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‘If I want to take it seriously…’: The foreign threat to Australian rugby

By Finn Morton
(Eddie Jones photo by Julian Finney - World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images) (Miles Amatosero photo by THIERRY ZOCCOLAN/AFP via Getty Images) (Joseph Suaalii photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

Eddie Jones is a proud Australian. Jones was supposed to be the saviour that the Wallabies so desperately needed ahead of the Rugby World Cup, but the Aussies went on to finish their year with a woeful record of seven losses from nine starts.

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On an infamous September night in Lyon, coach Jones looked sad, frustrated and almost embarrassed after the Wallabies’ record 40-6 defeat to Wales at OL Stadium. With the Wallabies on the cusp of a pool stage exit, it was the darkest night in Australian rugby history.

Jones spoke, quite uncharacteristically, with a monotone speech as the pain of defeat continued to sink in. With the weight of a nation resting on his shoulders, Jones apologised to the Australian rugby public.

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“Our performance was not up to the standard that was required. I apologise for that. I take full responsibility for it,” Jones told reporters. “We do some good things and then fall away. It’s very disappointing.”

But that defeat was just another checkpoint in the Wallabies’ fall into the depths of despair. Following long-lasting rumours, Jones officially resigned as Australia’s head coach two days after the Rugby World Cup final.

Jones’s resignation brought an end to a drawn-out process that’s left Australian rugby in a bad place. Amidst rumours of a reunion with Japan’s Brave Blossoms, Jones has bailed from the Wallabies’ sinking ship.

But put down your pitchforks and torches. Take a step back and breathe.

While it would be easy to point the finger at Jones after being blinded by the frustration of the Wallabies’ diabolical form this year, it would also be naïve.

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There’s a systemic issue that’s plaguing the Wallabies. Jones is only one man, and no mere mortal could stop the Australian rugby giant from falling as hard as they have.

Jones said it himself after the loss to Wales: “It’s not only the Wallabies we have got to improve, we’ve got to treat the whole system of Australian rugby.

“It’s not an excuse but we’ve got to have a really good look at ourselves and see what we’ve got to do to improve.”

Australian rugby has been left scarred by a lack of professional pathways and player development for far too long. This issue is starting to evolve into something much more concerning than once feared, too.

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There was a consistent narrative in Australian media this year that Jones and Rugby Australia chairman Hamish McLennan were trying to lure NRL stars ‘back’ to the 15-player game.

The likes of Joseph Suaalii, Angus Crichton, Cam Murray and Payne Haas have all been in the headlines, and all four players have a history in rugby union.

Losing generational talent to the NRL has almost begrudgingly become an accepted way of life in Australian rugby. It’s an issue, and one that may never go away, but it’s not the only problem hurting the sport Down Under.

Even the most passionate Wallabies fans may not be aware of the bigger issue at play. Forget about the NRL for a second; Australian rugby is competing with a new foreign threat to retain its own talent.

France are the three-time defending U20 World Championships winners. They foster rugby talent better than any other nation in the world, and their success has caught the attention of some Aussies.

Australian Miles Amatosero played high school rugby in Sydney but decided to sign for Clermont in 2020. The 21-year-old has been a revelation for the French powerhouse in the years since.

Amatosero will return to Australia’s shores after inking a deal with the New South Wales Waratahs for next season, with the towering lock signing as a marquee addition to the forward pack.

While it’s impossible to know whether Amatosero would’ve followed such a fast-tracked rise to stardom if he’d stayed in Australia, a foregone conclusion can be made.

Playing in France is simply a better option for young players.

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New Zealand-born prop Uini Atonio is another prime example of a player who couldn’t find opportunity domestically but rose to superstar status after taking his talents to the Top 14.

This is a genuine pathway for young players nowadays, and it might even be the future of the sport unless the likes of Rugby Australia can address their own pressing issues. Australian rugby is in dire need of that review.

Toshi Butlin and Aiden Stait were both part of Super Rugby academies in Australia but decided to head north to Europe after receiving the opportunity of a lifetime with French juggernauts.

Butlin, 18, was part of the Queensland Reds Academy and played in Brisbane State High’s First XV for two years in the state’s prestigious GPS competition.

But for an emerging talent who wants “to take it seriously” after leaving the high school system in Brisbane, a move to the northern hemisphere was too good to turn down.

Training in a professional French set-up is lightyears ahead of the pathway systems in Australia. Butlin was training for four hours a week in Brisbane, and is now matching that on a daily basis in France.

The Reds were “very supportive and aware” of Butlin’s decision to sign with Pau-based club Section Paloise, with the Queenslander currently training the house down with their academy.

