I write this in the aftermath of our 40-6 humiliation by Wales in RWC2023 to officially make this Bill our worst on record. I’m angry. So forgive me if I’m somewhat blunt or a little inaccurate as my fingers shake. I’ll go back and re-read once I’ve calmed down.
But while part of me is indeed heartbroken, part of me also knew this day was coming. In fact, part of me WANTED us to be sent home from the pools as I couldn’t bear another 2015 wherein a ‘good’ World Cup result was enough for everyone to paper over the glaring deficiencies in our domestic game. We needed this.
Firstly, congratulations Wales. Welsh rugby has had its own well-documented issues. But when it counted, they stood up and did their jobs. Against us, we saw a team who were hardly flash or spectacular, but who had the wherewithal to feel us out, exploit our frailties and leave us floundering like fish on a river bank: flapping around working hard, but achieving nothing. So full balls to them and theirs (and to Fiji of course).
As for us, much is being, and will be, said by others more qualified than I in the coming days (what say you Matt Burke?). But even as a wee little fish of scant regard, I’ll still have my say as a player, a subs-payer and as one of those foolishly silly enough to still hold faith with my code and remember with fondness a game we once knew how to play.
And up front, I’ll also say that I truthfully don’t believe anyone gets up in the morning, looks in the mirror and says “Gee, I wonder how I can bugger things up today?” be they players, coaches or executive. But in that, I’m also reminded of my dad who would say “Boy, what’s done is done. All I can change is what happens next.” So beyond short-term recriminations and a regroup before we play Portugal, we need to ask some serious questions and find a serious path forward for our game.
We need a hard look in an unforgiving mirror.
The playing group: What we saw today was the culmination of 20 years of systematic dumbing-down of our players and play, from the very first levels of club coaching, through pathway selection, and all the way up to the once mighty Wallabies themselves. We saw this inflicted to the point where no one on that field today could even recognise the problems at play, let alone identify how to fix them or muster the troops to do so.
Specifically with our Wallabies what did we see? We saw the logical culmination of decades of ‘paint by numbers’, KPI/athletics based metrics that systematically exclude, deselect or train out any ability or intention among players to actually think, in favour of US Marines style ‘just do it’ automaton robotics who blindly follow the play-book over the cliff. God forbid we heed the lessons of Dwyer or McQueen and force an opposing defender to make a choice at any stage.
The result? We couldn’t manage to string together even one single thread of semi-intelligent play among the lot of them. We saw ourselves deconstructed to the point where we gave up a ruck penalty off the very first phase itself (Hooper). We saw a poorly positioned inside defender (Ducky) fall off a basic cover-defending tackle leading to the opening try. We saw, among other pearls, disregarding 3 points from directly in front of the sticks (Porecki). And I note the irony when this was criticised by none other than Michael Hooper himself in the aftermath. We saw line breaks where the carrier only looked one way (Ducky again). We saw attacking lineouts where players literally fell over each other (Frost and Leota) and the hooker threw it in anyway (Porecki). We saw wingers at first receiver (Koroibete) throw cut-out passes straight into touch. We saw restarts go out on the full, and other restart receptions go to mauls then lost to scrums. Do I need to continue? Because I can.
All up we saw lots of no doubt genuine effort, wrapped in rudderless ineptitude multiplied by non-existent cohesion and squared by a lack of a clue. What didn’t we see? Connection, confidence or anyone with a clue in how to tactically manage a game or lead men.
Ok, so what of the people who put them there and manage them?
The coaching group: Here we saw the most visible culmination of the Titanic-level disaster that was years in the making. Again, I don’t doubt their effort; Eddie Jones is apparently a very hard working man (so I’m told). But Eddie Jones 2.0 is Wobbly coach number 8 since 2000 (including EJ1.0), so I’m not sure what I was expecting. But I was certainly expecting some sort of social contract with we supporters. Most glaringly, I was hoping to see some clear game plan, or team selection methodology at least. However what we witnessed was a regime that created no gel, no flow, no tactical foundation, no confidence and no leadership. Regarding the coaching, here are some more specific thoughts in a somewhat random order:
- When we struggle with playmakers we decide to leave the two proven ones (Cooper and Lolesio) out completely for the likes of Gordon and Donaldson, neither of whom, while both clearly talented, had remotely demonstrated proficiency to warrant primacy of selection.
