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Scrap the Giteau Law: Rugby Australia should look to Rassie's 'Boks RWC recipe if it wants to re-join the big boys' table

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Expert
16th April, 2024
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Rugby in Australia is often not well represented by Rugby Australia.

To be Australian in Australia is often to raise one state over country. Vast distance drives cultural distinction.

As Chook the Sydneysider told me lately, even drugs are not nationally Australian: Victoria enjoys heroin, Western Australia has the meth, wild Tasmania prefers ecstasy whilst New South Wales has cocaine in great abundance. He left ACT out, but I understand ‘C’ stands for cannabis.

France’s cheesiness makes it hard to govern; Down Under goes higher in remote, never ending parochialism.

But when Aussies go abroad or face foreign foes in sport, a young, free united nation advances from the Ashes. The problem is it can be late.

Too late to centralize power, too late to form a common plan, too late to join forces, and too late to win it all.

Australians are not alone in this trait. A Scouser driver once announced as we drove to the Mersey: ‘Up here, we don’t truly endorse the national concept.”

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In rugby, Australia is told to mimic other nations. For ages: be like New Zealand but better and bigger. Lately the Irish miracle is prescribed: make Wallaby success equate to Waratah fortune (the Waraby Doctrine) under a sovereign Sydney rubric and watch Australia union become joyful again.

But is Australian rugby conducive to the Leinster academy model?

Former Chiefs star James Lowe has made every post a winner since joining Leinster. (Photo By Harry Murphy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

The case is made along these lines: both nations are wealthy per capita and sports mad, and as in Ireland, rugby in Australia is a second tier winter sport. Ireland has football and GAA with rugby third in line, but buoyed by recent rank; Aussies worship League and AFL above all.

Fair enough.

The case fails for every other reason: the Irish national football team has languished between numbers 20 and 60 in the last five years. The Irish fanbase merely follows favourite English Premier League sides the way we all do. GAA does bear some resemblance to AFL but is far from being a twenty-to-one older brother.

Rugby still germinates from private schools in the greater Dublin and Cork metropolitan areas; survey the results of schools trophies and the same handful of colleges dominate.

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Ireland is a cozy island with one major yet downsized city: Australia is massively spread and has several big and proud cities adverse to being servile to another. There is no rugby diaspora of professional union players from Ireland; Australia has hundreds of players across the globe.

This last point has me thinking.

There is an old foe in the same hemisphere as Australia which has done and is recently enjoying exactly what RA has set as its goals.

Soccer (as football is called there) is by far the most popular sport in South Africa, easily dwarfing rugby. Yet rugby has made inroads of late.

The same fixture (the North-South derby between the Bulls and the Stormers) which drew 20,000 before 2019 now sells out (50,000) in a day. Varsity Cup stands are full, as are Currie Cup matches in Griqualand. Top high schools pack 15,000 fans in and a rugby documentary (Chasing the Sun) sequel captivates Sunday night viewers of all persuasions.

It is that rise in grassroots popularity and pop culture fixation in the Republic which should be emulated. Rather than copy Ireland’s rugby model, which caps itself and still depends on the influx of players like James Lowe, Jamison Gibson-Park, Mack Hansen, Bundee Aki and the like, Australia should look to their erstwhile SANZAAR partner for a template which depends solely on homegrown and born talent, yet uses overseas gigs as force multipliers.

Outgoing Irish Rugby Football Union High Performance Director David Nucifora addresses members of the press during a media conference at the IRFU High Performance Centre on the Sport Ireland Campus in Dublin. (Photo By David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

Outgoing Irish Rugby Football Union High Performance Director David Nucifora will return to Australia as a consultant for Rugby Australia. (Photo By David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

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South Africa is a better rugby culture to follow because of scale. The rugby cities of South Africa, Johannesburg (business), Cape Town (tourism) Durban (leisure), Pretoria (politics) and Bloemfontein (being Bloemfontein) have their own Australian analogs in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Canberra and Perth, respectively.

Both have the right weather for sport with enough variety in athletes to build rugby XVs with top end skills.

Rugby has had an elitist reputation in both lands to overcome. In both countries, administration has been poor at many unions, including the national version. It is unlikely this will be repaired in just one Cup cycle, but SARU is far from fixed and South African rugby is growing.

Why?

Above the surface we see World Cups. Below that? The Springboks have embraced their players based overseas, with profound impact.

From 2018 through today, coach Rassie Erasmus and his assistants focused on building a wider squad depth, experience for mentoring, a clear style of play, and leadership.

To facilitate his goals, Erasmus picked players from every league. In the finals of 2019 and 2023, more Boks were based outside South Africa than in the four main province teams and the result was clearly on display.

