Australian rugby teams have been mostly awful this year, but there’s a plan to turn things around, and it starts with a Super Rugby overhaul. Tim Murphy reports.
Don’t feel sorry for Australian rugby. Don’t feel pity for its pitiful season. Don’t give the buggers a break.
Because they’re already plotting their comeback. Root, branch and Aussie ruthlessness.
Having spent last weekend in Brisbane attending the Wallabies vs Springboks test match and talking to rugby fans and administrators about the big hole the sport’s fallen into – it’s clear the Super Rugby failures and a test season of five losses and one (narrow) win have focused their minds.
There weren’t that many fans at the magnificent Suncorp Stadium for the South African test. Torrential rain in the hours before the game would have kept many walk-up punters at home. Even so, at just on 30,000 people in the 52,500 capacity stands, it was a poor cousin to the previous night’s 43,000 for a local club league derby for the Broncos and Titans.
The Wallaby fans are an unforgiving bunch. Yes, they’re all draped in those sickly gold scarves (they gave them away in the pre-match I was in, and I wore mine just in case I misbehaved later that night around the bars of Caxton St), but they can be as sarcastic and damning as anyone. That said, if the All Blacks had a loss or two we’d probably find the Kiwi talkbackers rediscovering their venom.
Union is a lesser code, of course, across the ditch. And one supporter’s strident complaint that Australia had kicked ‘too early in the count’ kind of showed league’s omnipresence. It makes it hard to compete, especially when the Super Rugby sides fail AND the test side is so average.
The Wallabies won a pretty dire test 23-17, showing some fight to come back from 14-3. It was hard, really, to pick anyone as man of the match. Perhaps the new 21 year-old winger Reece Hodge, whose booming boot and committed running stood out.
And winning, however ugly, brought blessed relief around Suncorp and the law firms and investment banks of Australia. The World Cup final loss to the All Blacks, three losses to England and two more against New Zealand, one a humiliation, had come to an end.
Relief turned pretty quickly to a hint of cockiness. Everyone was talking up the significance of retaining the Mandela Trophy. No one mentioned how little organisation, how little penetration in the midfield or out-wide, South Africa brought to the match. The Cooper-Foley combo in the inside backs is seen as the solution; Genia is now the man.
The bigger picture is that the sport is getting a grip on its woes. It does comparatively well financially, despite its ranking in the codes. Last week the ARU signed up a record A$2m in sponsorships. Qantas is patiently hanging in there, waiting for take-off.
One of the marketing and profile initiatives rugby is launching (with New Zealand-based events firm Duco) is the Brisbane Global Tens – a February weekend festival involving all ten Australasian Super Rugby sides, plus the Bulls from South Africa, and Toulon out of France, Panasonic Wild Knights from Japan and the Samoan national side. It will become a starting point, almost a launch, for Super Rugby and its 28 matches over the two days give rugby in Australia an early TV profile.
Away from the field, the Aussies are already talking openly about rationalising their five Super franchises. Queensland Reds chief executive Richard Barker says discussions have begun between the clubs and the national union. “We can discuss whether we could come back from the five franchises and some discussions are starting about that.”
What that signals is Australia is self-aware and knows its talent is spread too thin, its lack of depth exposed, and that is harming Super and international rugby chances. Three Australian teams, the Reds, Rebels and Force, finished in the bottom three spots of the Australasian conference.
“We have got some changes in Australian rugby and I’ve had meetings with New South Wales and Bill Pulver [the national union chief executive] and we know we’ve got to work more collaboratively.
“The structure that New Zealand has…. There are some lessons for all of us.”
He’s referring there to the NZR’s direct interest in the success of the Super sides, and its coordination and collaboration with the franchises.
Barker himself is new to the scene. He has just taken over at the Reds after a career in media, most lately as General Manager of Southern Cross-Austereo, a successful radio company. A former No. 6, he is from a big rugby family, having played for Queensland Country against the All Blacks in 1984, and is upbeat, a charismatic communicator and realistic about what lies ahead.
The Reds organisation has had something of a cleanout – new executives and coaching team – after a disappointing 15th place of the 18 sides competing this year. Its determination to decisively put the ship right is indicative of the Australian sports mind-set.
Barker sums it up: “Everyone likes a winner. Australians jump off pretty quickly if you don’t.”
If they are serious about coordinating their efforts and streamlining their number of teams, watch out. Even before this test, a DJ in the pre-match within the stands at Suncorp was playing Queen’s ‘We are the Champions’. Mad. Ballsy. Irrepressible.
But give them an inch. Even a poor test win over a poor Springboks side. And they’ll take a mile.
Tim Murphy was invited across the ditch by the Brisbane Global Tens