Culture is the buzz word in Australian sport at the moment. This team wins because they have a good culture. This team loses because they have a problem with culture. And one team who clearly has an ongoing culture problem is the NSW Blues.
After yet another unsuccessful State of Origin campaign, this one lost from an almost unloseable position, the magnifying glass has once more been brought out to try and discover why one horse has lost an apparently even two-horse race 11 out of the last 12 races. It’s almost enough to call in the stewards.
Stories have begun emerging about bad behaviour in the Blues camp in the lead up to Origin 2 and 3, all supposedly hinting at a rotten culture in the NSW camp.
So concerned was the NSWRL about these rumours that they took the extraordinary step of issuing a statement refuting the claims. The lady doth protest too much we think.
Firstly, perennial bad boys Josh Dugan and Blake Ferguson were allegedly inebriated before Game 3, spending most of the Friday before the match at a local watering hole, the Lennox Point Hotel, near where the Blues were in camp.
Allegedly, the duo were “acting like clowns” but the NSWRL statement strongly refutes this saying the players “were not affected” and they trained “strongly” the next morning.
The statement makes no comment though about Dugan and Ferguson, who have a history of bad behaviour, spending up to eight hours in that type of activity five days out from one of the most important games of their career. It is hardly great preparation for an elite athlete – a fact the NSWRL neglects to mention.
For the record Ferguson had a quiet match in Game 3 while Dugan was among NSW’s best and almost hauled the Blues back into the match with a stunning piece of skill to score early in the second half.
The second allegation is extraordinary. Allegedly (again) NSW prop Andrew Fifita was told by Blues coach Laurie Daley that he would not be starting in Game 3 with David Klemmer being preferred and Fifita coming off the bench.
Supposedly Fifita reacted so badly to this news that Daley was forced to back down and allowed the big Sharks prop to start. The NSWRL denies this outright.
“It is entirely false to suggest that on the morning of the game (or at any other time during the camp) Laurie had a conversation with Andrew in which he advised Andrew that he was starting on the bench” reads the statement.
Once more the statement is not dealing with the core issue – a player forcing the coach to change his selection decision.
The third allegation is that a car, hired by a journalist to cover the NSW camp, was vandalised. The inference was made that the vandalising was carried out by Blue players. Again the NSWRL refutes this and calls on “anyone in possession of information which supports an allegation of criminal conduct against one or more of our players” should “immediately report the information to the NSW Police”.
No matter how many of the allegations are proven to be true or false, the fact that the NSWRL has been forced to issue the statement shows that there are deep issues within the Blues camp and the culture is anything but healthy.
The situation is so toxic that Blues legend Peter Sterling is thinking of quitting his advisory role with the squad, a position he only took up this year.
Responding to the deluge of criticism, Sterling said: “It has a way of maybe beating a little bit of passion out of you unfortunately.
“When you lose you put yourself in that situation and that’s the nature of the beast. Whether I want to be a part of that beast again I’m not quite sure.
“If you lose you open yourself up to the slings and the arrows. I’ve just been disappointed with some of the slings and some of the arrows.”
The problem with NSW is many of the wounds are self-inflicted.
Wallabies coach Michael Cheika talks a good game.
And when he began his reign in October 2014, after the shocking resignation of Ewen McKenzie, the results matched the rhetoric.
From his appointment to the end of the Rugby World Cup in 2015, the Wallabies won 11 out of 16 matches (69%) including defeating the All Blacks for the first time since 2011 and reaching the 2015 RWC Final.
But since then Cheika’s team has struggled. In their past 18 matches they have won just eight (44%), including five losses in a row last year and losing a home Test series against England (0-3) for the first time in history.
For Cheika, this was expected. The former Leinster, Stade Francais and NSW title-winning coach is determined to transform the way the Wallabies play the game and in the interim it’s inevitable that results will suffer.
“Sometimes you think you have got to go that way (be defensive),” says Cheika, “that those (attacking) things that work at a level down are not going to work at Test level.
Traditionally people would say ‘no, they won’t’ but I’ve never been a traditionalist.”
The 50-year-old is even more focused this year and regrets backing away from his transformation plan last season.
“I actually think last year we got talked around a little bit, into ‘You’ve got to play Test football doing one, two and three. That’s the way it’s always been played’,” he admits.
“I didn’t push as hard myself to say, ‘no, this is how we want to play, this is how the supporters want us to play. We are going to play like that, let the cards fall where they do’.
“Maybe we were thinking too much about the outcomes than how and just readjusting that balance a little bit.”
Cheika won the Super Rugby crown in 2014 with the Waratahs, the first time in 19 attempts that the under-performing NSW team managed that feat, and he did so playing a high-octane, highly entertaining style of rugby that had the city buzzing and the stands full.
This is the style that Cheika wants the NSW-laden Wallabies to emulate but it has been a painful transition. The coach however can not take all the blame with Australian rugby currently experiencing a talent drain.
Their five Super Rugby teams’ performances have been abysmal, winning just 20 of their 56 matches played in the tournament this year. The results are so bad that one team is due to be culled next season.
