What’s Wrong With The Wallabies? Pt.2

Berrick Barnes [Waratahs], David Pocock [Force], James Horwill [Reds], James O’Connor [Rebels] and Stephen Moore [Brumbies] – a photo like this gives the impression that Australian rugby talent is distributed equally across all five franchises … it isn’t. If they showed five players from each team, you wouldn’t recognise six of the lads wearing Force or Rebels jerseys.

Before we get into the personnel, injury, tactical and discipline problems that have beset the Wallabies in recent times, it’s important to cast a cursory eye over the structure that supports the international team.

The Mole is of the strong opinion that the ARU have eyes bigger than their bellies when it comes to ‘growing the game’. They’ve expanded for the sake of expanding, not for the sake of winning more trophies.

Looking over the history of Super Rugby, it’s safe enough to disregard the so-called ‘Super Six’ era as more or less an irrelevance. The advent of South Africa’s return from sporting exile saw the introduction of the Super 10  in 1993 – still the amateur era, it should be noted – but it was in 1995, when the game went open, that SANZAR was founded, the Tri-Nations set up and the Super 10 expanded to the Super 12, the most successful incarnation to date.

[As an aside, The Mole was but a nipper in those days and Mole Hill went unequipped with Sky Sports until the 1997 Lions tour to South Africa. The Mole somehow – understandably in my opinion – fell under the impression that Super 10 (Supah Tenz!]) rugby was some sort of weird 10-a-side hybrid of Sevens and the fifteen-a-side game. There you go. Kids are stupid.]

Duopoly

In the amateur era, Australia rugby was dominated by the duopoly of Queensland and New South Wales. When the game went open, ACT [Australian Capital Territories, the area surrounding Canberra] were awarded the third Australian franchise for the newly expanded Super 12. Under visionary coach Rod MacQueen, the Brumbies finished fifth in their inaugural season, surprisingly coming in ahead of the long-established New South Wales Waratahs. The Queensland Reds were a monster outfit at the time, having won two out of three Super 10 titles between 1993 and 1995, but the Brumbies passed them out next season, finishing second on the log to an all-time great Auckland Blues team and propelling MacQueen onwards to the Wallaby job.

Michael Lynagh was the on-field general of the excellent Queensland Reds team of the late 1980s and 1990s  that featured Tim Horan and Jason Little in the centers. For the vast majority of the twentieth century, Australian rugby union was defined by clashes between New South Wales and Queensland. The Brumbies were introduced in 1996 and changed the face of domestic rugby in the country.

Over the next seven years, the Brumbies made a huge impact, competing in four out of five finals between 2000 and 2004, and winning the 2001 and 2004 editions. Why is this Brumbie hagiography relevant? Well, the ARU experienced enormous, unplanned-for success with its first expansion team. That has left a mark in the corporate memory that hasn’t easily been ironed out.

Weren’t We The Rare Old Stock?

Without a more in-depth historical knowledge of Australian rugby, it’s difficult to imagine the success of the ACT franchise occurring without some very fortuitous circumstances – call it luck – intervening. Firstly, both George Gregan and Steve Larkham were Canberra products [Gregan moved there when he was one, Larkham was born there]; Gregan would go on to win 139 Australian caps, and Larkham 102. You can’t plan that stuff, or make it happen with any amount of money.

Stephen Larkham and George Gregan: both Canberra locals, and the key cogs in the success of Macqueen’s [and late Eddie Jones’] Brumbies machine.

Other elements worked out well, and were less reliant on blind luck. Owen ‘Melon’ Finegan upped sticks from Randwick as a 23-year old and was a foundation member of the Brumbies, playing for the franchise for the next nine seasons; David Giffin played three games for his native Queensland Reds before moving south to Canberra to become another foundation member and fall one season shy of Finegan’s mark. That’s exactly the sort of thing that was envisioned: guys who couldn’t get a game in Queensland or New South Wales were encouraged to try their luck at the Brumbies. The fact that both players would go on to make the Wallabies Team of the Decade makes Macqueen look like an even bigger genius, especially in comparison to those coaches in New South Wales and Queensland who passed the two lads up.

