Reflecting on the Bledisloe Cup and Rugby Championship gives us cause to think about what Aussie rugby’s annual trial at the hands against New Zealand teams means for rugby in this country.
Many have said that the regular losses are bad for the Australian game and have suggested various measures of protecting Australian fans and players from the continual sense of failure. Suggestions have included trying to sell amateur club rugby as a spectator sport, maintaining a separate Super Rugby competition, maintaining Australian-only conferences or for the Wallabies to play the All Blacks less often.
Yet look at what has just happened – after the toughest of trials against the All Blacks, Dave Rennie’s Wallabies have beaten the world champion Springboks twice in a row. Surely that tells us that the Wallabies are a better team for the New Zealand challenge.
Queensland Reds coach Brad Thorn has been saying that Australian teams need to play the Kiwis to get better since COVID disrupted our competitions. Right now it looks like there was never a truer word spoken and that the Kiwi games are as much a gift as a trial.
So Australian rugby supporters need to see the folly of wrapping the Australian game in cotton wool and to learn to deal with lopsided win-loss ratios against New Zealand teams, at least in the short term. My suggestion to help Australian fans tolerate the losses is to accept that New Zealand is just better at rugby than us, then support our teams as they step up to meet the challenge. The deal is of course that we see the best effort from the Australian teams in every single game – losing because the other side is better is acceptable if there is a genuine commitment to improvement, but losing through slackness is intolerable.
Considering why the Kiwis are better has caused me to reflect on starting rugby as an eight-year-old kid in New Zealand before moving to Australia at age 14. I had plenty of enthusiasm but no talent, yet I played enough to remember how even in the junior levels the Kiwis had a very competitive ethos that undoubtedly continues.
We had a couple of smaller kids who had been playing since they were five and who would tear the rest of us up with amazing skills and would fearlessly tackle far bigger kids, and they were up against plenty more talented players in other schools. The level of competition meant that even at ages nine or ten feelings weren’t protected – if you weren’t good enough for, say, a zone-level match, you didn’t get picked for the team, and if you became upset, all you got was a sympathetic shrug and were told, “That’s life”.
Even at that young age Kiwi competitiveness drove standards, with one of my starkest memories as a 12-year-old prop being scolded by my best mate because his mother had seen me walking between rucks. The talented kids also didn’t get pandered to. I remember a grave discussion among my ten-year-old mates about one of our friends who was one of the talented early starters mentioned above but who was a ball hog. He was picked on the wing rather than his favourite position at first five until he was willing to pass.
We were all very serious for a bunch of short people talking about footy, as were kids in just about every school in New Zealand, taking the lead from how seriously adult New Zealanders took the game.
I don’t know enough about what goes on in Australian junior rugby today to definitively comment on the competitiveness in those grades, but I do know that in Australia we see senior players getting professional gigs who don’t start with the on-field work ethic and toughness of their New Zealand counterparts. That suggests to me that the junior competition is shallower and that the talented kids might get pandered to only to get found out when they become seniors, which is what we all see when the Australian professional teams playing catchup to New Zealanders.
The only time I have ever personally witnessed New Zealand-level competitiveness in Australian rugby was when my mates went to the GPS private schools in the 1980s and 90s. They were fanatically proud of their school rugby teams, and the fact that a relatively small number of schools contributed so many players to Wallabies teams that won two World Cups and matched New Zealand for more than a decade is surely a testament to how a hyper-competitive culture drives results.
Are we that competitive throughout Australian rugby now? I don’t believe so. SO the question is: how do we get back there?
The answer is to have all Australian rugby supporters support the professional teams as they embrace the annual losses to New Zealand as the gift that they are: a chance for our teams to learn and grow. That is the way that we will see professional standards improve and more of the great results like we have just seen against the Springboks. With the Wallabies leading by example, this is the way that we will see the return of a winning hyper-competitive ethos finding its way back into Australian rugby.