But Cheika is undeterred, even after the Wallabies slumped to a surprise 24-19 loss to an under-strength Scotland in the June series. They even required two late tries to overcome an Italy side who lost to Fiji the previous week.
Wallaby fans are unsurprisingly worried.
When Jack Quigley, a rugby coach and fan, posted a drunken rant on Facebook and the post received over 53,000 likes, Cheika gave him a call to discuss it.
“I think that’s important that you talk to the fans,” explained Cheika.
“I just spoke to him about some of the things that we’re feeling and what we want to do and what’s going on in the background because we’re feeling the same thing as the fans, too.”
But clearly Australian rugby is not at the level it should be. How do you fix that?
“Well you identify exactly what the reason is from our understanding and the analysis we’ve done and we look to address it. Simple.
“There’s been a lot of conversation around talent, and our results are not because of our talent situation – I’m telling you now.
“We’ve got to identify what it is – we’ve got a lot of good players – and we feel we’re down the road on doing that.
“We’re already talking to players about what we think are the key things that they need to be (addressing), the things that are making a (bad) habit for themselves. So they can understand that now and the predicament they’re in.
“Things can change at that point very quickly. Once you know what the issue is stopping you from playing your best footy and also having a plan on how to address it.”
He is adamant that the problem is not from a lack of skills compared to the other heavyweights of the global game.
“Last year we struggled a bit, this year we’ve struggled much more – but I don’t think all of a sudden we’ve forgotten how to do things,” he insists.
“I know for a fact that players who have been making skill errors, those same players I’ve seen do those skills under immense pressure. So they forget how to do it?”
After the high of a thrilling Lions series the All Blacks now face the tough task of raising themselves for the considerably lesser challenges ahead.
Steve Hansen’s team, and Hansen himself, will be bitterly stung after failing to claim the Lions scalp, despite the undoubted feel-good factor of a shared series.
The trick for Hansen will be to harness that disappointment and turn it into anger to be channeled against the Wallabies, Springboks and Pumas when the All Blacks take to the field again on August 19.
Here are the five big questions Hansen and the All Blacks face:
The All Blacks were on an emotional high during the historic Lions series, which many players rightly saw as a career highlight.
A Lions tour only comes around every 12 years whereas Tests against the Wallabies have become monotonous, up to four a year, and very rarely are the All Blacks challenged.
The All Blacks have held the Bledisloe, contested between Australia and New Zealand, since 2003 and since 2012 the two teams have met 15 times with Australia winning just once.
The Wallabies have been very poor since May last year, winning just 44 per cent of their matches and slipping from No2 in the world to No4. Australian teams in Super Rugby have been disastrous with New Zealand Super Rugby sides holding a 23-0 record over their antipodean rivals this season.
The ABs will be unbackable favourites to win the Bledisloe 3-0 and after the excitement of the Lions series, it will be very hard for Hansen to get his team up for such a ‘contest’.
After being regarded as invincible since their 2015 RWC triumph, the All Blacks looked decidedly beatable in this Test series.
Reduced to 14 men in Wellington, they went tryless and leaked tries themselves while in Auckland in the decider they had the Lions on the ropes but could not finish them off.
They made 15 very un-All Blacks handling errors in that match alone, three in try-scoring opportunities.
The Lions players from this series, especially the younger generation such as Maro Itoje, Liam Williams, Elliot Daly, Anthony Watson, Owen Farrell, Tadhg Furlong and Kyle Sinckler will now have great confidence that they can match the All Blacks and even beat them, especially at home.
England and New Zealand look set to face a showdown in the 2019 RWC semi-finals and after this Lions series there will be a lot of belief among the young Englishmen that they can best team NZ.
Hansen has a big dilemma in his very famous centre Sonny Bill Williams. If he doesn’t get sent off in the second Test for a shoulder to Watson’s head then the All Blacks probably win the match and the series.
The red card changed the momentum of the series and gave the Lions a chance.
Ngani Laumape, who came in for Williams, showed he deserves more time at Test level and Ryan Crotty may be back from his hamstring injury in time for Bledisloe 1.
So does Hansen punish Williams or will he forgive and forget and re-instate him to the starting line up? The fallout will be huge either way. A real dilemma for Hansen.
Hansen was deeply crestfallen after the drawn Test in Auckland.
In terms of his own career, a Lions series victory was meant to be the crowning achievement after successfully retaining the Webb Ellis Cup in 2015.
Whatever he does now – even going on to win the RWC in Japan in 2019 – he can never wipe out the stain of failing to defeat the Lions. How Hansen will deal with this is crucial.
Does he let it eat away at him and undermine his confidence or does he use it to re-stoke the fire and take revenge against Wales, Scotland, Ireland and especially England over the next two years?
It was noticeable during this Lions series just how much the All Blacks relied on their older players.
The ABs never recovered when Jerome Kaino went off in Wellington due to Williams’ dismissal in Wellington and they were never able to make up for the absence of full-back Ben Smith, who was injured in the first Test.
Kaino is 34 and will be 36 by 2019, Smith will be 33, Dane Coles 32, Wyatt Crockett 36 and captain Kieran Read 34.
Rugby is more and more a young man’s game. Managing these players, finding suitable replacements and knowing when to transition will be a massive job for Hansen.