It’s only mid-November, but given what a wild ride it’s been, now feels like a good time to wrap up the 2023 rugby year.
Before anything else crazy happens like Hamish McLennan offering Mal Meninga the Wallabies coaching job, or video emerging of gin-sozzled World Rugby delegates slapping each other on the back for locking developing nations out of their exclusive club until at least the 2030s.
Despite the anger, cynicism and the needless obstacles the sport provides for itself, rugby in 2023 once again demonstrated an uncanny ability to transcend its frustrations.
Attending quarter-final weekend in France was a privilege as close to rugby heaven as one could possibly hope to get; four sides of the highest quality, playing with skill and intent, showcasing all that is brilliant about the sport.
Nevertheless, rugby too often resembles a modern-day suburban shopping strip: a couple of shiny, gleaming real estate offices, a long-standing pizza shop, a dodgy massage parlour, maybe a hairdresser and a promising new café, dotted between sad-looking, graffiti-covered, vacant shop fronts.
All of it virtually unnoticed by people hastening by; time-poor, captive to new technology and a changed world order.
That’s a challenge amateur rugby clubs have been facing for three decades, some more successfully than others; retaining the fabric of their local club and community, maintaining participation rates and – most importantly – love for the game.
Increasingly, it’s a challenge for professional rugby; keeping the books balanced in the face of fierce competition from other sports, struggling for visibility in a changing media environment and, for rugby’s administrators, striking the right balance between respect for rugby’s essence, culture and traditions, growing safety concerns, technology advances, and the imperative for rugby appeal to new audiences.
Despite the success that was this year’s World Cup and last year’s Women’s World Cup, it’s a war that – too often – feels as if it’s being lost; particularly in Australia, which has stubbornly refused to get its rugby house in order.
The year draws to a close with that particular puzzle no closer to being solved. Rugby Australia chairman McLennan has dug in, emboldened by a heady mix of rampant self-belief and self-entitlement, under the screen of a governance model where performance and accountability seem to play no part.
McLennan clearly believes that it is only he who can save Australian rugby. He also harbours an insatiable desire to be lauded as triumphant host, World Cup daddy in 2027.
In the best tradition of Mitchell Johnson’s mum, McLennan’s wife Lucinda took to Instagram two weeks ago, declaring: “There is no better person for the impossible job. You try.” So, there.
Essentially, the problem boils down to McLennan having broken the trust contract with Australian rugby’s stakeholders; not just because of his decision to saw off Dave Rennie and appoint Eddie Jones, but also because of the bullshit and spin that flew thick and fast once it was evident that things were turning to custard.
In last week’s exclusive interview with Stan’s Nick McArdle, McLennan admitted to a significant spending overrun associated with the World Cup, which he justified by his wanting to provide coach Jones with “every resource” in their “smash and grab raid” on the cup.
All well and good, except that in an effort to save his own backside, McLennan ran with a different line in France, that this World Cup was actually all about investing in youth and putting building blocks in place for 2027. If that was really the case, why throw money around like a drunken sailor this time around?
I expect one of the reasons McLennan won’t disclose the quantum of the blowout is that he fears rugby fans will find the spending of $1 million alone on psychologists to work with Jones’ squad unacceptable. He’d be right.
And what about his blowing up the hard-won salary ceiling that had been established for Australia’s leading players, through his extravagant $1.6 million signing of Joseph Suaalii? It is surely no surprise that the cost of a cheap headline in a phoney war with rugby league counterpart Peter V’landys is Mark Nawaqanitawase and his manager coming knocking, looking for more of where that came from.
All of this from a man who insisted last week that “all major decisions have proper governance around them,” and who has made a virtue of fiscally responsible financial management supposedly differentiating his administration from previous iterations.
Down here among the pitchforks, it’s important not to lose context. Nobody who was in Lyon to experience Australia’s demoralising 40-6 loss to Wales will forget how despairing and angry they felt – at the wholly dispiriting nature of the loss, and for having allowed themselves to be taken for a ride to nowhere by McLennan and Jones.
As for Jones, while he naturally generated the most headlines, given how it was always privately understood that he was only going to be around for a year, his ‘will he or won’t he be sacked?’ was never the real story. Nonetheless, for a bloke who generated copious amounts of goodwill in his tireless efforts to promote rugby in the first half of the year, his fall from grace was shockingly rapid and brutal.
Yes, it’s nearly time to move on, everyone, for the good of the game, but for all the positive intent in the world, it’s impossible to understate the abject shit show that was Australian rugby this year.
For that, and for describing himself last week in the same breath as Theodore Roosevelt, McLennan wins the honour of leading off the 2023 highlights reel. Although I wonder if Roosevelt, a man who saw combat in war before winning a Nobel Peace Prize, and who built the Panama Canal, would have told fans in France who were angry at what was happening with the Wallabies, not to watch?
And what about McLennan’s pumping up of Jones, predicting how his “deep understanding of our rugby system and knowledge of our player group and pathways will lift the team to the next level”?
“Next level” proved remarkably prescient, although “lift” does seem to be the odd man out.
On Jones again: “It was like he was dropped out of heaven.” Not being a religious person, I have no idea what goes on up there, but if that’s the best they got… you’re not really selling it to me, Hamish.
In another bombshell announcement, Rassie Erasmus ended the year confirmed as the new Springboks coach. New? As in, he wasn’t already?