Then you had a guy like John Langford, who only took up rugby in Sydney University, found he had an aptitude for it and went the long way to a pro career, representing NSW County [now officially part of the Brumbies’ catchment area] and Australian Universities before becoming a foundation member of the ACT team in 1996.

Sometimes people forget how good Joe Roff was, because his career directly coincided with that of Jonah Lomu, rugby’s first global superstar.  But Roff was an absolutely world class back three player and played phenomenal rugby for both the Brumbies and the Wallabies, winning the World Cup, a Lions series, two Tri-Nations and two Super Rugby tournaments.

Joe Roff debuted for Australia as a 19 year old in May 1995 at RWC95  [scoring three tries in his first two tests against Canada and Romania] and was a foundation Brumbie the following season. Pat Howard missed out on the squad for that tournament and was coaxed away from Queensland, where his international career had stalled, to play second five-eighth outside the unpredictable David Knox, who returned as a 32 year old from a long stint in Italian rugby to take up the reins as outhalf; indeed Knox earned himself eight of his thirteen test caps while with the Brumbies.

As Wallaby coach, MacQueen picked Stirling Mortlock out when he was playing for his club Gordon in Sydney and selected him for the 1997 Wallaby tour. Mortlock had represented Australia at U19 and U21 level, but hadn’t been given a contract by the New South Wales Waratahs. On returning from tour, he signed up with the new ACT franchise and debuted for the Brumbies as a 21 year old back in 1998. He would go on to play thirteen seasons for them. That’s some eye, Macqueen.

You Can’t Unring A Bell! 

Rod Macqueen is the foundation stone of professional rugby in Australia. They won the first professional world cup under him in 1999, and he somehow oversaw a series victory over a very strong Lions team in 2001, when the Wallabies were pretty heavily outgunned. It’s impossible to overstate his importance in the success of the Brumbies.

Rod Macqueen’s record marks him out as one of the greatest coaches of the professional era – World Cup, Tri-Nations, Bledisloe and Lions series, he won them all. It’s impossible to overstate his influence on Australian rugby.

However, circumstances favoured him. There were more than two teams’ worth of high-standard players in Australia in 1995, and while the Tahs and the Queenslanders might have been busy in their tribal warfare, they had also gotten very comfortable living greedily off good stock. Good players could be discarded or go unused [as was the case with Finegan, Giffin and Mortlock] and nobody could estimate the opportunity cost of their lack of exposure to high level rugby.

You could make a very strong argument that it was the formation of the Brumbies that led to the Wallabies winning the Webb Ellis Trophy for a second time in 1999. Success at Super Rugby level – relative success, if you must – springboarded Macqueen to the top job, and the wider opportunities provided by three teams gave his squad the depth he needed to replace key individuals like Michael Lynagh, David Campese, Ewen McKenzie, Rod McCall and Willie Ofahengaue who had been vital components of both the 1991 and the 1995 World Cup sides.

But They Haven’t Come

So it’s fair to say – indeed, it’s all but impossible to argue otherwise – that the creation Brumbies was a hugely positive move from the ARU. However, as we’ve mentioned above, circumstances conspired in its success. The union’s recent expansions into Perth [Western Force, 2006] and Melbourne [Rebels, 2011] haven’t met with the same success, largely because building a professional franchise through a top-down approach – the “Build It, And They Will Come” school of thought – is extremely difficult. It looked easy in 1996, but it shouldn’t have.

Australian rugby definitely can’t support five professional teams, and it’s contentious whether it can even support four. The strength just isn’t there. Back in 1996, there were enough fringe players around to drive a wedge into the Reds/Waratahs hegemony via the formation of the Brumbies. Under a brilliant, hungry coach – one of the two or three greatest coaches of the last quarter century, in The Mole’s opinion – that panned out in the primoridal soup days of pro rugby, but it’s not a formula that can be endlessly repeated. Why not?

Firstly, ACT is actually in NSW, which is a relatively densely populated state [for Australia] and one that is pretty mad for both codes of rugby. It’s under 300km between Canberra and Sydney, which is a short drive in Australian terms.

