding depth to Australian franchise rosters – many of them names the posse hounding Penney will not even have heard of – are taken out of the system.

When those player losses aren’t spread evenly across the five franchises – they never are, that’s the nature of professional sport – then somebody is going to end up hurting more than the others. That organisation right now is the Waratahs, although the impact is seen in pockets at other franchises too.

For example, pundits bemoaning the Rebels’ apparent decision not to pursue tries might consider that the Rebels are fielding a centre, winger and fullback who are all new to Super Rugby and new to each other.

That’s not a recipe for tries on the end of a flowing backline but something that manifests itself in misalignment, wayward passing and handling errors under pressure, all of which on Saturday night killed momentum and cruelled try-scoring opportunities.

That’s not an excuse for anything, just one illustration of the effects of player turnover. The tries will come but, frankly, the Rebels will be more concerned about conceding two tries while playing against 14 men.

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The other side of that coin is that the franchises with the most continuity of personnel, the Brumbies and the Reds, are more advanced and are winning.

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That Rob Penney was the main story on Friday night was disappointing for another reason. The Western Force had been back in Super Rugby for nine matches without a win, and their first victory should have been first and forefront.

It wasn’t always pretty and wasn’t as funny as Andrew Ready seemed to think it was after being shown a red card, but a powerful Tim Anstee was the real deal in creating and finishing the two tries that told the 20-16 difference.

Now that the duck has been broken, expectations have been raised and their ‘united nations’ squad has had more time to gel, expect a great atmosphere and one heck of a contest with the Rebels this weekend.

In many respects Saturday’s match was a get-out-of-jail experience for the Brumbies, but the way they managed the periods when a man down and played to win on the siren was highly impressive. Matches like last week against the Waratahs – a free-flowing win by 61-10 – are savoured by fans. Matches like this – eking out a win on a night when things don’t all go your way – are savoured by coaches.

Tom Banks’s 71st-minute try was trademark Brumbies when they – back to the theme – ruthlessly exploited the inability of a young, inexperienced prop to fill his post on the edge of the ruck.

Overall, this was an enthralling match of high intensity, peppered with individual highlights from Koroibete, Cabous Eloff, Trevor Hosea, Banks and Ryan Lonergan.

Three technical discussion points to finish.

A 48th-minute lineout maul drive saw a penalty try awarded to the Brumbies along with Rebels hooker James Hanson receiving a yellow card. Which prompts the question: why wouldn’t a defending side, once they sensed that the maul had gathered sufficient momentum to make the try inevitable, simply concede?

The damage would be five points but, by comparison, a difficult sideline conversion instead of an automatic seven and the retention of all of their players.

It strikes against every competitive instinct, but such a situation is more grist for the mill for the argument that the balance between attack and defence at the lineout maul isn’t quite right.

Brumbies captain Allan Alaalatoa’s unfortunate high shot on the impressive Pone Fa’amausili put the Rebels prop out of the game and potentially out for this week as well. Under the new red card replacement law, the Brumbies lost a player for 20 minutes.

Is that a just transaction? Aside from placating fans who demand a ‘fair’ 15 versus 15 contest, what actually is the purpose of this law variation?

And finally, for any Rebels fan looking for more butt-hurt, as if they haven’t had enough final-minute trauma in the last fortnight, take another look at where Richard Hardwick conceded the final penalty. Half a metre inside the Brumbies half.

Lonergan took the kick from right on the halfway line. It cleared the crossbar by a hairsbreadth. And they say rugby is a game of inches.

In Hamilton, Bryn Gatland broke a golden rule when, with his team ahead 20-6, hot on the attack and a man up, he released the pressure by trying a speculator chip-kick over the Highlanders defence. It found only spider-covered Jono Nareki, whose 80-metre dash allowed the visitors to be in much closer contact at half-time than they deserved to be, spring-boarding them to a 39-23 win.

In Sunday’s match the Crusaders put the pedal down in the second quarter to set-up a 33-16 win and avenge last year’s home defeat to the Hurricanes.

I’m sure Rob Penney, a highly respected Canterbury rugby man and four-time winner of New Zealand’s ITM Cup as a coach, will have been watching. What would he give to be able to pick a Codie Taylor or a Sam Whitelock right now?

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