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Golden Generations: How Australian rugby rose from obscurity to greatness, then killed green and golden goose

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Roar Rookie
26th July, 2023
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Centre Court, Wimbledon, Monday 9 July 2001. The gentlemen’s singles final between Aussie Pat Rafter and Croat Goran Ivanisevic is being held a day late due to the wonderful English summer weather.

With Wimbledon tickets sold for a day rather than a particular match that meant that seats were up for grabs. Suddenly it wouldn’t just be genteel “Come on Tim” Middle England populating the stands. It would be those compatriots of the finalists who had been willing to queue early, to passionately and rowdily get behind their man.

There were plenty of Aussies in town. A lot of residents of course, but also sports fans celebrating after Australia had killed off the Lord’s Ashes Test a day early. This meant that Rafter was sure to have his share of support.

With so many red and white checked Croatia soccer shirts in the crowd, what was the football uniform of choice for many of the antipodean fans? A rugby league Kangaroos, State of Origin or club jersey? An AFL singlet? How about the Socceroos?

No, it was Wallabies jerseys (of different vintages from traditional orangey “gold” to star spangled canary yellow) that symbolised national pride in those days. AFL and league jerseys might have represented popular local parochialism but the world champions represented the nation on the world stage. Even Rafter had been late to the complex one day so that he could watch them beat the Lions.

If that’s hard to believe for today’s youngsters, those of us from Generations X and Y who grew up watching winning Wallabies might be equally surprised to learn that boomers and builders would never have thought those heights possible. For they had grown up with Aussie rugby struggling to make an impression both nationally and internationally. It was a minority sport at home and very much a middle ranking power in the world game.

In this article we will tell the story of why Australian Rugby was for many decades in obscure mediocrity before being transformed into triumphant glory and then sliding back again. Once again, as a non-Australian I will merely draw the outline – this is the chance for Aussie Roarers to share their impressions of the last fifty years or more. What held you back before the glory years? How did you drag yourself up by your bootstraps? What are your memories of those golden generations and which was the most golden? Who were the heroes who made the good times possible and who were the villains who dragged you back down? And what are the lessons that your current leaders need to take heed of?

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MELBOURNE’S CHOICE

In theory, Australia had many of the same advantages as the two other great Southern Hemisphere rugby powers (described above and below the line in the South African article in this series.) Most importantly, their national identity was built on a pioneering spirit requiring ingenuity and hard physical work. Also rugby was introduced and encouraged early on by leading citizens wanting to give men something to do other than drinking.

In fact it may have been introduced too early. When the great and the good of Melbourne were deciding in the 1850s which winter sport to pursue, there were still any number of rugby-like codes being played in England. These came from such venerable institutions as Cambridge, Winchester, Harrow and Eton as well as Sheffield (similar to soccer with a “fair catch” rule) and of course Rugby. Then there were First Nations sports such as Marn Grook, while Irish immigrants favoured Gaelic football and hurling.

So there were a lot of codes to choose from in those days, whereas maybe rugby was more prominent in the 1870s when it took off in the other big Southern colonies. In the end Melbourne adapted laws from several places to create a simpler game with less chance of injury from being tackled on the hard Victorian fields.

Victoria’s new form of football soon also became dominant in South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania. That’s never changed and it’s hard to see rugby ever becoming central to the culture of the whole country.

THE TOFFS’ FOLLY

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Rugby was still dominant in New South Wales and Queensland though and perpetual cultural hegemony was certainly possible in those two great states with a combined population well above New Zealand’s. Instead the upper classes followed their English counterparts’ lead and refused to allow working class clubs to compensate their players for time off work. The latter took up rugby league just like their Northern England equivalents and rugby relegated itself to niche status.

One could be forgiven for wondering whether the attitudes of the richer Sydney clubs haven’t changed much over the years, with similar consequences for the sport.

Not surprisingly, the Wallabies were dominated by the Springboks and All Blacks for many decades. Just two of the first twenty Bledisloe Cup series from the early 1930s to 1978 were won and against South Africa a victorious series in 1965 and a drawn series in 1963 were the only highlights. A number of matches against Pasifika teams were lost and so were most games against the Lions. One statistical quirk is that Australia had a losing record against Scotland, Ireland, France, and Wales but a winning record against England – all of these have subsequently been turned around.

Make sure of your place in the stands to see the British and Irish Lions in 2025. Tour packages on sale now at Wallabies Travel

THE GOLDEN ERA BEGINS

The early to mid 70s was a particularly galling era. The 1972 Wallabies were known as the “Awful Aussies” in New Zealand, after losing the three tests by a combined 97-26. The following year Tonga won a test in Brisbane and soon after the Australian Rugby Union was almost broke.