While Butlin still dreams of one day pulling on Wallaby gold, the teenager has no regrets about making the move away from family, friends and loved ones.

“I understood where I sat in the Reds system. Under 18 Academy with other boys straight out of school and obviously, there’s people before me that have graduated – there’s probably Aussie Schoolboys and people before me,” Butlin told RugbyPass.

“The opportunity to train full-time in a professional setup like the Reds is something that’s very scarce for boys like me, or just lots of boys my age where there’s a big pool of us and only a few selection people that are straight into, not the Academy, but the next level.

“From school into outside of school, there’s a big drop in the amount of training you do. At Brothers, a great club, you only train twice a week.

“Straight from school and training lots, you go into Colts footy where we had no gym sessions during the week. There are only two field sessions that are probably like two hours each, so four hours a week of footy.

“For me, if I want to take it seriously, I have to be playing more than just four hours a week.

“This opportunity here, I’m training in a full-time setup, so I’m training every single day. I’m at the training centre for four hours each day so it’s already so much more footy.

“On the side of that, being able to train in a professional setup this young full-time, but if I do the three years here I get the eligibility as a French player which is very valuable.

“I still haven’t really thought too far into the future. Obviously, the goal is to play Wallabies and your chance to do that is to play Super Rugby but the game changes.

“If I’m counted as a French player then my opportunities here… I’m in a bigger pool of players… it just gives more opportunities.

“It’s life experience as well so it gives you a different pathway so be in a professional setup earlier than I would be if I stayed in Australia.”

As a teenager, Butlin packed his bags and made the “tough” decision to move out of home in the pursuit of his rugby dream.

Butlin’s manager sent a highlight reel to clubs including Stade Francais and European champions La Rochelle, but Section Paloise were “very eager” to sign the youngster and that’s what won him over.

“I have to be playing more than just four hours a week.”

The speedy outside-back hadn’t played a game for his new club at the time of this conversation but already felt that he was a better player after just three months in France.

“There’s much more detail over here I guess,” Butlin added. “In a Colts system (in Australia), obviously it’s not a professional set up… what more can they do really with what they have?

“Being able to be in a professional setup early, just being around professionals as well, you learn off them.

“It’s very challenging though… the best way you learn is being put into a difficult situation.

“I haven’t been able to play yet but I’m much more physically developed and (so is my) rugby IQ.”

Butlin isn’t alone. In a rugby world that lacks opportunity and direction for young players in Australia, the decision to sign for a French academy is a no-brainer.

Much like Butlin, 19-year-old Aiden Stait is another emerging talent who has been lost to Australian rugby for at least the next few years.

Stait played rugby league for practically his entire life – all but three games, in fact, before moving to France – which included a stint with the St George Dragons’ SG Ball team.

The New South Welshman, who stands at more than two metres tall, was “all league” before missing out on the Dragons’ extension squad.

It was a personal disappointment for a youngster who only ever dreamed of playing NRL. But when one door closes, another opens.

Stait received the first message that would ultimately change his life as the University of Sydney called on the teenager to join their rugby ranks.

“You’d be silly not to give union a crack,” Stait was told, so he accepted. Making the move from Bathurst in country NSW to Sydney was daunting, but it had to be done.

After completing pre-season, the second rower was struck down with “an unlucky run with injuries” including a stress fracture in his back and a dislocated shoulder.

Stait missed 12 games that season and only returned to play the last few for the third Colts side. But an opportunity to move abroad beckoned after his rugby league reel was sent to some of the best clubs in Europe.

The towering lock had Zoom calls with Lyon, Stade Francais and La Rochelle, but ended up joining the Bayonne Academy after signing a three-year deal.

“France, over here they live and breathe rugby. Wherever you walk someone will know you, someone will talk to you, it’s all rugby everywhere you look,” Stait told RugbyPass.

“In Australia, rugby is down. You’ve got AFL and NRL. In this World Cup, you go on social media and everything’s negative.

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“Even the academies, you go to the academies and I train three times a day and in Australia, we’ll train four to six in the afternoon.

“Don’t get me wrong, at Sydney Uni I learnt a lot but I’ve learned more here in the two months than I did at Sydney Uni purely just because of how many times we train and the work effort we put in.”

By his own admission, Stait “struggled” with the switch from rugby league to union. Off the kick-off in his first game, the forward instinctively ran back 10 metres in defence.

But at the same time, Stait was learning from the best in the state as a member of the NSW Waratahs Academy. A mutual contact sent the Sydney-based Super Rugby club Stait’s highlight reel, and it led to an incredible opportunity with Bayonne.

In his own words, “That was the hardest bit” about moving to France.