Collingwood take on Hawthorn in the AFL. Sydney is big on the NRL, but Melbourne is all about the AFL. The Rebels are a bit of a hard sell, especially when they’re not a particularly good team. More to the point for Australian rugby as a whole, setting up a fifth franchise when neither your third or fourth franchises are in particularly good shape is a dubious call.

Setting up a franchise in Melbourne, where Australian Rules football dominates Victorian sport – a full 10 of the 18 AFL teams are based in Victoria, and nine of them in Melbourne – isn’t the same as setting one up in Canberra, where there was only one pro sports team [the NRL’s Canberra Raiders, set up in 1982] with which the Brumbies had to compete.

Perth was a better bet in terms of market share, even though it’s more than 4000km from Brisbane and Sydney. Perth’s a big city – populated by over 1.7m people when you take into account the wider metropolitan region – and has grown very wealthy from the mineral boon in Western Australia. There’s an AFL club [the West Coast Eagles], but their rugby league franchise had a short and tortured existence from its birth in 1992, going through two name-changes [the Western Reds and the Perth Reds] over its six year span before it closed down following the ARL/Super League conglomeration in late 1997.

The AFL’s Eagles average almost 38,000 fans per game, but up until the Force were founded, they were the only show in town … and a city of 1.7m people in sports-mad Australia can do better than one professional footie franchise over three codes.

Matt Giteau signed a 3-year contract with the Force for $4.5m in late 2006, making him the most expensive rugby player in the world. Giteau brought class to the Force No10 jersey and dragged them up out of the basement within his first season.

Founding The Force

There were five major on-field figures in the first five years of the Force who are still active: foundation captain Nathan Sharpe [who arrived from Queensland as an established Wallaby in 2006]; David Pocock, who was signed as a 17 year old, straight from representing Australia Schools, and had to wait until he turned 18 in April 2006 until Super Rugby regulations would allow him to take the pitch; Matt Giteau, who arrived on a huge money deal in time for the 2007 Super Rugby season; Drew Mitchell, whose international career began with a roar in 2005, but had stalled badly while with Queensland, and who was looking for – and found – a new lease of life when he signed up with the Force at the same time as Giteau; and James O’Connor who, like Pocock, was signed as a 17 year old on the back of his performances as a schoolboy.

Now, 2006 isn’t yesterday [seven seasons of Super Rugby have passed], but none of those players will be with the Force next season. Giteau returned to the Brumbies for the 2010 season after fulfilling his contract, and Drew Mitchell moved on to the New South Wales Waratahs at the same time; James O’Connor left after the 2011 season for the newly formed Rebels; Sharpe has announced his retirement; and David Pocock – after much soul-searching – has announced that he’s heading to the Brumbies. In short, the Force have lost the five best players of their first five years, and haven’t been able to replace any of them adequately. They were pretty appalling in 2012, and the signs are significantly worse for 2013.

Spread Too Thin

If you were looking at the performances of the Force and the Rebels disinterestedly, you’d come to the conclusion that, taken as an experiment, it has proved that there isn’t a limitless supply of talented rugby players in Australia. The rosters of the Force and the Rebels are dominated by jobbers, and the Brumbies aren’t much better these days. Grand, those players get exposure to high quality rugby, but what good does it do them? The real talent is spread too thinly.

The Western Force have never finished higher than seventh; their seven years of competition have seen two fourteenth place finishes [including dead last in 2006, their debut year], a thirteenth and a twelfth. The Melbourne Rebels became the fifth Aussie franchise in 2011, when the Super 14 became the Super 15, and promptly finished dead last, winning just three of eighteen games. They did a little better in 2012, finishing thirteenth and winning four.

In the 2012 Super 15 season, the Tahs finished 11th, the Rebels 13th and the Force 14th;  the year before the Brumbies finished 12th, the Force 14th and the Rebels 15th.

Whilst a number of docile, Declan Kidney-fascinated Irish rugby hacks might peddle the line that having strong provinces or franchises causes problems for your national team, that should very obviously strike most people as a load of bollocks. The five New Zealand franchises won 46 games in this year’s competition [i.e. an average of about 9 games out of 18, for a winning % of 50%], while the five Australian teams won 32 [i.e. an average of about 6 games each for a winning % of 33%]. No Australian team appeared in the semi-finals, the Reds being handily defeated by the Natal Sharks in the qualifier. Guess who has a stronger international set-up? That’s right, the country with all the good teams in it.

