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Golden generations: Should Australia look to Wales or Ireland for inspiration?

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Roar Rookie
6th June, 2023

How does a rugby union in Australia build the sort of sustainable, transformational improvement that it needs?

To help us find out, let’s look at the two great success stories of Celtic rugby from the past twenty years. We’ll enjoy these stories for what they are – visionary Aussies and Kiwis empowering the underdogs to consistently punch well above their weight for an extended period.

But we’ll also examine why one of these countries is now weak and in a worse place than when it started, while the other is going from strength to strength, its ever growing success built on the most solid foundations possible.

In the first article of this golden generations series, we looked at how the fortunes of rugby nations tend to rise as a generation matures, and fall away again as it ages. A bit like the bell shaped normal distribution curve from high school maths.

In the second we studied how the All Blacks managed to stay at their peak for an extended period. Then in the third we went even deeper by looking at the deep cultural ties that make South African rugby great.

This time we’ll look at how the long term potential of a rugby nation can be utterly transformed for better or worse. Either by rugby’s own decisions or by societal and economic factors outside its control.

The good news though is that a nation like Australia can take a quantum leap upwards. The bad news is that this can take a longer time than many fans and administrators are willing to wait.

The great Welsh decline


If rugby became an intrinsic part of Afrikaner culture through its farmers on the veld and its prestigious schools, for Wales it was its miners in the valleys and its grammar schools.

Rugby was Wales’ national sport and it was a great rugby nation, enjoying a favourable head to head record against the All Blacks until the 1960s and Australia until the 1990s.

Wales also won the Home Nations/Five Nations outright more times than anyone until England caught up in the 1990s and even now has the most titles if shared wins are included.

The 1960s and 70s were golden years for Welsh rugby, dominating the Five Nations and history’s greatest Lions teams. So many great players – Barry John, Gareth Edwards and Phil Bennett to name a few – playing spellbinding rugby that ran rings around opponents.

This was cut short in the Margaret Thatcher years by a rapid and colossal decline in the manufacturing and mining industries that the valleys’ economy and society relied on.


They still haven’t been replaced. The heart has been ripped out of the Welsh rugby heartlands and the decline of grammar schools has robbed Wales of its great rugby nurseries. (Does anyone know more about this tumultuous period?)

Now Wales’ bell curve now sits a long way below the likes the likes of New Zealand’s and South Africa’s. They’ve never really been World Cup contenders with world semis and Five/Six Nations wins their summit so far.

In the 28 years 1980 to 2007 they occasionally achieved these peaks, with a World Cup semi in 1987 and Five/Six Nations wins in 1994 and 2005.

The Warren Gatland renaissance

The difference with Gatland is that, even with domestic rugby in the doldrums, he hit the peak very quickly and kept hitting it. In many ways a similar achievement to the McCaw team in that he sustained the peak hit by the original golden generation.

Compare this record for his twelve year reign with the preceding 28 years:

2008 Six Nations Champions
2011 RWC Semis
2012 Six Nations Champions
2013 Six Nations Champions
2019 Six Nations Champions
2019 RWC Semis


A huge part Gatland’s Wales team was successive generations of players who would go on to play many Tests.

Arguably they were nowhere near the South African and Kiwi golden generations from previous articles in terms of talent, or even the English and French players they were up against. But Gatland was a master of getting a generation of players to become a close knit group and develop their combinations together, with a way of playing that suited their strengths.

He also believed that if a player’s home life was stable he could focus on the rugby and grow commitment to the team – so if for example Samson Lee wanted a day off to inspect a prospective camp site for his community, this was an opportunity not an inconvenience.

Gatland’s predecessors like Steve Hansen and Mike Ruddock had done a good job bringing through a new generation of players. So even though he inherited a team that had been knocked out of the World Cup by Fiji he had a solid core of experience, veterans of the 2005 Grand Slam.

Warren Gatland

(Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

We won’t go into this in great depth, but look at this list of quality players who had earned over 40 caps by the end of 2007: Gethin Jenkins, Adam Jones, Duncan Jones, Ian Gough, Martyn Williams, Dwayne Peel, Stephen Jones, Tom Shanklin and Shane Williams.

As that generation aged, look at how many of the victorious 2012 players are still playing for Wales eleven years later. Ken Owens, Justin Tipuric, Taulupe Faletau, Rhys Webb, George North, Alex Cuthbert, Lee Halfpenny, Liam Williams and possibly Jonathan Davies.


And don’t forget young Alun Wyn Jones, who was in Gatland’s original 2008 team. What are your memories of these great players and this great time?

Perhaps this is the route that Australia should follow. Find a coach who understands generational cycles and knows how to get the most out of the chosen generation.

A coach who will make the team more than the sum of its parts. A coach who will bring through the next generation before it’s too late.

