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FEATURE Why Australian rugby needs the Kiss of life

Why Australian rugby needs the Kiss of life
4 months ago

Roll back the clock, all the way to ‘the greatest game of rugby ever played’. Some 109,874 spectators turned out to watch Australia lose to New Zealand 39-35 at Stadium Australia, Sydney in July 2000, with Jonah Lomu scoring the decisive try.

Those were the halcyon days of Australian professional rugby, where any kind of loss was an outlier. Rod Macqueen cemented one brick upon another in his four-year tenure as Wallaby coach between 1997 and 2001, steadily building the best team in the world. The year before, he had hoisted the Webb Ellis Cup overhead; 12 months later, he would be leading his charges to a series win over one of the most talented British and Irish Lions squads ever dispatched from home shores.

Eleven years on, Ewen McKenzie’s Reds won the Super Rugby title in front of an average home attendance of 33,254, peaking at the 52,113 supporters who watched Queensland topple the mighty Crusaders in Brisbane. By 2023, the combined average attendance at the Suncorp and the Queensland Country Bank stadium in Townsville had dwindled to 11,545, one third of that glorious pinnacle in 2011.

In sport, there is no currency as valuable as winning. Winning generates gate revenue, lucrative franchise sponsorships and broadcasting deals, while fuelling interest in the marketing spin-offs which surround ‘the big match’. If you build a winning culture, the fans, sponsors and broadcasters will come, and they will pay generously for the privilege.

Otherwise, they will stay away or even worse, start following a winning team playing another sport. The Reds attendances are unfortunately typical of the flatlining gate revenue for Australia’s five ‘losing’ Super Rugby franchises. Now the financial cracks are beginning to open wide to public view, and it is not a pretty sight.

Joe Schmidt
Joe Schmidt was recently appointed Wallaby head coach, replacing Eddie Jones (Photo Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

After the Melbourne Rebels entered voluntary administration on 29th January with $20m AUD of debts, a 16-page document co-written by Rugby Victoria and the Rebels board revealed Rugby Australia had been planning to merge the club with Moana Pasifika, and forge a new ‘Pasifika Rebels’ outfit ever since July 2023.

It went on to accuse RA of chronic underfunding of its Super Rugby licensees, and as if the prove the point, on 14th February Rebels CEO Baden Stephenson was summarily laid off, along with nine other administrators. The club’s coaching staff have been trimmed back to four-month contracts, which will only take them as far as the end of the current Super Rugby Pacific season.

That development coincided with the news 25-year-old back-row Josh Kemeny, whom Eddie Jones saw as a hybrid able to cover both forwards and backs from the bench for the Wallabies at the World Cup, had already signed a two-year deal to play for Northampton Saints in England.

The impenetrable fog of the Australian professional rugby landscape is thickening. The future of players and coaches alike is shrouded in uncertainty: new Wallaby head honcho Joe Schmidt has yet to take up his role, and a coach as seasoned as Andy Friend has yet to find a niche since returning from Irish province Connacht.

It was Friend who helped transform ex-Brumby Mack Hansen from an also-ran in Canberra to an exceptional performer for the men in green. He wants to help Australian rugby get back on its feet, but apparently there is no room at the inn.

Andy Friend
Former Australia Sevens head coach Andy Friend left Connacht at the end of last season (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

“My experience having worked in the English Premiership, Japan, Australia, and Ireland, is that the Irish system is by far the most integrated and the most seamless,” he said.

“They call it ‘Team of Us’. It’s everyone pushing to get the best out of the national team.

“Within that you’ve got competition, and ‘Nussi’ [Performance Director David Nucifora] was brilliant in trying to get the balance of the best players playing football, and [then] you need to have your home stream.”

That lean harmonising of provincial forces in the Emerald Isle contrasts strongly with the regional wrangles in Australia, and what Friend perceives as a disabling sense of ‘entitlement’.

Rebels head man Kevin Foote could also feel the sands shifting under his own feet.

“We were told things would remain as they are for the 2024 season – and then, to see Baden [Stephenson] walk out of the building was very hard-hitting.

“I’m very grateful they kept the high-performance staff together so that we can put a good product up, but when you sign those four-month contracts you also know that it’s pretty real.”

That kind of gratitude is the very opposite of entitlement. The truth is Australia has been leaking both playing and coaching talent to the UK and France without bothering to reap the rewards of the ‘boomerang effect’ it should now be garnering.