Playing Numbers And Third Tier … What Third Tier?

Despite the IRB’s dubious playing numbers, Australia simply don’t have the same playing resources as their major rivals in the southern hemisphere, New Zealand and South Africa. They can’t afford to lose players to NH club rugby like those countries can – they have a much smaller playing base and no third tier competition [i.e. equivalent to ITM/NPC or Currie Cup and Vodacom Cup] in which more players can experience pro rugby.

The Ballymore Tornados go up against the East Coast Aces in Brisbane in the inaugural [and last] Australian Rugby Championship in 2007. Not even two men in attendance, never mind a dog. 

The ARU set up the Australian Rugby Championship in 2007 in a bid to provide a third tier of professional rugby, but it folded within a year; the ARU had to pay the Australian Broadcasting Channel to screen it, and they couldn’t get the numbers through the gates in any case. It lost them a bundle, and they killed it dead before it lost them more, or had the chance to turn itself around. Click the link above; it’s an interesting read.

The fact that there’s no middle level between playing amateur rugby in the Shute Shield and playing against the Crusaders in Canterbury or the Bulls in Loftus Versfeld … well, you can see how that might be a big issue. In Irish terms, it’s AIL to Heineken Cup.

Jumped Too Far, Too Quickly And With No Safety Net 

The ARU have erred badly with their expansion policy, certainly on the rugby performance side of things; the commercial side is more or less unknowable from the other side of the world.

If a fourth franchise was beneficial for Australian rugby union – which is arguable – a fifth wasn’t. The Western Force should have been allowed mature as a professional team, rather than introduce a fifth Australian franchise within five years; while it’s geographically distant, Perth is a wealthy city with an under-tapped sporting fan base.

While the other is in existence, neither the Rebels nor the Force will build the critical mass of quality players and strength in depth that is needed to win enough matches to be regarded as successful in Super Rugby. Spreading international calibre players across too many teams dilutes their effectiveness in combining as units, and seriously impacts the performance of the test team. Rugby teams are composed of units – centre partnerships, half-back partnerships, second-rows partnerships – whose effectiveness is increased by familiarity. Gregan and Larkham [Brumbies], Horan and Little [Queensland], Eales and McCall [Queensland] – and further afield, Nonu and Smith [Wellington], D’Arcy and O’Driscoll [Leinster], Matfield and Botha [Bulls], O’Callaghan and O’Connell [Munster] – are all examples of provincial/franchise partnerships translating to more than the sum of their parts at international level.

SANZAR officials – both together and in the individual unions – are always keen to milk more money out of their two major tournaments. Up until the introduction of Argentina to the Tri-Nations, the previous three alterations [the expansion from Super 12 to Super 14 and Super 15, and the three-headed Tri-Nations fixtures] were transparently driven by avarice rather than the good of the game. The Tri-Nations was perfectly formed with home and away fixtures before the absurd introduction of a third; Super Rugby’s strongest format was the Super 12.

There are enough quality players in New Zealand to support five franchises; in the Super 14/15 era [i.e. since 2006] only once has a New Zealand team finished in the bottom three [the Highlanders finished 12th of 14 in 2010]. That’s simply not the case in Australia. The best players are spread amongst too many teams; they play too much bad rugby in losing teams. However, Australians shouldn’t feel embarrassed that they don’t have the depth to field five competitive Super 15 franchises; South Africa can’t either, and they don’t even have State of Origin or AFL to contend with.

It’s wildly unrealistic to imagine that the ARU would countenance shutting down either the Force or the Rebels, but neither are particularly popular teams in terms of attendance, and the period of sustained Australian success at both Super Rugby, Tri-Nations and World Cup levels [1999-2004] occurred when the players were concentrated in three sides. Five franchises are hurting the game in Australia, not helping it. But that’s not the end of Australia’s problems either, as Part 3 will illustrate.  

