Talking points came thick and fast this week, not the least being the Brumbies booking their place in next week’s Super Rugby AU final against the Reds. More on their 21-9 win against the Force later.
Dave Wessels became the second coaching casualty of the season, announcing on Friday that he was stepping aside as Rebels coach in the wake of his side failing to qualify for finals action.
It was a disappointing and anticlimactic end for an appointment which promised plenty in the wake of the Western Force’s exclusion from Super Rugby at the end of the 2017 season.
Anyone who knows Wessels knows exactly how much he has to offer the game. At 39, with influential mentors in his camp, he has a long, rewarding career ahead of him, wherever he happens to land.
In contrast to the Waratahs’ handling of Rob Penney, Wessels’ exit was managed in a dignified and respectful way, unsurprising given the close bonds and shared understanding within the organisation of obstacles and challenges not necessarily faced by other franchises.
No one could accuse Wessels of being lucky. If only one of a number of moments this season had tipped the other way, he would have been in Canberra this weekend, playing for a spot in the final, instead of sitting at home contemplating his future.
Notwithstanding this and other genuine qualifications, including a 2021 roster that lacked depth and was never as strong as it first appeared, two factors conspired to cause board members to lose faith in their coach and begin to look elsewhere, ultimately forcing Wessels’ hand.
In four seasons under Wessels, the Rebels finished Super Rugby ranked, of the Australian teams, second, second, third and fourth consecutively. That’s a trend no board member or fan could easily ignore, no matter the reasons.
There was also a view – which gathered momentum after the 15-16 loss to the Force at home in Round 8 – that a losing season might have been more palatable had the team been playing more entertaining rugby. That’s understandable on face value, but glosses over some important considerations.
A backline that, through injury to established players, featured three starters new to Super Rugby and to each other was never realistically going to become overnight entertainers.
Ask any Super Rugby coach what the most important success factors are, and all would have continuity from season to season at or near the top of the list. The Crusaders, Brumbies, and now the Reds, have demonstrated the value of locking in long-term players in key positions, around a repeatable system, and blending in young players and selected old hands as required.
Wessels never had that luxury. He needed a long-tenure captain around which to build his team, and in retrospect, got his selection of Adam Coleman wrong.
Similarly, he got a couple of sensational match-winning performances out of Will Genia, but no long-term legacy; Genia’s individualism at times working against the construction of a definable team style.
Genia was followed at halfback by Michael Ruru and Ryan Louwrens, both strong but static players who prefer to kick a lot from the base. Into 2021 and it is Joe Powell, a passing halfback who, in the majority of games, has not kicked the ball at all.
It is the modern way to defer to players in terms of letting them play things as they see them, and of course it is folly to demand a style of play that doesn’t suit the players at your disposal. But with each year effectively being another rebuild, in terms of both personnel and tactics working against the bedding in of a definable and distinctive style of play into the franchise DNA, the outcome should perhaps be no surprise.
On the plus side, focus on the set-piece has provided the Rebels with a solid foundation on which to move forward, and the development of Trevor Hosea, Pone Fa’amausili and Rob Leota from promising Melbourne club juniors into reliable and regular performers at this level is a great achievement.
Keeping them will also be an achievement, with both the Australian and New Zealand unions airing their dirty financial linen during the week, announcing losses of $AUD27.1m and $NZD34.6m respectively.
This coincided with confirmation that New Zealand’s provinces have given their blessing for New Zealand Rugby to pursue a deal with US private equity company Silver Lake which will see them receive $387m in exchange for 12.5per cent of a new entity, within which New Zealand Rugby’s commercial dealings will reside.
In the context of recurring operating losses, with provincial unions, straddling professional and amateur rugby, starved of funds, the deal looks like a no brainer. Rugby is a professional sport deficient of expertise within its own ranks in areas such as digital marketing, digital broadcasting and access to global markets. The relationship is clearly not just about money, but about New Zealand Rugby leveraging off its partner’s skill set (thanks, Justin Marshall).
Arguments against have mostly been laced with emotion, ideological rejection of capitalism, or fear of the unknown. Selling off the silver fern might well be sacrilegious, but is that what selling a 12.5per cent stake in commercial revenue, without offering up a seat at the board table, is actually happening here?
In a similar vein, fingers were pointed at the failed attempt to set up a European football super league as evidence that any person or entity who happens to have money and an interest in sport is the devil. No doubt, some are. But without being privy to a business plan, or boardroom discussions about shared objectives, much of the criticism is speculative and uninformed.
One group that is informed but has yet to approve the deal is New Zealand’s professional players. Setting aside the old-fashioned notion that players are paid to play, not run the back office, they are a stakeholder and there are two reasons for their reticence.
One is a genuine desire to be good citizens – gatekeepers protecting New Zealand’s rugby heritage. The other is to ensure that they receive a bigger slice of a bigger pie.