The first ray of light came when a schoolboys team embarked on a sixteen match tour to Europe and Japan in 1977 (my thanks to Mzilikazi for reminding me of them.) They made headlines at both ends of the Earth, not just for coming home unbeaten but also for the exhilarating running rugby that they played. And the Wallabies were to go on to become renowned for their skill and flair for many a year.

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Golden Generation? Try Mark Ella, Glen Ella, Gary Ella, Michael Hawker, Michael O’Connor, Tony Melrose, Chris Roche, Tony D’Arcy, Shane Nightingale and Dominic Vaughan for starters. One of rugby league’s greatest legends Wally Lewis wasn’t even a Test regular. Steve Cutler, Lloyd Walker and Eddie Jones couldn’t even make the squad.

Mark Ella

Wallabies legend Mark Ella. (Photo by Getty Images)

Simon Poidevin, Roger Gould, Peter Grigg, David Cody, Steve Williams and Brendan Moon were just a year or so older and David Campese, Nick Farr-Jones, Brett Papworth, Tom Lawton, William Campbell, Jeff Miller, Rod McCall and Bob Egerton were not much younger. And thanks to Sheek for telling me about the 81/82 schoolboys who featured NFL defensive tackle Colin Scotts and Wallabies Michael Lynagh, Cameron Lillicrap, Steve Tuynman, Mark Harthill, Tim Kava, Brad Burke, Matt Burke, David Knox, Brett Papworth and Ian Williams.

This was a true golden generation.

THE YEARS OF UNPRECEDENTED SUCCESS

Just two years after that first schoolboy’s tour, the precocious Melrose was already running the cutter at first five for the Wallabies as they won the Bledisloe Cup for the first time in thirty years. He was soon poached by league but the following year Mark Ella took his place, Gould, Grigg, Moon, Hawker and O’Connor formed the rest of the backline, Poidevin was in the back row and D’Arcy was muscling up at prop. That’s a lot of very young players making up more than half the team. The All Blacks were thrashed 26-10 (then their second biggest defeat) in the third test, the Bledisloe Cup had been retained for the first time ever and the new golden generation was already making history at the highest level.

Over the next few years, as the team matured, it was still going up the bell shaped curve and results were inconsistent. League defections also had a significant effect. The European tour in the bitter 1981/82 winter was particularly harrowing and there were losses to Argentina and France in 1983.

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However by 1984 Ella’s generation was starting to hit its straps under charismatic new coach Alan Jones. A world leading All Blacks team only just prevailed by a point in a thrilling deciding test but after that the landmark records continued, including Australia’s only Grand Slam winning tour in 1984 and only test series win in New Zealand in 1986. Landmark achievements in Australian rugby.

The rest of the Jones era wasn’t so great but Campo, Lynagh, Farr-Jones, Poidevin and late bloomers Egerton and McCall were all in the run on fifteen for the pinnacle – the 1991 Rugby World Cup final. By then a new golden generation had started to arrive with true greats John Eales, Tim Horan and Jason Little all born as recently as 1970 and destined to become in 1999 the first players to win two Rugby World Cups. By then a new golden generation born between 1973 and 1975 was entering its prime – Matt Burke, Dan Herbert, Joe Roff, Stephen Larkham, George Gregan, Toutai Kefu, David Giffen, Nathan Grey and Chris Whitaker. And this was in the midst of an unthinkable five year run with the Bledisloe.

Australian captain John Eales (C) and his teammates celebrate after winning the 1999 Rugby Union World Cup final against France. Australia won the final 35 to 12. (Photo by Franck Seguin/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

Australian captain John Eales (C) and his teammates celebrate after winning the 1999 Rugby Union World Cup final against France. (Photo by Franck Seguin/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

SOME STATS

This table of Wallabies coaches’ win rates gives a sense of how, prior to 1984, Australia had mediocre win rates of under 50% for every coach, apart from Daryl Haberecht’s brief reign when Wales toured. Overall the period 1962 to 1982 Australia had less than a 40% win rate, and this included tours by tier two nations.

Note that there were no acknowledged coaches prior to the 1960s, but results were consistently mediocre then as well.

Brian Palmer (1960s) 0%
Alan Roper (1960s) 40%
Des Connor (1968-71) 14%
Bob Templeton (3 spells up to 1982) 45%
David Brockhoff (1970s) 47%
Daryl Haberecht (1978) 60%
Bob Dwyer (1982/3 stint) 45%

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Then came the golden years 1984 to 2001. Eighteen seasons with an average win rate of 70%, with a peak of a whopping 79% for the Rod McQueen era.