- We saw a host of players left out for being injured, but a host of others taken who were injured (and then got injured again).
- Our in-tournament training load was reportedly up to 50% heavier than other squads. When the tournament was actually on! Really?
- We saw how many captains exactly? So, who exactly is leading the squad? And the one leader we saw in action (QC after the Melbourne All Black loss) got cut.
- We saw big-game big talk about scrum and lineout and technical excellence, but then almost a total lack of specialty reserves (ie, if we’re short on tightheads, then where was Ollie Hoskins?).
- But then we see a gross over-investment in utility instead (eg Vunivalu and the palaver about Pietsch).
- We saw a coaching pack of how many? Which involved netball, chess and an array of mungo specialists, most of whom had what rugby credentials exactly? Why? Perhaps because they had all left the building. I wonder why.
- But most of all, we saw brash, unashamed arrogance from Boss Man Jones, dialled up to full blast, always shifting the focus, constantly castigating the unbelievers who dared to question his anointment, who talked about ‘accountability’ and ‘results’ and ‘smash and grab victory’ but who couldn’t deliver a bloody thing other than continual upset, dislocation and embarrassment. And whom, it turns out, seemed to be talking to others about his next gig.
What did we see? Lots to confuse, lots to question and lots that made no sense with absolutely zero avenues to answer such questions. What didn’t we see? Consistency, confidence, development of player skills or any team cohesion.
Ok, so that’s the crew of the Titanic. What about those who designed and floated her?
Executive leadership: Most importantly for me, over the last 20 years we have seen an executive body that continually relied on smoke & mirrors and snake oil sales tactics to escape serious addressing of foundational buttressing of our game. To me, this is where the true culpability lies. Why? Because these are the guys (and gals) who lead the show, set the tone, plot the course and who carrot/stick those who execute at the tactical level. I’m reminded of the immortal words of John Connolly: “I don’t blame you son, I blame the dickhead who picked you.”
Simply consider that since 2000 we have seen 9 chairmen of Aussie Rugby (be it ARU or RA), matched by having 9 CEOs alongside them. That’s not even 2.5 years each for all of them. Really? That revolving door is the basis of our leadership and vision? That’s not leadership, that’s just embarrassing. But it also tells us things.
Let’s call out some truth: it was common knowledge that we (as in Aussie rugby) had more than $40 million in cash in the old ARU coffers after the BIL 2001 tour and RWC2003. And we saw all that evaporate under the leadership of CEOs Flowers, O’Neill and Pulver alongside Chairmen Tuckey through to Hawker. It was such a time of spending that it left poor ‘ol Billy Pulver to muster the audacity only bankers possess to impose direct levies on grassroots club warriors in 2014, via their subs, to keep the game afloat. Be clear, those lads between them lost/spent/misplaced 40 big ones in under 10 years, in what was (is) still an overwhelmingly amateur game. And somehow that was ajudged as fine, ok, acceptable; no one went to gaol. And THESE were the guys who then took money away from grassroots rugby because they thought clubs would ‘just piss it up against the wall’. Fair dinkum.
Seriously, did someone have their hand directly in the till? Or were our masters and betters just not paying attention to who did? I’m not sure which scenario is worse. But either way, there’s living and breathing governance and long-term planning for you, eh.
Now, folk may say I’m living in the past and question why am I still cross at them. Well it’s because it was those folk who set the scene for today. But don’t worry, our current mob aren’t exactly covering themselves in glory either. How so? A quick list may be useful:
- We still see no recognisable 3rd tier to develop and warehouse talent.
- Meanwhile our losses of male talent to overseas and rival codes is only surpassed by the rate of knots by which we lose women to NRLW and AFLW.
- We have zero free-to-air presence. Everything is behind paywalls. Exclusionary much?
- We have an absolute absence of coaching development pathways. That shows.
- We have an absolute absence of referee pathways. That also shows.