File that one under ‘winners are grinners’ and Rassie’s remarkable ability to do whatever he likes in rugby and come up smelling of roses. It’s almost as if the Boks winning the World Cup comprehensively wouldn’t have been anywhere near as much fun for him as beating France, England and New Zealand each by a single point.
Rugby can be an emotional game and the waterworks were in full flow after World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont, channelling Neil Young in ‘Hey, Hey, My My’, said at the end of the pool stage of the World Cup, “At this stage of the competition, we say goodbye to 12 teams. I want to assure everyone that the likes of Portugal, Samoa, Tonga, Uruguay, Chile and Georgia may be gone, but they are certainly not forgotten.”
Beautiful sentiment. A week later, with the announcement of the new Nations Championship, everyone knew exactly where they stood: forgotten.
Before we leave the World Cup, Man of the Tournament boiled down to a neck and neck race between Bundee Aki, Simon Raiwalui, Ox Nche and Marius Jonker. They were burned off, however, by the Irish gentleman who subjected The Roar’s Harry Jones to a drunken, tuneless rendition of ‘The Fields of Athenry’ on the train trip back from Stade de France, after Ireland’s pool win over the Boks.
Harry stoically soaked it all in knowing, like a master chef at the top of his game, that revenge would be best served cold. The ‘sea of green’ was a welcome presence at the cup, and we can only hope that said gent got a good price for his semi-final and final tickets on the secondary market.
On a more serious note, this year saw the emergence of multiple referees working in tandem, on the field and hidden away in a box like ‘big brother’, in some fruitless search for rugby officiating nirvana.
I once joined a work conference call to New York at midnight from my Sydney hotel bed, fell asleep soon after, and woke again at 1:45am, with the meeting still ongoing, chipping in with a comment after realising nobody had noticed I’d checked out.
That’s exactly where rugby is heading – the monkeys having taken over the zoo, match times having blown out well beyond what is sensible and desirable, and people zoning out as a result, not missing any action but wondering what the point of it all is.
What hurts is that this is such an easy fix; common sense application of technology to determine tries and safeguard against serious foul play, interspersed with leaving referees to do their job and an acknowledgement from all connected to the game that the complexity of rugby’s law book and the subjective nature of its decision-making, requires a degree of maturity from everyone – including well-known ex-referees and current international coaches – in adhering to rugby’s cultural tenet of accepting the referee’s decision.
The cost of not doing that will be rugby’s slippery slide into something that will become unwatchable, and ironically, still not free of contention, because that’s the nature of fluid, dynamic, high-speed sport.
Because Super Rugby still matters, we pay our annual homage to the Crusaders for their continued excellence, and for flying in the face of the Waratahs by insisting that Rob Penney can coach.
In a tough year, Moana Pasifika went from the sublime to the ridiculous, scoring a try straight from the kick-off one week against the Force, before conceding one from the kick-off the following week, to the Chiefs.
Two matches stood out; the Fijian Drua’s epic home win over the Crusaders, and the Reds gutsing out in New Plymouth to upset the Chiefs.
For all the wrong reasons, Luke Jacobson’s post-match interview in Canberra will stay etched in the mind of anyone who saw it. Let’s hope the medication kicked in and Jacobson is now itch-free.
So, to the annual indulgence that is ‘The Wrap’ music awards, and with artists able to put COVID well and truly into the rear-view mirror, it was a great year for positively framed new releases.
Lyrically earnest, musically lush, vocally understated, Natalie Merchant’s ‘Keep Your Courage’ was a welcome re-emergence after nine years without the release of her own material.
Tribute albums can be a mixed bag, especially one that features 23 different artists. ‘The Endless Coloured Ways; The Songs of Nick Drake’ kicks off with Fontaines DC ripping out a terrific version of ‘Cello Song’, and is well worth exploring.
You always know where you stand with Jason Isbell. Never one to shirk from tearing away flesh to expose the gaping, bloodied mess of his own life and the dubious morality of others, his album ‘Weathervanes’ was perfectly true to type; derivative but delivered by his 400 Unit band with an assured swagger.
The worst thing about the World Cup was missing Hiss Golden Messenger’s September Australian tour. With MC Taylor in a happy post-COVID place, ‘Jump for Joy’ did exactly that; an infectious swing infusing an excellent album from start to finish.
The eclectic global project band that is Bokante delivered my favourite ‘World Music’ album of the year, ‘History’ – a stunner that grabs hold from the opening riff and never lets go.
Caitlin Canty is a criminally underrated Americana artist who sings quite beautifully. Anyone who can pull together a ‘super group’ containing Sarah Jarosz on mandolin and banjo, Paul Kowert on bass and the peerless Brittany Haas on fiddle to bring her poignant songs to life, as Canty does on ‘Quiet Life’, clearly has something going for her.
Last woman standing, however, is Chattanooga’s Angel Snow, whose album of Tom Waits interpretations, ‘Yesterday is Here’, is a tour de force of great song selection and brilliant delivery.
It’s one thing to have prime ingredients to work with in the first place – and the songs chosen here from Waits’ catalogue are as good as it gets – but Snow hits the perfect sweet spot, never overplaying her hand, leaving the listener wanting for more, quietly demanding repeated listening. A stand-out album of the year.
Thank you and best wishes to everyone who takes time out to read and comment every week; we look forward to doing it all again next year.