 

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11 thoughts on “What’s Wrong With The Wallabies? Pt.2

  1. It certainly is a fair point re the development of relationships in sides, but the other side of the coin is that players from the Force and the Rebels are being exposed to some of the best players in the world, which, in theory, should be a real benefit. The Force do boast an all Wallaby back row, for example, and whilst they have struggled to repeat that across their roster there is an argument for players like Nathan Charles and Nick Cummins to be in the green and gold squad.

    Likewise the Rebels could offer up Cadeyrn Neville, Hugh Pyle, Luke Jones and Jarod Saffy (debatable) as potential Wallaby candidates, with Phipps having been around the squad for a period now. Progress is, to repeat the tired cliche, a slow process – so who knows how things will pan out? The reality, however, is that Deans has been unwilling to dip into these untried players (and the Brumbies too), preferring Waratahs and Reds players.

    • I’m of the opinion, many miles away, that Charles, Cummins, Neville etc. would be better served playing for one of four franchises (maybe even one of three) where they would still get exposure to some of the best players in the world. Moreover, they would have more of those players training and preparing with them and fewer of them running over or past them because they play for uncompetitive teams.
      That such players are Wallaby squad candidates that play for the Rebels or Force doesn’t mean necessarily that the Force or the Rebels are the only avenue these players have to green and gold. That they play for losing teams makes it more difficult for them to impress selectors.
      Australia has a lot of talented rugby players. What seems incontrovertible is that it doesn’t have enough for five professional franchises.
      How is Perth sorted for rugby clubs? The grass roots infrastructure needed to grow the popularity of the game is more important than a (n even mildly successful) franchise. That develops the rugby culture in a city and community and fosters the relationships that are such a strength of the game. From here, Melbourne looks a bridge too far while Perth looks a far more promising location.

      • This article is spot on (Kiwi here, so have a slightly different take on it) and doesn’t even mention the fact that the Force and Rebels have an exemption to contract multiple overseas players, surely not in Australian rugby’s best interests. It can be argued one or two quality player taking up spots in a team is beneficial (Daniel Braid with the Reds), but more than that and who are you helping? Alby Mathewson and Winston Stanley are reasonably good players, but not exactly marquee signings. They won’t bring people through the gates, or help nurture a new generation of Australian players. Seems like 4 franchises is the right number for Aussie.

      • A fair response. Personally I think 4 Super sides is enough, but the way the Force has been run is pretty informative.

        I also think the Australian sides should consider more foreign signings a) as marquee players like Delve, and b) as Jake White has done at the Brumbies, ie with an eye on Australuan residency.

  2. I think you’re underestimating the popularity of Aussie Rules in Perth. There are two pro teams. The Eagles sell out every week and would average over 50,000 with a bigger stadium. The Dockers (despite playing in purple and never having won anything) have crowds well in the 30,000s too.

    Given that Melbourne is much bigger than Perth and that the Rebels’ crowds are on a par with the Force I’m not sure it’s so obvious that Perth has the stronger case for the 4th team.

    • Could well be that you’re right, Jim. Melbourne also has the advantage of being much closer to Sydney and Brisbane, and the long flights are something that David Pocock [a pretty hardwearing individual] mentioned as part of his disillusionment with the Force.

      On the other hand, as popular as AFL might be in Perth/Freo, it’s got to be even more popular in Melbourne.

    • Fair point Jim, but there’s also a decent base of ex-pat Saffers in Perth, which I believe is why they often play the Boks there. I got the impression that the Force could develop into something if they could start to put the results up. That said, the commute for away games must be brutal, as Mole points out.

  3. Interesting history, especially if you take your point that the ARU seemed to be chasing the dollars at the expense of good rugby, and Quade Cooper’s recent remarks about a toxic environment at the top of the ladder. I take the point that even on losing teams, Aussie players are still getting exposed to top-level competition. The other side of that is they’re also getting exposed to losing and being constantly in a state of development, which allows for more mistakes in basic ball handling skills and decision making. That can become a habit, and the Wabbalies of late seem to be trying to carry some of those habits over.

