Ahoy there Cobbers!
I pen these thoughts mid afternoon on Monday, in a wierd, vibey haze induced no doubt mostly by the sleep deprivation of the weekend just passed, multiplied by the beef kebab for lunch, offset by the grainy, semi-cold flat white from the angry barista in the downstairs foyer area of our multi-level and multi-business office block. So things are a bit surreal for me right now. And thus I implore you to go a bit easy on me as linear thinking may not be my strong suit right now.
But what was decidedly not hazy of late was the quality of rugby on display over the weekend. All eight teams who rolled out across Saturday and Sunday night (Sydney time) to contest over silly white balls with dimensions of no fatter than 197.4mm, no longer than 300mm and no heavier than 450gr (good trivia stuff there!), were of such a genuine quality that I don’t think anyone could truly dispute their worthiness. I even say that about England as, while they clearly had limitations, they recognised those limitations, worked out a way around them and still got the job done. That, and they were good enough to beat the Fijians, who were good enough to beat us. There’s that inconvenient bit of truth as well.
But my chagrin aside, all the matches were enticing, all the matches were enthralling. All the matches ‘went down to the wire’ and demonstrated the raw beauty, power, speed, passion, precision and skill that go into that unique mix of brutal subtlety that permeates, defines and distinguishes our game from others.
And among all that quality, it was also empirically clear just how far behind, how distant from the mark, how removed are we and our Wobblies from standing as equals in such ranks.
I know folk like to say the margins separating winners from losers in today’s hyper-competitive arenas have never been finer than they are now. Frankly, I don’t like that sort of chat because it makes it too easy to pass off defeat as a ‘near miss’ and so be minimised or regarded as inconsequential. I liken that thinking to be as helpful as the giving out of participation trophies.
But even if I agree to play along in recognising that game of minimising defeat as one of millimetre differences, I would hazard a guess that we forget millimetres and recognise instead that we are full centimetres off where we need to be to even just compete reliably, let alone win.
With that in mind, and with a weather eye out for Eddie Jones purported press conference due Tuesday morning (after I publish), I find myself returning to my topic of last week and the absence of senior, strategic leadership within our domestic game and the obviously question that stems from it: why is our premier playing group so far off the mark? Are the Wobblies physically incapable? No. Clearly no. Our forwards are just as big and our backs just as fast as others. Are the Wobblies and Australian Rugby chronically short of talented cattle? No. The sheer mass of Aussies playing in the ranks of opposing countries at the World Cup demonstrates that.
So why are we so far from where we need to be as a competitive nation? Because we’ve had no plan or structures by which to be even near the mark where we need to be. We don’t even know what good looks like let alone have a plan to get there.
And where does accountability for that lie? At the top, my lovelies. At the very top. The RA board.
For those who missed it, last week I took a pretty square aim at the RA board for a number of things, but mostly for existing in a vacuum in which there’s no feedback or review mechanism whereby the board is judged on performance by us – the actual true rugby shareholders in this country. My core question was that, given the board effectively did not answer to us (or effectively anyone really), was it any surprise their strategy is ill-defined and their performance opaque at best?
What I’m doing today is again highlighting that failure of the RA board to fulfil its basic reason for existence: to provide organisational and strategic leadership alongside a governance structure, and then holding an executive group to account for delivering it. Why? Because that lack of strategic vision, that complete lack of a plan, clue or even a vaguely decipherable aspiration, was evidenced glaringly on the weekend just gone. How so? As even the most casual observer putting an eye over the weekend’s contestants in France would no sooner have put the Wobblies in that mix as they would let their own child participate in the annual running of the bulls in Pamplona. Why would that be? Because the outcome would only be good for safety inductions and YouTube clips.
To be clear, I don’t doubt our lads’ hearts or bravery. For that matter, I don’t doubt their pectoral muscles or their supremely well honed fast-twitch fibres either. Nor do I doubt their ability to train well in the rarefied atmospheres of exquisitely well kitted-out gymnasiums, or attain demi-god-like KPIs for 10 metre sprints or burpees or double-round-out-flick-flaks worthy of Nadia Comăneci on a training field.
But when I saw on display over the weekend not just the raw athleticism but the rugby nous, the tactics employed within tactics, the intelligence to recognise an opponent’s game plan and a referee’s pedantry, and more importantly, the ability to respond to an opponent’s play and shift your own tactics accordingly, I was forced to acknowledge the full depth of our demise at its most stark reality.
Frankly, I’m happy we weren’t on those French fields over the weekend, against any of those opponents, because I fear the result would have been mortifying if we were.
So again, here today I question the raison d’être of the RA board. And in doing so, I ask is the current board doing its job? And if not, then for what it’s worth, I say they should resign en masse. I’d suggest two tranches: one group to resign immediately as a show of contrition and intent (I won’t bother with ‘good faith’), and the other in (say) twelve months time after replacements have been identified, whatever paltry handover there is was done (like where did someone hide the liquor cabinet key), and most importantly, RA’s governing framework has been changed to recognise and institute some accountability and feedback mechanism to the grassroots rugby ranks of Australia.
Some may say that I’m being harsh. Some may say the folk on the board are good folk, undeserving of such criticism. To that I say they probably are good and well-meaning folk. They probably do work hard. And they’ve likely been good servants to Aussie rugby. But I’ll still ask, what did they work hard at? To what ends have they been a good servant? What have they achieved? What is their legacy as we stand here staring at the dystopian, factionalised, distrustful wasteland that rugby in Australia finds itself in?
You see, someone can swing a hammer at a block of granite all day, and that’s working hard surely. But if it isn’t achieving anything, if the rock is still blocking the road, then what’s the point in just keeping on swinging the hammer? And if someone were hired to move the granite block out of the road, and all they’re doing is standing there swinging a hammer, then I don’t care how hard they have worked (or trained), they haven’t fulfilled the brief.
So while I was entertained by the quality of rugby on display over the weekend to the point where my cup did surely runneth over, I was also primed in equal measure to a level of sadness when considering our own current parlous level of play. This was followed by a level of resolution that our only way out of this mire is to start with a clear plan and vision regarding who, what and where rugby is in Australia, where it’s going, why, and how we’re going to get there.
And that sort of clarity in vision and strategy comes from the board.
And the board has, self evidently, not been delivering.
So they need to go.