The Wallabies’ Rugby World Cup triumph of 1999 was a mighty blessing for the game here.
Master-minded by the highly innovative coaching of Rod Macqueen, the win became a benchmark in skills and tactics for all to follow.
However, over the years, the approach of rugby coaches of all ages became stale.
We were stuck in a model of success that had been great for its day, but its usefulness had become outdated. We failed to move on.
I remember as a coach in the very early 2000s being made aware of a trend in Waikato rugby: the use of offloads in the tackle as one means of breaking down the improved straight-line defensive walls being developed around the rugby world.
At the time I was totally convinced that this was a way forward, but when I brought this thought to the rugby areas I had influence in, I was shut down.
Such a method did not comply with the tackle-and-place regimen that put ball security way ahead of adventurous rugby.
This was the thinking that had evolved after the World Cup success. ‘Hey, it worked on the big stage, so it’s gonna work here’.
So this is what we stuck at for years and years ad infinitum and don’t you dare digress from this discipline.
It was rugby by numbers, way over-rehearsed, stifling, boring and highly predictable.
The scary thing was that this approach spread to all levels of the game. There was barely an area of the Australian rugby landscape that was not infected by this curse.
Its charm was the discipline required to master it – the whole team was involved in these intricate patterns that had to be followed at all costs.
The curse was that this pattern significantly nullified individual skills and the brilliance of gifted players.
We persisted for years with this clueless approach to coaching in Australia, with only the very odd exceptions.
For example, Macqueen had used the ACT Brumbies as a vehicle to demonstrate admirable innovation that allowed players of rare talent to shine.
Sure, the Brumbies were structured, but when they were going forward, off came the shackles and the talent exploded. Remember Stephen Larkham, Joe Roff, Ipolito Fenukitau, Rod Kafer, Pat Howard, George Gregan, Owen Finegan, there are lots of others.
But, by and large, for decades we have played the numbers game.
The talent, which is there but maybe not in spades, has been hamstrung by a fear of making mistakes and the power of being tied to unswerving rugby doctrine that is hopelessly outdated.
David Campese might not even get a guernsey today for fear his adventure might lose us possession!
Little by little in the last few years we have begun to unshackle ourselves and recognise the damage that has been done by being so tied to doctrine.
‘How dare you express yourself outside the structure!’ is maybe not as prevalent today as it was.
However, we have lost a whole generation of inventiveness, of unbridled joy in running the football and trying something daring.
You can’t teach this stuff, but you sure can encourage it. You can’t legislate it, but you can allow its free flow of expression at training and in games.
It is absolutely essential that free-flowing rugby that once epitomised the Australian way be re-instituted at every level in this country.
Yes, we will lose matches because of it, but we will gradually regather some of the flair that has been suffocated by safety-first do-gooders.
Brad Thorn recently said that we need to learn from the All Blacks and the New Zealand provinces on the “total package” they bring with their games.
I totally agree. Yet we need to unlearn a whole lot of constrictive stuff too.