“The Waratahs, they’ve been good to me and they didn’t have to take me in and they did, so I was all for the Waratahs,” Stait added.

“I couldn’t go past the fact that France had just offered me to travel the world and play football in France.

“When I did some research… it all their academy, their pro system, their all-but new facilities. It was crazy how much more they live and breathe rugby over here.

“They said on the Zoom call, ‘If you’re willing to learn and work, you’ll be able to play professional rugby in two, three years.’

“If you weren’t good enough (in Australia) you were sure told that you weren’t good enough.”

Australian rugby is at a crossroads. With the Wallabies bowing out of the World Cup at the pool stage for the first time, the impending external review must be both thorough and significant.

Tough conversions must be had for important changes to be made.

While the introduction of Super Rugby u16s and u19s is a step in the right direction, sure, it’s also missing the point. For most of the year, these young Aussies are given next to no hope of developing as rugby players.

They’re better off going to France.

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Comments

10 Comments
Y
Yoon 203 days ago

It’s a bit off-topic, but all the support for rugby is at the club and Wallaby levels.
There are 28 top-tier clubs in Queensland, NSW, and ACT. Suppose half of them compete in a national Australian Rugby Championship with two top clubs from Victoria, SA, and WA. Then, we have a relegations-style competition across the rugby tribes of Australia.
Each state will have one relegated and promoted team each year. The QLD, NSW, and ACT must then promote their second division and country clubs to fill numbers and compete in their leagues. For example, subbies and NSW regional teams in Sydney will be promoted to Shute Shield to keep that league alive and promote regional and club rugby.
20-team Australian Rugby Championship. Where the supporters are at. 20 is a bit much, as the NRL doesn’t even have twenty, but it can be trimmed down here and there to make it work.

B
Bob Marler 224 days ago

Is it possible that Australians just don’t care that much about Rugby as they once did? Investment, effort and attention goes where the fans go, no?

P
Pecos 225 days ago

Sacking Rennie & appointing Eddie had nothing to do with a lack of pathways etc etc blah blah blah. It was simply a stupid decision. Rennie’s end of year 2022 record of wins v Wales & Scotland, a one pt loss to France, & a 3 pt loss to loss to Ireland look world beating compared to Eddie’s rubbish. Even the 1pt loss to Italy by a B team is acceptable. Rennie & his coaching team were on track to deliver a worthy Wallaby RWC performance.

Blaming Eddie’s terrible record on systemic structural issues is just plain nonsense.

J
JL 226 days ago

Maybe just give up and play League? Save us a lot of bleating about scrums, laws, mauls, lineouts, rucks and the other fundamentals of Union lol

P
PutMeInCoach 226 days ago

They need to bring Japanese money into Super Rugby. Otherwise RA is toast. Sacking Jones was also a sign of toxicity in the organization. They hired him to do a rebuild. You can’t rebuild without tearing down the defunct structure and pouring a new foundation.

F
Frank 226 days ago

What is RA going to do? They need to create more professional positions for players but don’t have the money to do it.
Only having 5 professional rugby franchises isn’t enough. The year should begin with an NRC, which includes the Wallaby players. The NRC should have at least 8 clubs, each club having at least 1st grade and colts.
Super Rugby should follow after the NRC. It should be reduced to a 8 week tournament format.
RA can’t afford to do this, but also can’t afford not to do it.

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Flankly 12 hours ago
Resilient Irish will test Springboks despite provincial setbacks

The Bok kryptonite is complacency. How did they lose to Japan in 2015, or to Italy in 2016? There are plenty of less dramatic examples. They often boil down to the Boks dialing back their focus and intensity, presuming they can win with less than 100% commitment. This can be true of most teams, but there is a reason that the Boks are prone to it. It boils down to the Bok game plan being predicated on intensity. The game plan works because of the relentless and suffocating pressure that they apply. They don’t allow the opponent to control the game, and they pounce on any mistake. It works fantastically, but it is extremely demanding on the Bok players to pull it off. And the problem is that it stops working if you execute at anything less than full throttle. Complacency kills the Boks because it can lead to them playing at 97% and getting embarrassed. So the Bulls/Leinster result is dangerous. It’s exactly what is needed to introduce that hint of over-confidence. Rassie needs to remind the team of the RWC pool game, and of the fact that Ireland have won 8 of the 12 games between the teams in the last 20 years. And of course the Leinster result also means that Ireland have a point to prove. Comments like “a club team beating a test team” will be pasted on the changing room walls. They will be out to prove that the result of the RWC game truly reflects the pecking order between the teams. The Boks can win these games, but, as always, they need to avoid the kryptonite.

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