It was certainly a great time for Welsh rugby fans with frequent trophies and, better still, wins over their great rival and neighbour. Which Aussie rugby fan wouldn’t want that?

Problem is, yes normal distribution curves will take you from the bottom to the top, but after that they tend to send you back down again. Gatland delayed that second bit, but even he couldn’t last forever and neither has the high performance of his golden generation.

Now Wales are probably worse off than when they started. They’re a lot like Australia, the domestic game and development pathways struggling and falling behind a rival code, crowds and player numbers falling, test results through the floor.


Ireland raises its curve

Now for the story of Ireland. Once again with plenty of gaps for Roarers to fill in.

Ireland’s generational curves were always even lower than Wales’. Just three outright Five/Six Nations titles between 1951 and 2009 and none between 1985 and 2009. And they’d never even got past the quarterfinals of the World Cup.

Far from being Ireland’s national sport, rugby is behind Gaelic football, soccer and hurling, with its strength being in the posh schools. Now which other rugby nation does that remind you of?

So imagine the excitement at the turn of the millennium when a golden generation including, well, generational talents came through.

True greats and very good players like Brian O’Driscoll, Ronan O’Gara, Peter Stringer, Shane Horgan, Gordon D’Arcy, John Hayes, Simon Easterby, Geordan Murphy and David Wallace. Then Paul O’Connell in 2002 and Shane Byrne 2001. Surely this was to be the great opportunity?

For a long time it might have seemed not. Not a single Six Nations Championship had been won in 2008, when Gatland was snapping up Wales’ second Six Nations Grand Slam.


Ireland got their first the following year but they hadn’t added to it by the time Wales had won their fourth title in 2013 and the O’Driscoll generation was aging. Was World Cup quarterfinals and one Six Nations win Ireland’s ceiling for even a golden generation?

Maybe it still would be were it not for something far more fundamental that happened, also around the turn of the millennium. Ireland’s provinces started to play right through the season and strengthened links to their clubs.

This was a major step towards building a smooth development pyramid, with all the top players constantly plying their trade at an elite level and the best club players getting a chance there too.

Then Aussie Steve Anderson, frustrated in his work for the far less visionary Scottish union, joined in 2005. He set out the high performance programme for the next eight years. What a ‘Sliding Doors’ moment that was for Scotland – they weren’t interested in such a long term plan. Now look how far behind Ireland they are, when historically they were so much more successful.

If you’re an Australian rugby fan be sure to check out Christy Doran’s interview with Anderson, but be sure to have a box of tissues handy for your tears.

More Australians built on these solid foundations. Especially Michael Cheika (2005-2010) head coach for Leinster’s first Heineken Cup triumph and David Nuciofora, Ireland’s High Performance Director since 2014.

Ireland have ensured that the whole pyramid is geared towards the test team, for example in the huge amount of United Rugby Championship matches elite players are rested from. Could club obsessed French, English and Australian sports fans have accepted that?


But could anyone imagine Johnny Sexton still masterfully controlling the best team in the world at the age of 38 without years of being so well looked after?

To illustrate this, I put together this list of appearances in all club and test competitions by Ireland’s top 15 this year to date (some will have played in the URC or Heineken final since then) and last year.

Compare these to the 30+ games French internationals tend to play:
Hugo Keenan 18, 24
Mack Hansen 22, 20
James Lowe 11, 22
Gary Ringrose 19, 26
Stuart McCloskey 21, 18
Johnny Sexton 10, 20
Jamieson Gibson-Park 15, 25
Caelan Doris 20, 26
Josh van der Flier 20, 27
Peter O’Mahoney 23, 24
James Ryan 21, 17
Tadhg Beirne 18, 18
Tadhg Furlong 11, 24
Dan Sheehan 23, 26
Andrew Porter 23, 23

With all this in place, Joe Schmidt was able to make Leinster and then Ireland the established kings of Europe, adding belief and structure to Irish passion.

Andy Farrell then added attacking variety to that and might be about to make them kings of the world. And the future looks even brighter as the Under 20s have now started to dominate Europe.

Prioritise the top by focusing on the bottom

None of the glory enjoyed by the coaches and players would have been possible without administrators who were willing to forego the quick fix.


They took the long road, strengthening the bottom of the pyramid and the pathways up it, hoping that this would lay the foundations for a seemingly impossible increase in the potential height of the top of the pyramid. Shifting its generational curves up to a level previously undreamed of.

Which is exactly what’s happened.

All this in a country much smaller than Australia and where, as we mentioned earlier, rugby sits behind Gaelic football, soccer and hurling but is well established in the posh schools.

So what do you want for Australian rugby? Would a Gatland style golden period be very good thank you very much? The Bledisloe finally won back along with pride in the jersey.

It took the Irish policy well over a decade to really bear fruit. Are you willing to wait that long? Or is transformative change needed whatever the continued short term pain?

Over to you.

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