    The third-tier competition might be the biggest missing puzzle piece, and the ARU are going to have to build that piece themselves, because they’re finding it in the Shute Shield. The Aussie site Green and Gold Rugby has dedicated an entire section to essays and discussions about how to build a third tier, including its structure and cost (http://www.greenandgoldrugby.com/category/all-posts/rugby/3rdtier/). One of the problems with the ARC was that it debuted during the 2007 World Cup in France; not only did the ARC have to compete with Soccer, AFL and League, but the best rugby in the world (and Australia’s best players) were half-way across the world in the other hemisphere. It was a dumb decision, like releasing an art house film in the middle of the summer blockbuster season; attention was far too split.

    So who deserves to stay, who needs to go, and what’s next? The Western Force may have earned the right to remain just because they’ve already established a history, and there’s more room to develop a franchise there than in Melbourne. One question to consider, then, is how much would the ARU save if they folded the Melbourne Rebels (who are paying a premium for talent), and could those funds be shifted toward some sort of third-tier competition? If the ARU is concerned about developing rugby in Australia and having a national side that can consistently give the Kiwis and Saffers some real competition, a third-tier competition seems to be a must. You want your best players sharpening their skills and building their fitness in that third-tier competition, not in test matches. That would provide Australia with some more players who are already match-ready come Super Rugby and are ideally more used to winning come test time.

    There’s been some suggestions of fielding a few Aussie third-tier teams for the ITM/NPC cup. Why? If the ARU is competiting with AFL and NRL, why send your domestic third-tier teams abroad and hope they can compete for local attention from across the Tasman?

    If the Olympics is any barometer, the Aussies love their winners and can’t stomach much less. If they develop a habit of winning at a third-tier competition, and concentrate the best of that third-tier into four Super Rugby teams, they’ll most likely start drawing more public attention. The problem is they would probably need to keep it at four Super Rugby teams and a limited third-tier competition for a while (ten years?) to develop stability; but if they had any success, history suggests they’d try to expand it beyond its means and the third-tier would collapse.

    • Great comments. I don’t read Green and Gold as much as I once did [just don’t have the same amount of time], but it’s an excellent, excellent resource. The articles and analysis are generally top notch, and you an pick up an awful lot of information on the Australian Super Rugby franchises that just doesn’t make it to Ireland any other way.

      I think you get a great insight into the mood of the committed Wallaby fan as well, and a little bit more of an understanding about how rugby is viewed [and views itself] in a country that is more in love with league.

  4. I’m really enjoying this series of articles Mole.

    Rugby faces a litany of challenges in Australia and these are what I see, in no particular order:

    AFL carpet-bombing with dollars. I went for breakfast on Sydney’s lower North Shore, Australian rugby’s heartland, yesterday and there were an equal number of Sherrins (AFL balls) being kicked around by the kids as Gilberts. The zeal of AFL coaches and local adminstrators is something to behold and they’ve got a warchest the envy of every other code.

    No free to air coverage of the game. Aside from the ABC showing the Shute Shield on a Saturday arvo (something which they were only just convinced to do again next season), all Super Rugby is on Fox. So kids just can’t see the damn thing and the kind of players who inspire a new generation to play the game- Cooper, Genia, Beale, O’Connor are unable to have the impact of Ben Barba, Greg Inglis and Benji Marshall.

    The Sydney Clubs. As in Ireland, there are a lot of stuffy old blazers who derive their whole sense of worth from the position they hold in their rugby club. A lot of them will be resistant to a Third Tier (and were for the ARC) if it is the detriment of their clubs.

    Too many Super teams. The ARU should probably have gone to Melbourne in 2006 but soft crowds for the Melbourne Storm and an extraordinary grassroots effort from Perth locals saw them get the franchise. Fox also liked it because it allowed them to show a 5.30pm game in NZ, a 7.30pm game on the East Coast and a 9.30pm game from WA. But there just isn’t enough talent to go around. Essentially, the GPS schools in Sydney and Brisbane- increasingly being targeted by the AFL- and the teams from the Shute Shield(12)/Hospitals Cup(8) are being asked to provide about 150 professional rugby players and there’s no way those maths work out.

    A lack of “razzle-dazzle”. The East Coast media believes Union is a fussy, overcomplicated game compared to its knuckle-dragging descendant and see Quade Cooper as pretty much the only reason to tune in, since he’s a “leaguie” anyway. And they’re not shy to put this forward loudly and often.

    Anyway, I look forward to the next installment. Cheers Mole.

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