Three reasons why Australian Rugby is on the brink of total implosion

Alex Broun 00:13 18/09/2018
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At least Reece Hodge cares

With five losses in six Tests, half-empty stadiums and players literally fighting with fans in the stands, Australian rugby is on the brink of total implosion.

But how did the once proud rugby nation, and the world champions of 1991 and 1999, reach such a deplorable state?

We take a look at the three main reasons:

Michael Cheika

We are in no way suggesting that the Wallabies coach is the architect of this demise but as the leader of the national team – and a figurehead for the game in the country – Cheika has to take part of the blame.

Australian rugby has always thrived on a strong national team and the current Wallabies are soulless, aimless and seem to be getting worse.

The players’ commitment is regularly questioned but in my eyes the players do not lack commitment, what they lack is clarity.

They don’t seem to know what they are meant to be doing and why.

It is the role of the coach to lay out a clear path for his players charting the way to their eventual destination and also plotting the way they will take to get there.

Compare Joe Schmidt in Ireland who has made his game plan crystal clear to his players so every single member of his 23 know exactly what they are meant to be doing every second of the game.

This Wallabies side seem to have been going around in circles for the last three seasons, heads spinning from their constant re-boots they are now falling in a dizzy heap.

Exhorting players to “do it for your country” is poor coaching of the highest order.

It all started so brightly for Cheika. Taking over from the disgraced Ewen McKenzie at the end of 2014 he led the Wallabies to their first Rugby Championship crown in August 2015, defeating the All Blacks at his first attempt, and the final of the 2015 Rugby World Cup – against the same opponent.

But since then it’s been a slow and awkward tumble downhill.

Since the 2015 Rugby World Cup final the Wallabies have played 36 Tests winning just 15, losing 19 and drawing 2.

It’s an appalling record and has seen the Wallabies slip from No2 in the world to No7.

Cheika talked a lot when he took the job about discovering the Wallabies identity and playing a brand of rugby that Australians could be proud of.

But three years down the track no one seems to know what that identity or style actually is – apart from imitate the All Blacks, badly.

The latest loss to Argentina on the Gold Coast – the Wallabies first loss to the Pumas in Australia in 35 years – was particularly galling: the final motif of Israel Folau holding on to the ball rather than passing to an unmarked Bernard Foley on his outside summing up the Wallabies education-in-reverse perfectly.

Rugby Australia

The ongoing disasters at Wallabies level have been perfectly mirrored by the never ending fracas in the Rugby Australia boardroom.

The reign of former CEO Bill Pulver was a never ending litany of tawdry dramas from the Kurtley Beale sexting scandal to the excoriating of the Western Force from Super Rugby.

Every mis-step has been eagerly seized upon by a hungry sporting media who are not exactly unbiased.

AFL and Rugby League are the big sellers for the Murdoch media and they are quick to portray rugby as an out-of-touch backward game played by toffee nosed private schoolboys.

Every embarrassing drama is portrayed in gloating headlines foretelling the death of the fifteen man code.

But Rugby’s officialdom has contributed greatly to their own problems.

The dumping of the Western Force was a public relations disaster, threatening to kill the game in the west of the nation, made even worse after it was dragged out over six long months as the Force lay mortally wounded on the ground but still kicking and flaying for the world to see.

Rugby Australia’s answer was to hire Raelene Castle as the new CEO, fresh from limited success with league’s Bulldogs.

Castle has been trying to put a softer face to the game, and you would have to say succeeding, though she hasn’t been helped by Israel Folau’s controversial statements on social media.

47-year-old Castle, who suffers from alopecia, is striving to showcase the more positive sides of rugby – especially the Olympic gold medal winning women’s Sevens team – but with so much negativity around the code it’s hard to get any cut through.

The latest black spot involved Wallabies flanker Lukhan Tui, who got into a physical altercation with an angry fan in the stands after the lost to the Pumas and then promptly announced he was stepping away from Rugby.

You couldn’t make it up…

Failure to retain talent

Australian Rugby has a big issue with a lot of its top talent being stolen by its main rival rugby league or following a different path into Australian rules or football.

It’s understandable you will not be able to grab all the apples but its inexcusable to lose those that are gift wrapped and presented to you in a box.

The perfect example is Angus Crichton who was part of the all-conquering Scots College First XV of 2013, Scots being one of Australia’s top rugby schools, located in the rugby heartland of Bellevue Hill/Rose Bay – hardly blue collar central.

Crichton played for NSW and Australian Schoolboys that same year and the next step was a Super Rugby contract? Wrong.

The way Crichton tells it, some bonehead told him he wouldn’t have a hope of playing Super Rugby till he was 23 so he promptly signed a contract for the South Sydney league club.

He has quickly risen to the top in the 13-man game, making his State of Origin debut in the victorious NSW side this season.

There are countless examples of this – and even worse is the number of talented players who are in the system and mis-managed wasting both money and talent.

Quade Cooper, a maverick but unquestionably talented player, spent this season playing amateur club rugby on a salary of nearly Dh1 million because new Queensland coach Brad Thorn didn’t want him. Same for bad boy Karmichael Hunt.

Australian Rugby simply doesn’t have the depth of talent to not make full use of players like Cooper and Hunt.

James O’Connor is another example. Rated as one of the best players in the world in the 2013 Lions series his Australian rugby contract was torn up after he tried to board a plane in a bedraggled state.

Since then he has wandered around Europe looking for a home, where he currently finds himself at Sale in the Premiership.

His latest adventure took O’Connor to Iceland for rehab following an ankle surgery, where he underwent extreme therapies such as sensory-deprivation exercises, heat exhaustion and deep states of meditation.

This experience has led O’Connor to re-state his desire to play for the Wallabies and Cheika is stupid if he does not act on that impulse and make sure O’Connor is locked in to a Super Rugby contract next season to give him the best chance of being ready for the Rugby World Cup at the end of 2019.

Okay – O’Connor is hard to manage but so is Kurtley Beale – and he is integral to Cheika’s plans and on his day, fully fit and focused, O’Connor is more than a match for Beale.

And what of Leinster’s Scott Fardy and Joe Tomane, Lyon’s Liam Gill, Stade Francais’ Tala Gray, Northampton’s Taqele Naiyaravoro, Clermont’s Sitaleki Timani, Harlequins’ James Horwill and Saracens’ Will Skelton.

Every single one of those players would improve the current Wallabies squad – so why are they not being selected? Stubbornness or stupidity?

And the final name – who would actually be the first name on any Wallabies full-strength team sheet is Sean McMahon, who is currently choosing to play club rugby in Japan than for his country.

Cheika says he will do everything he can to get McMahon back in gold for the RWC. Let’s see if he is a man of his word. The Wallabies desperately need “Seanny Mac”.

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