At this time of year, everyone has their own rugby wish list. Wallabies head coach Dave Rennie’s list would no doubt begin and end with winning a large piece of rugby silverware – specifically, the one that holds 42 cans of beer.
Rugby Australia (RA) is keeping its fingers crossed for that too, along with confirmation Australia will host the 2027 Rugby World Cup. Others simply want a pandemic-free rugby season – good luck with that!
The must-dos on my list aren’t necessarily headline-grabbers but they’re still key for a flourishing rugby landscape. So, on the basis of ‘don’t ask, don’t get’, here’s one take on what would make 2022 an excellent rugby vintage.
Competitive Super Rugby teams
Is it too much to ask for four Australian teams to make the Super Rugby Pacific play-offs? Probably, but three is a must for the credibility of the tournament – and all five teams must be competitive. The signs are good but, then, they often are at this time of year before the refs flourish any cards, injuries hit hard or a coach is shown the door mid-season.
The Reds still look the pick of the bunch, with youth and experience on their side and the Super Rugby AU trophy in their cabinet.
There’s been a bit of a to-do around the captaincy, with head coach Brad Thorn belatedly remembering why your captain, first and foremost, needs to command his position. The back-up game-manager also appears unclear, which is a worry considering James O’Connor’s recent injury woes.
Meanwhile, the Brumbies should still do the business up front (once their Wallaby starters return) but can Nic White and crew throw a party out the back? The Western Force could be the surprise packet, having been the most consistently competitive in Super Rugby Trans-Tasman last year and made a few canny acquisitions in the off-season (mostly at the Brumbies’ expense).
Then again, so could the loved-up Melbourne Rebels with Carter Gordon running the show and Andrew Kellaway taking over from Marika Koroibete as the star attraction. But will their big boys perform up front?
Lastly, there’s the NSW Waratahs, who learnt some hard defensive lessons in 2021, unearthed a star in Izaia Perese and now have a head coach who, astonishingly, everyone is happy with – for now. Anything is possible for the Tahs, especially once the (real) best player in the world makes an appearance.
Fertiliser for the grassroots
Hands up those who still think that ‘trickle-down success’ is the way to go for Australian rugby. Anyone?
Look, no one is suggesting we ditch the Wallabies and invest everything in our under-sevens but it’s reasonable to suggest that community rugby is overdue some love. The grassroots should not feel as though they’re propping up professional rugby and, even if it’s only a perception, it needs to be addressed for Australian rugby to rediscover its happy place.
The talk from Rugby Australia has often been that it would love to invest in grassroots – if only it wasn’t so poor. Sure, there’s no spare cash lying around in the vault, but there’s ideas and IP aplenty – that’s rugby riches right there if leveraged in the right way.
Across the country, rugby people in clubs and provinces and at RA are doing great things in challenging circumstances, using expertise they’ve gained within and outside rugby to make a difference. Can RA, as our governing body, come up with a way to harness that know-how and share it around, whether it’s best-practice social media or proven ploys for winning sponsors?
Keep in mind, too, that it’s not always the person with the master’s degree who has the best ideas. If you want to have fun with social media, Taniela Tupou might have a tip or two.
More games for professional players
By now, everyone has heard that poor Noah Lolesio is being starved of rugby in comparison with England’s Marcus Smith, who has about 100 more professional games under his belt at a similar age. In a decade, of course, Lolesio may still be running around like a spring chicken while Smith needs a walking-frame to reach his front door.
In the here and now, though, a Super Rugby season and a smattering of Tests are simply not enough for an emerging player. Training and observing others play can be valuable but there’s nothing like actually playing a match for encountering new situations and working out how to deal with them in real-time, all while a big, burly backrower is hunting your hide.
Even worse off are fringe Super Rugby players, who get little to no game time. Without the National Rugby Championship (NRC) and with club seasons heavily disrupted in recent times, some are no doubt desperate to just play a competitive 80 minutes.
Demanding that the NRC be revived is unreasonable given the cost but surely there’s an opportunity to reintroduce, relatively inexpensively, A programs at Super Rugby and Wallaby levels. They would help prepare fringe players to step up when we need them – and we will.
Otherwise, we risk them stagnating on the bench and in the stands or, more likely, heading off to Ireland to join Mack Hansen. Brumbies coaching institution ‘Lord’ Laurie Fisher has recently been beating the same drum, and he’s always worth listening to.
Women playing actual rugby – not just dreaming about it
Looking back to 2021, it’s really quite astonishing that the Wallaroos didn’t kidnap RA CEO Andy Marinos and hold him hostage until he agreed that they could go on the Spring Tour too. What an opportunity missed, when just about all of the big guns were in Europe.
After 18 months with virtually no top-level rugby, it would have been the ideal way to kick off their Rugby World Cup 2022 countdown. Money (the lack of it) was no doubt at the root of this evil, along with an unfortunate incident that saw two coaches depart the national program under a cloud.
Given the energy and excitement that seemed to be brewing in women’s rugby in 2018 and 2019, there’s a strong sense that the program has lost momentum.
Things are looking up, however. The Super W teams have been working away in their pre-seasons and, at national level, the Wallaroos were in camp earlier this year in Queensland. Internationals against the Black Ferns have been pencilled into the calendar and, during the winter, there’s the promise of an inaugural Pacific Four tournament (also involving New Zealand, Canada and the USA) to prepare them for the big dance in October.
Of course, rugby roads are often paved with good intentions only for the chariot to get stuck down a giant pot-hole. But, by hook or crook, the women must play!
Wallabies’ spine set in stone
Perhaps not stone. One always needs some flexibility in one’s spine. But Wallabies’ supporters wary of another era of Michael Cheika-style musical chairs will be demanding to know who’s who in the zoo in 2022.
It’s tricky for the selectors, with no clear front-runners in the same positions that have been troublesome for a couple of years – hooker, blindside flanker and fullback. There are also question marks over the availability of Quade Cooper and Samu Kerevi, now considered all but essential to Wallaby success.
The Giteau Law, or its new iteration, is as clear as mud, former Director of Rugby Scott Johnson’s departure leaves Dave Rennie without a valued sounding board and the messy 2021 Spring Tour complicated rather than clarified selections.
Stability is key for the Wallabies. Rennie needs to decide who his first XV is – along with their back-ups and a few spares – and stick with it. Otherwise, he’ll end up like Robbie Deans who forgot to pack a spare openside flanker for the 2011 Rugby World Cup. Or, like Michael Cheika in 2019, whose chopping and changing was supposed to keep the opposition in the dark, but ended up fooling no one except the Wallabies and their supporters.
So, that’s the wish list. Does it resonate with you?
What are your musts for a cracking 2022? What advances would you like Australian rugby to have made by the end of the year?