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Rassie Erasmus tore up the Springboks’ eligiblity law book when he took over as South Africa coach. (Photo by Michael Steele – World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)

The best player in the final (Pieter-Steph du Toit) was based in Japan, the key sharpshooter (Handre Pollard) plays for Dan McKellar at Leicester and Montpellier before, the tour guide for the team in Toulon was star lock Eben Etzebeth, either number eight (Jasper Wiese or Duane Vermeulen) plied their trade in the Home Nations, the top carrier (Damian de Allende) and his midfield partner Jesse Kriel play in League One, the generals-scrumhalf (Faf de Klerk and Cobus Reinach) are based in Japan and France, fullback Willie le Roux did play in Japan, top tackler (Franco Mostert) is Japan-based, super sub RG Snyman and his mate Jean Kleyn play in Ireland, and charge down king Cheslin Kolbe is a French star. It goes on and on: Malcolm Marx, Kwagga Smith, and Vincent Koch, bomb squad globetrotters.

The result was multifaceted:

They won instead of losing.
Winning attracts new players.
They can play anywhere.
Fewer Saffas get picked off.
Knowing more, helps winning.
Squad depth is key in a Cup.

More Bok-level players have come back to South Africa than before, when the Boks had a self-imposed bar or limitation, like the Wallabies, on selecting players based abroad. One factor is the URC gives players an ability to catch the eye of big clubs in Europe, without living in Europe, but the predominant issue is that the sport is growing again, not just in quality and quantity, but cash.

Handre Pollard

The Springboks are made up of South African players from all over the world. (Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Australia has a legion of players abroad and many are capped by other countries on a routine basis, or are forgotten by Wallaby coaches.

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Every weekend in the English, French, Celtic, Japanese, and tandem of champions and challenge cups, we can see Aussies doing well abroad. The best team in the Top 14 this year (Bordeaux) runs a trio of big carrier-forwards out: Pete Samu, Kane Douglas and Adam Coleman. La Rochelle relies on Will Skelton, Toulouse (and France) rides Melbourne’s Manny Meafou, whose agent sent the same videos of his feats to France and the NFL as he did to Super Rugby Pacific teams. Scottish teams use Aussies for their heavy carries, too: Sione Tuipolotu and Jack Dempsey top the charts. In England, the beefed up Northampton Saints rose to the top four in part because of yeoman work by another Aussie prophet not loved in his own country: rugged Angus Scott-Young, who is a far more effective cleaner than Tom Hooper and still not old.

Oddly it seems players like bad boy hooker Tolu Latu become more disciplined in France, Meafou and Skelton shed fat and add muscle, and Hansen becomes a playmaker for a top two or three team in the world.

Will Skelton has been a constant force in Europe for La Rochelle. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Why not embrace that when picking a 35-man squad for the Wallabies? The first ten are easy to pick, but the last fifteen often decide tournaments.

Not all the Aussies doing well abroad are big name stars. Canberran Tom Staniforth does grunt work for high flying Castres. In 2021-23 he started 49 of 52 matches at 5 lock. This season, he tends to play the full eighty despite adding muscle. He is a 29-year old tackle-work machine.

If the Wallaby coaches want big time locks, half of their research (which Arnold brother – Richie or Rory – is in form or do we take both?) will be abroad. Samu Kerevi and Marika Koroibete, taken individually or as a pair, have been the most potent attacking players in recent years. How is their playing form judged? One cannot dismiss a league as rugby lite when Beauden Barrett, Aaron Smith, Sam Cane, du Toit, de Allende, and Kolbe reenact the Rugby World Cup final on a weekly basis, Quade Cooper pairs up with Will Genia, and fit teams are coached by Steve Hansen, Robbie Deans, Dave Rennie and Ian Foster.

James Ramm and Angus Scott-Young (R) have both enhanced their reputations since joining Northampton Saints. (Photo by Andrew Kearns – CameraSport via Getty Images)

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South African rugby has never had a functional relationship with France, mostly because French clubs scoop teenage talent without any hesitancy and rarely agree to a Test window for training outside the minimum. But the data flow between a coach like McKellar in England or Hansen in Japan and the Bok staff is superb and both those leagues as well as the URC celebrate the Test careers of their club squad, using it in sales.

Long term for health, Australian grassroots interest in rugby must be well funded, coaches and referees and local clubs fortified, and an answer to how many levels and professional clubs can exist, but make no mistake: the Wallabies winning back the Bledisloe in front of packed houses, conquering the incoming Lions starting at four hundred squid a seat, and making a run at a home World Cup in 2023 sets up Australia for the next decade or two better than any well meaning consultant’s plan and marketing plot.

Australia is more like South Africa than it resembles Ireland in that respect too. Win or lose, the Aviva is packed, Cork despises Dublin, and the Six Nations casts its spell anew.

Australia is a winners’ culture and will vote with its feet and dollars for winners, which translates to more tournaments and leagues and thus, games, for aspiring players, but not necessarily wage pressure because the Wallabies could let European or Japanese club owners foot the bill.

The superlative Springbok rugby documentary, Chasing the Sun 2, reveals how innovative the Boks could be because of, not despite, the presence of so many well-informed global travelers in the team, pooling ideas on how to win, using games, theory, deep analytics, technology and “a guy named Paddy in France.”

Nobody travels like Aussies, and the quality of analysis in sport and business Down Under stacks up with any heavyweight, but in union, it still smells far too local amateur.

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The next four years expose gold which Rugby Australia must turn into green.

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