Alan Jones (1984-87) 70%
Bob Dwyer (1988-95 stint) 66%
Greg Smith (1996-97) 63%
Rod MacQueen (1997-2001) 79%

Notwithstanding two Rugby World Cup final appearances, Australia have never quite managed to get back to the golden era, with a general feeling of decline since John Connolly left. After an excellent 2015 results have been back to pre Ella era levels and it’s debatable whether this will prove to be the nadir of modern Wallabies history or the story of the coming decades. Do you agree with Eddie Jones – has Australia become a tier two rugby nation?

Eddie Jones (2001- 05) 58%
John Connolly (2006-07) 64%
Robbie Deans (2008-13) 59%
Ewen McKenzie (2013-14) 50%
Michael Cheika (2014-19) 50%
Dave Rennie (2020-23) 38%

(Photo by Harry Trump/Getty Images)

HOW DID THAT HAPPEN?

Golden generations or a steady stream of high quality players? Whichever way you look at it, the generational cycles of the Wallabies from 1979 – 2007 were operating on a different plane from anything we’d seen before. How were they able to do this for nearly thirty years and why have they generally been on the slide ever since?

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One important visionary decision came out of the ashes of those crushing defeats in 1972 and 1973. Prioritising the long term, the ARU appointed Dick Marks as National Coaching Director in 1974.

If those 1977 Schoolboys were his firstfruits, the list of highly successful Australian coaches like Rod McQueen, Bob Dwyer, Alan Jones, John Connolly and Eddie Jones who came up through his systems were his crowning glory. Incredibly, John O’Neil sacked him in 1995 and although his coaches and the players they developed kept producing the goods for a while after that, his influence was never going to last forever and Australian rugby hasn’t been the same since.

THE COHESION ADVANTAGE

Marks’ coaching system and book not only raised the standards of coaches and therefore their players at all levels of the Australian game, it also improved the cohesion of Aussie rugby. There was a common philosophy that made it easier for players from around the country to come together and function instinctively as a team. That’s been lost with decentralisation.

For more on cohesion I can highly recommend “Gold Digger: The Search For Australian Rugby” a pod by Matt Durrant (Roarer MDiddy.) Start with episodes 29 and 30, where he interviews cohesion expert and former Wallaby Ben Darwin.

Darwin talks about how, in music as well as sport, people develop their skills better and play better together if they play together for a long time. It wasn’t just a coincidence that world class musicians like Bono and the Edge went to the same school in Dublin, as did Mick Jagger and Keith Richards in London, while Paul McCartney and George Harrison took the same Liverpool bus. They improved together over a long period.

Through the bulk of the Wallabies’ golden age, their Ben Darwin Team Work Index (cohesion score) was through the roof compared to their competitors. Whereas other countries had big club or provincial leagues, Australia had two states, so new players already had lots of mates in the squad and were used to playing a standard of rugby as close as possible to test rugby. And we’ve already talked about all those players coming through together from the same Australian Schools teams.

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They even picked combinations who had come from the same club as well as the same state. For example the Randwick front row of Ewen McKenzie, Tony Daly and Phil Kearns and the Brothers locks John Eales and Rod McCall.

Souths centres Tim Horan and Jason Little had already known each other for seven years when they played for the Wallabies against New Zealand as teenagers. Two years later they were the World Cup winning centre partnership aged just 21.

THE LONG SLOW SLIDE

For the first ten years of the professional era, Australia retained most of these advantages, which enabled them to compete with other nations who had much higher player numbers and in some instances an integral role for rugby within the national psyche. Expansion to a third major representative team wasn’t excessive and the Brumbies had their own high cohesion score from the existing Kookaburra team. And Marks’ coaches and the players raised under his structures were still having a big impact.

Gradually though their influence waned as inferior, less joined up systems took over. At the same time a fourth and then a fifth team were added without sufficient depth of talent to keep up the standard, whereas by now the likes of New Zealand, Wales and Ireland had come down to four or five teams.

Not only were fewer Wallabies playing together regularly, the standards gap increased between the state and federal teams. And for that matter between the kiwi and Aussie Super teams. Losses became expected and both fan engagement and player numbers have been on the slide ever since. A far cry from the cohesion and competitiveness of the two or three teams era. Quality, not quantity, was the key determinant of success or failure for Australian rugby.

Australia had lost the advantages that made them great, other countries had closed the cohesion gap and the tectonic plates were inexorably shifting in the wrong direction.

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YOUR TURN

Of course there is much more to the How question than that. This is where you come in.

Many of you are very well informed about Australian rugby and a lot of you have been involved in the grass roots for years. From what you saw, what changed between the bad old days and the golden era? How about between the golden era and the years of decline? And in more recent times, did anyone do anything to make real improvements?

Over to you.

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