- We refuse to move the game into new demographics. I won’t flog western Sydney again today.
- We refuse to move the game into new geographies. Well I tried not to…
- All we seem to see or care about is the continuing infatuation with shrinking pockets of east-coast bluebloods to the exclusion of all else.
- Need I go on?
And in the midst of all that garbage, we see self-aggrandising, echo-chambered, backslapping, wherein our National Leader says and does things like:
- Sack Dave Rennie over Zoom (classy) less than 12 months before a World Cup because a shiny new toy popped up, unwanted, in an English pawn shop window. Step forward Eddie Jones.
- Actually speaks about the above behaviour with pride on national radio saying “I would rather we have somebody who’s really tough and we win World Cups, than we have a Kumbaya session, everyone holds hands and we fail.” Well, how did that work out for us?
- Promises (or at least signs-off) $5 million of money we don’t have for a private school, league player but yet won’t muster some shekels to get a few Wallaroos back home who’re stuck in Canada.
- Has public slagathons with rival codes (Peter V’landys).
- Pontificates that “The profile of rugby has gone through the roof already and fans, sponsors and players will react accordingly” and then tells others that if they don’t like how the Wobblies are going, that we shouldn’t watch, as though WE are the ones with the problem who need to be castigated and cast off.
- Then as late as last week, our Leader tries some ‘whataboutism’ and a real-time gaslight shift to say ‘Oh well, y’know, it’s all about 2027 anyway…’ after all the
pulverpalaver to sack and pay out first Izzy Folau (again because of lack of governance basics) and then Dave Rennie and all the big talk about ‘smash and grab’ of World Cup victories! I guess I’m just lucky I didn’t shell $15-20k to go to France.
And this is just the screamingly obvious public stuff. True watchers of our game know I have barely scratched the surface here.
Imagine the conversation with a major sponsor or private equity investor right about now. Tell me, McHamish, in return for my investment, about how you’ve grown the game. Tell me about your successes. Tell me about how you’re future-proofing your sport. Christ Almighty, we’d do better to send in Beavis and Butthead to convince folk we could ‘score’ at least something, and are a serious and viable entity in the world’s toughest sports market.
Conclusion: I can rail all I want, it doesn’t change where we are. So, channelling my old man again, what do we change?
We consistently show we have talent. We consistently show we can get an audience. We have those things seemingly in spite of ourselves. But what do we need?
For a start, we need no more bravado please. No more grandiose promises or snake-oil peddling by loud mouthed used-car salesmen. Let’s have a taste of facta non verba quiet dignity and humility for a while, just for something different, yeh?
Secondly, at a really basic, fundamental level, we desperately need to move away from the top down, Sydney-centric, paternal/patronising wagon circling. We’ve been fed ‘top down’ crap for too long and we’re over it.
What is needed is an effort that genuinely grows the game. An engagement that recognises there is a whole country beyond ANZAC Parade. Something to stimulate a groundswell of numbers, participation and community that will bring wider engagement. Wider engagement will bring sponsors and more people. That momentum brings sustainable, authentic success up and through, built on a solid foundation. You want an example? Look at AFL. Forget just the grassroots. They own the whole subterrania up. You want the opposite example? Look at the hollowing-out of the mungo pyramid and what happens to your playing base and ranks when you only focus on the top.
From THAT we will at least have a game that goes forward, takes folk on a journey and to which they can belong. And then it will win more than it loses. If not, we get to remain the embodiment of Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Emperor’s new clothes’ but with the added complication that the crowd knows the joke and aren’t laughing.
Who’ll lead that change? McHamish? Phil Waugh? I doubt it. Why? Because they and their ilk all come from the same rarified, self-congratulatory, insular cliquedom that built this house of cards in the first place. What’s needed is a breath of fresh air:
- Someone who appreciates the game and its romance, but isn’t an ex-Wallaby with a swag of mates to square up.
- Someone who knows the halls and denizens of power, can navigate them, but who isn’t beholden to them. In fact, someone who puts the frighteners into them would be best.
- Someone who has a bit of leadership vision, the will and the track record to build something out of wreckage, because that’s where they’re starting.
- Any takers?