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It's time for Rugby Australia to look at themselves

By Nick Turnbull
Michael Hooper. (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

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Saturday October 19, 2019. England 40-16 Australia. A day when reality and delusion met for the highest echelons of Australian rugby.


The delusion – four years of rhetoric from failed Wallabies coach Michael Cheika further espoused by Rugby Australia essentially stating that that the Wallabies were heading in the right direction.

The reality – they simply were not good enough and have not been in the four-year World Cup cycle since 2015.

While it is easy to become vultures of opinion, picking over what little scraps are left of the dead Wallaby carcass after the weekend’s mauling at the hands of England, it is vitally important to understand the signposts of failure have been present for some time, that the Wallabies were living in an alternate rugby dimension void of reality prior to their exit from the World Cup.

In 2016, a humiliating 3-0 home series defeat to England; in 2017 a 2-1 home series defeat to Ireland, two losses to Scotland coupled with defeats to Wales and Argentina, sides that the Wallabies had previously enjoyed superiority over were cogent evidence that the Wallabies were failing not forging ahead as the rhetoric may have suggested.

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Some may point to the Wallabies defeat of the All Blacks 47-26 in Perth during this year’s Rugby Championship to refute such a slide, yet the reality is it was a one-off victory where Australia faced a New Zealand side that were not mentally attuned for that game, and when they faced off at Eden Park a week later in the Bledisloe decider, water found its level and the Wallabies were humiliated 36-0 by an All Blacks team who this time came to play.

Although Cheika has several great attributes as a coach, including passion, loyalty and desire, a legacy of his tenure as Wallabies coach will be his abject failure to take Australia from unlikely World Cup runners-up in 2015 and progress them into a serious global powerhouse.

Complicit in such an outcome has been Rugby Australia, who have also adjectively failed to curb the rot and allowed Michael Cheika and his Wallabies to master mediocrity in this World Cup cycle.

It would appear prior to leaving for Japan, RA, Cheika and the Wallabies would have you believe that there was a united front heading towards Rugby World Cup 2019.


The reality is, as it has now been made public, that RA chief executive Raelene Castle and Cheika don’t really have a working relationship, and Cheika’s relationship with Cameron Clyne, chairman of the union, does not appear much better.

The first question is why?

The second question is how long have these relationships been allowed to deteriorate?

The third being what affect has this souring of relationships between the parties had on the Wallabies and Australian rugby?

In any event, any business worth its salt should not be appearing united to its shareholders selling the ‘all is well message’, when the truth is that all is far from well at the higher echelons of RA.

There appears to be a lack of both moral courage and an ability to act upon it in a timely manner woven into the administration of the game of rugby in Australia.

They appear to be an organisation that champions diversity but no transparency. The mediocre performance of the Wallabies at this World Cup is the fruit such duplicity bears.

RA can point to the recent performances of the Australian U18 side’s defeat of New Zealand 18-14 in Hamilton last month, but that is only the fourth time the Australians have won since 2008, while the U20’s painful 24-23 loss to France in the final of this year’s World Rugby Championship was the first time they have made the final since 2010.

Both sides deserve praise, but can anyone argue that there is evidence of sustained generational improvement in junior Australian rugby?

Some elder statesmen of Australian rugby have been quietly arguing for now decades that since the abandonment of the National Coaching Committee in 1996, the nation has declined in its skill base, and such a loss is ultimately affecting the Wallabies’ performances.

Former Wallabies skipper and twice World Cup-winner Phil Kearns is in unison with such thinking when he stated on Fox Sports: “Our coaching for the last 15-20 years has been terrible, not just at Wallaby level, I’m talking about juniors and the skills that we teach them, the way we ask them to play the game.

“We teach this shape and pattern and structure and process which is all rubbish, because if you can’t catch and pass and kick and tackle, you can’t play the game.”

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RA and Cheika can’t hide from this issue. On May 25, 2017, Rugby Australia largely confirmed that the reimplementation of such a National Coaching Committee should occur.

In fact, Cheika said: “We’re committed to setting up a national coaching panel.

“We have set some sort of time frames around establishment of the panel,” he said on the timings of the establishment of such a panel.

“I’ve been dying to say 100 days because that’s what every American president says.

“Whatever that time is, three and a bit months, we could actually have something set up.

“No matter how you want to play the game, whether you want to play 10-man rugby, running rugby or do whatever, there’s some key fundamentals in how we’ve done things over the years and how we’d like to continue to do them.

“We’ll decide what’s in that structure of fundamentals because we certainly don’t want to play one style of footy all around.

“We want the diversity of game going on and just to support the whole coaching structure, so we’re getting better coaches and coaches from the very junior level, like commencing the under-6’s level.”

It is now 2019 and there is still not any semblance of a National Coaching Panel, as per its successful predecessor, the National Coaching Committee.

Again, the question has to be asked as to why that is?

Is this not yet another example of RA saying they will do one thing and simply failing to deliver, doing so in an alarmingly fundamental aspect of the progress of this game in this country?

“That is the way we play footy. I am not going to a kick-and-defend game,” Cheika said of his ball-in-hand style the Wallabies have employed under his reign following Saturday’s defeat to England.

“Call me naive, but that’s not what I am doing. I would rather win playing our way, that’s the way Aussies want us to play.”

Yet, two years ago, he quipped: “We’ll decide what’s in that structure of fundamentals because we certainly don’t want to play one style of footy all around.”

If these comments are not in conflict with each other, they certainly invite incoherence to the audience.

He wants to win the way Australians desire, whatever that is, yet won’t entertain a kick-defend game, but does not want to play one style of rugby all-around. It is as confusing as his selection policy.

In light of Cheika not seeking a further term as Wallabies coach, attention is now drawn to who will be his successor, but isn’t that a little bit premature?

Shouldn’t RA first be reviewed on its performance within this World Cup cycle before being allowed to make such a crucial decision of who will take the Wallabies to the 2023 World Cup in France?

But who should do it?

Well, clearly anyone who isn’t currently employed or hasn’t been employed by RA between 2015 and now should be a non-negotiable.

Perhaps the now exposed RA should allow its entire governance, systems and processes to be reviewed by a genuinely independent body or group, because whatever they are doing hasn’t worked for the Wallabies.

It’s easy to say ‘set up a body’, but there is expertise in Australia to do so, as we have seen such reviews in the governance of Cricket Australia, which has led to a clean-out in poor culture and has fostered an ethical winning environment in that sport.

As for selecting the next Wallabies coach, why leave that to this current administration? They do not deserve the confidence of such a seminal appointment.

The name David Rennie has been doing the rounds for some time as the next coach, but why?

Does Rennie have any international coaching experience in the men’s game? It does not appear so.

Apart from coaching New Zealand at an U20 level over a decade ago, the current coach of Glasgow has no experience in the contemporary international scene, yet somehow is being reported as the favoured candidate to rebuild a failing program, win a Rugby Championship, reclaim the Bledisloe and Cook Cups, and guide the Wallabies to a third World Cup crown.

Rennie may have won a Super Rugby title, but Cheika also won provincial tournaments in both hemispheres prior to his appointment with RA, and those outstanding achievements did not necessarily transfer into international success with the Wallabies.

If RA can’t implement a National Coaching Panel, surely it can implement a panel of former successful coaches to select the next Wallabies coach?

However, I’m fairly sure this well never happen, as it appears RA can’t see itself as part of the issue that ails the game in this country, and until that is addressed, I don’t expect sustained success in Australian rugby to come anytime soon.

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