Forget, though, any stated player welfare concerns about All Blacks being paraded like cattle as Silver Lake sends them off to far-flung corners of the globe to extract every last drop out of their investment.
Even if that were to be the case – and there is no evidence to say it is – in 26 years of professional rugby, players have shown an uncanny ability to cry foul about heavy workloads while using their off-season not to rest, but to take up contracts overseas.
NZ Rugby’s deal means that eyes now turn to Australia. With respect to Rugby Australia’s financials, an important point missed by many is that these are already ten months out of date. It doesn’t take much imagination to believe that the current financial year will paint a similar story.
Accordingly, Rugby Australia has reportedly arranged access to a $40m debt facility, irrespective of what equity deal it might negotiate.
An interesting wildcard is the potential dealing in of Andrew Forrest to the table. Forrest’s affection for Australian rugby is genuine and he is reportedly on good terms with Rugby Australia chairman Hamish McLennan.
One would expect the rugby public to view a private equity deal with Forrest far more positively than one with an overseas investor such as Silver Lake or CVC.
But Forrest would almost certainly seek greater input and influence over how his money might be spent than Silver Lake has accepted in New Zealand. Depending on which side of the Nullarbor one resides, or what one thinks of rugby administration in Australia, that is either a good thing or a troublesome thing.
Returning over the Nullabor yesterday were the gallant Western Force, who were right in their preliminary final against the Brumbies until Toni Pulu’s dismissal, and the subsequent concession of a try to Tom Banks, just before halftime.
Pulu was unlucky; he seemed to get crowded in the tackle area and Irae Simone’s head struck his shoulder as much as Pulu hit him, but with head injury concerns front and centre, as soon as the video showed contact with the head had been made, there was only ever going to be one outcome.
With respect to mitigation for Pulu – and for Pone Fa’amausili last week, where it wasn’t ever clear that he actually made contact with Murray Douglas’ head – if such tackles are deemed forceful enough contact to warrant a red card, the question must be asked, why are the tackled players allowed to play on without being required to submit to a HIA?
The simple answer is because neither Simone or Douglas showed any signs of concussion. It’s a tricky area, because referees do not have the luxury of waiting around to see the health/injury outcome, but it is becoming increasingly obvious that slow-motion video replays alone do not always tell the true story.
Until there is a technology that does, and does it in real time, players will continue to be subjected to the rub of the green. Or the red, as the case may be.
The Brumbies won the match because they had Rob Valetini, as well as more variation and finesse in attack, but there was a heavy price paid, with James Slipper, Pete Samu and Folau Fainga’a all suffering what looked to be nasty injuries.
They will head to Brisbane a whole lot more banged up than any side looking to win a final against the Reds, would prefer to be.
With the New Zealand finalists already confirmed, if any further evidence was needed to consign the captain’s challenge to the dustbin, the Highlanders’ Billy Harmon and referee Mike Fraser offered themselves as exhibit A and exhibit B.
Harmon – who isn’t even captain and who, based on this episode, never will be – kicked things off, effectively volunteering to referee Ben O’Keefe, “I would like to lodge a captain’s challenge for foul play by myself.”
The Highlanders had worked themselves to a 17-7 lead, and after a period of sustained pressure defending their own line, had just managed to clear the ball out of the danger zone, when Harmon piped up, complaining that master niggle merchant, Dane Coles had committed foul play by stomping on him.
How Harmon was under the impression that the video replay would fail to pick up that it was him holding Coles back by the leg, then tripping him up, is one of life’s great unanswered questions.
That Coles scored from the very next play, setting the Hurricanes on their way to a 41-22 win, only rubbed a double dose of salt into Harmon’s misery.
Meanwhile, in Auckland, the Chiefs unveiled a slew of promising new players, plus one octogenarian, who provided 65 minutes worth of headaches for the Blues before the home side eventually ran away with things, 39-19.
Blues skipper Tom Robinson was keen to lodge a challenge, but was too puffed to actually articulate what it was for. Once the TMO figured things out, it turned out that Robinson’s review for a knock-on was a dud, but like finding an unexpected, extra stubby in the bottom of the fridge, Robinson was pleasantly surprised to receive a bonus penalty for offside.
Chiefs captain Bryn Gatland instantly complained that because there was no knock-on there could be no offside (incorrect), and that because the Chiefs were playing under multiple penalty advantages, the ball should still have been theirs anyway (correct).
Referee Fraser, or ‘Fraze’ as he was sociably addressed by his TMO Brendan ‘Pickles’ Pickerill, couldn’t remember. To be fair, it was a long phase of play.
If it’s good enough for the officials to forget what happened a minute ago, I reckon it’s also good enough to forget the idea of stopping the action to replay historical incidents that aren’t dangerous foul play.
Perhaps the naysayers are right? If Silver Lake haven’t made their $387m offer conditional upon dumping the captain’s challenge, then they obviously don’t know anything about rugby.