We’ve hit rock bottom. Where to from here for Australian rugby?
By Sam Ryan
Ah rock bottom, we meet again.
I thought we said goodbye in the nosebleeds of Groupama Stadium in Lyon, as I walked out with tears in my eyes while getting heckled by fat Welsh blokes.
But we’re here again a few weeks later.
We’ve “negotiated an exit” with a coach that hoodwinked us all after taking a half decent footy side and shattering them, both physically and mentally.
He did worse to Australian rugby fans.
When we returned, he didn’t even have enough respect for the Australian rugby community to front up for an official press conference at RA Headquarters. Instead, he dictated terms and spoke at Coogee Oval, where he felt comfortable.
He didn’t wear Wallabies’ colours either or stand anywhere near a media board, starving RA’s poor sponsors of more of the exposure they missed when his side bombed out in the pool stages for the first time ever.
I drunk the cool-aid and got it incredibly wrong. But really, we should have had England’s World Cup.
We weren’t as good as the top few sides, but the draw was in our favour and if we picked the right squad and played the right rugby, we should have been in Marseille for the Quarter Finals and potentially in Paris a week later.
But we weren’t and as it stands, we’re no longer a top rugby nation.
It’s painful to write and I imagine equally as painful to read, but it’s reality.
We have four years to turn things around or it could be game over. This time, potentially forever.
Rugby in Australia has been in positions like this before and found a way back. But bold decisions are needed and needed quickly.
While we have four years to turn things around, we have 18 months to get ready for a British and Irish Lions tour.
Decisions made in the coming days and weeks are going to be vital for the future of our game. Here’s some food for thought.
Revert to three Super Rugby teams
It’s a slightly nuclear option, but the only thing I think any Australian rugby sides can be focussed on right now, is winning.
Winning gets bums on seats and eyeballs on TVs.
Nothing else matters.
Expansion is a luxury sports like the AFL and NRL can enjoy in Australia as a result of years of strong management. We’re a long way from that right now.
The Force must go. Maybe not forever, but a Perth franchise is a luxury Australian rugby can’t afford right now. If you look at the Force squad from 2023, it’s largely filled with internationals and young players under the age of 25.
It’s hard to find more than one or two players who you could honestly say are potentially world class in the next two years.
Of their signings for 2024, excluding Harry Potter, most have been discarded by their former Super Rugby club.
Melbourne also need to go. Again, not forever but right now we need to take the talent from the Rebels and Force and bolster the three other franchises and turn the Tahs, Reds and Brumbies into teams that can not just compete against New Zealand’s Super Rugby teams, but beat them regularly.
If the end outcome of any activity doesn’t revolve around winning rugby games now, then we need to ignore it.
It’s not popular, or ideal, but it’s literally the definition of insanity to do the same thing over and over again and expect a different outcome.
If we want to maintain a presence in Melbourne and Perth, then why not play a Super Rugby Magic Round on alternate years in both cities until we get things back on track.
Embrace rugby’s globalisation
South Africa have embraced rugby as a global game, largely at the expense of their domestic teams, and they are now the most successful rugby nation of all time.
Sure, they are uniquely positioned in the world in a way Australia or New Zealand are not, but we can’t ignore the fact that whatever the Saffa’s are doing is working.
Some of Australia’s best players will need to play overseas and they will most likely be better players for it.
I’d like to see Rugby Australia build partnerships with clubs in Europe, the UK and Japan. If there’s ever any money, they should buy small stakes in clubs.
If we had a partnership, or some equity in a Top 14 club, with an Australian or two somewhere on the coaching staff, RA could stay connected with players playing in France, ideally at a partner club, without footing their entire wage.
The Australian coach is also ideally positioned to stay on top of the latest trends in international rugby to help better prepare Australian sides to play against the rest of the world.
As an extension of this, I think every Super Rugby club should have a sister club in a top competition somewhere else in the world.
Instead of stacking our Super Rugby squads with 21 and 22 year olds who aren’t ready to beat New Zealand’s best, we could keep them contracted to Rugby Australia, but loan them to clubs in Europe and the UK while they develop.
The player gets exposure to different styles of rugby and gets to play in a top or secondary league while the sister club foots some or all of their wage.
That opens up room for Australia’s Super Rugby club’s to spend their wage bill on older, developed players who are ready to win, now.
After the Wallabies World Cup campaign came to an end, Australia’s French based assistant coach Pierre-Henry Broncan said the following of Australia’s young squad.
“They are not used to working under pressure, to maintaining precision and concentration. They are used to working at high intensity, that’s not the problem, but it’s the precision that’s lacking.”
Prior to that, I don’t think I’ve ever heard an Australian rugby coach talk about precision.
We talk about speed, skill, power and discipline, all of which are important, but we never mention precision.
Precision, not skill, is the real difference between catching a ball under pressure or dropping it and bombing a try.
Precision, not power or discipline, is the real difference between cleaning a player out or hitting him high and getting a red card.
Ireland and France did this particularly well. It wasn’t so much the speed, or the skill or the power they played with, but it was the fact that they were precise in everything they did.
Cut spending, unless it helps us win now
Remember Rugby Australia’s ad campaign before the World Cup?
A few light hearted skits, with he who shall not be named, hoping to win over the hearts and minds of the Australian public.
That’s a few hundred thousand we won’t see again.
Winning is the only thing that will help Australian rugby win back hearts and minds.
We need to win back the Australian rugby community first though, before we start thinking about the wider population.
But if we win, they will come.
RA’s private equity deal is looking less and less likely as the weeks go on. It’ll happen eventually but we may be best to wait. So money is going to be tight and every cent of it needs to be spent on winning rugby games.
Put up RA HQ on AirBnB to fund it if we have to.
We need to turn things around on the field before we think about anything else.