When it became clear magnetic centres for Australian rugby players abroad were developing around clubs such as Exeter [Nic White, Lachie Turner, Solomone Kata, Scott Sio, Greg Holmes, Dave Dennis, Dean Mumm, Julian Salvi chief among them], London Irish [Curtis Rona, Joe Powell, Nick Phipps, Adam Coleman, Rob Simmons and Ollie Hoskins] and latterly Northampton [Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, Angus Scott-Young, Andrew Kellaway, James Ramm and now Kemeny] in England; and at Connacht [Jarrad Butler, Colby Fainga’a, Mack Hansen, John Porch, Kyle Godwin and Byron Ralston] on Andy Friend’s watch, Rugby Australia should have done everything in its power to formalise those relationships with the overseas clubs – on player-exchange deals, or on limited-time sabbaticals.

Instead of establishing professional beach-heads in the Europe, and ensuring IP would not be lost to the Australian game, RA shrugged its shoulders when it should have been stitching those rugby journeys to a firm future back in Australia; requiring what flew away to learn, would eventually return to teach a new generation. That is entitlement for you.

A return on the investment has been apparent with individuals such as Nic White, but the overall effect has been spotty and random. The return of Les Kiss to the Reds could be a game-changer. Kiss has spent even more seasons coaching abroad than Friend [18 years to Friend’s 15] and he is coming home, bringing gifts with him – his ‘trending’ fellow coaches at Irish, Brad Davis and Jonathan Fisher, along with Tonga assistant Zane Hilton.

Kiss’ own overseas experience extends to Ireland [with both Ulster and the national side], South Africa [with the Springboks] and at London Irish in the Premiership. He knows how to build a rush defence, and he knows some of the secrets which make the Leinster and Ireland attack so successful. Kiss can help restore a winning mentality to the Reds and Australian rugby. It will not be easy, but in the shape of Kiss and Schmidt, Australia at least has two workmen with the right toolbelt.

London Irish had an open connection to rugby back in the Emerald Isle, and Kiss will have the latest attacking technology at his fingertips. Irish adopted the 1-3-3-1 formation around halfway, which will be familiar to most home-grown Australian players, but they moved into shape quickly enough to get the ball into the outside channels.

 

In this instance, the aim is to pass the ball through the second line of attack and release Henry Arundell beyond the end defender, and then saturate that wide channel with three attackers – the ball-carrier plus two support players.

The theme of adding that third attacker to a wide attack quickly was also present at kick returns.

blockquote class=”imgur-embed-pub” lang=”en” data-id=”a/IEcdv9j” data-context=”false” >

 

In the first clip, wing Ollie Hassell-Collins runs all the way across the field towards the left 15m line, and as soon as Irish hit their mark, the three attackers appear in mutual support in the left 15-5m channel, with ex-Waratah centre Curtis Rona delivering the scoring assist.

Closer to the opposition 22, Kiss employed the double back-door option popularised by Leinster and Ireland.

 

 

The last two defenders need to guess which hole the attack [Irish “2” and “3”] is looking to penetrate; if they drop inside, that leaves ample space for a score in the corner.

Kiss’ London Irish could be very potent when they connected the twin themes in attack.

 

Here Irish use the front man of the trio [loose forward Tom Pearson] to tip the defence in one direction, and the short crosskick to release their overload out wide in the other.

Kiss’s arrival at Ballymore will reinvigorate the spectacle for Reds supporters. Mobile, ball-handling forwards such as Harry Wilson and Josh Nasser will have important roles to play in the offence, and it is no accident he has picked up a pair of ball-handling Kiwi props in Alex Hodgman and Jeffery Toomaga-Allen to bolster distribution out of the first line of attack.

Kiss will build structure into the Reds game on both sides of the ball, and that is no bad thing. It is what good coaches do. As Nic White revealed on a recent Roar Rugby Podcast: “We are scared of the word ‘structure’, but it’s not structured in terms of being too strict. The options are all available. Everyone has a place in on the field at any point in time and a job to do.

“Within that, you’ve got every option available to you. When you have the accountability of where you’re supposed to be, you won’t get to the point we were at the World Cup and the whole team is in 20m of the field, and you’re wondering why we can’t use the whole width of the field because no one’s out on the other side.

“With ‘Rens’ [Dave Rennie], everyone had a job, had a home. And then the decisions were open; it was ‘heads up’.

“I don’t think it’s a Kiwi thing. I just think good coaches understand defences are just too good now, so far ahead, and so detailed you need to know who’s going to be in that position to clean out because defence is just so high-line speed.”

The likes of Hunter Paisami at second receiver, and the back three as a unit, are likely to thrive in Kiss’ attacking scheme. With a generous ladling of good fortune, 2024 could well turn out to be Queensland’s most successful Super Rugby season since they swept the whole thing back in 2011. Whether it will compensate for the strife down in Melbourne, and the one-way talent transaction between Australia and Europe, is another matter. Let us hope, at least, it puts a few bums on Suncorp Stadium seats, back where they belong.

Comments

57 Comments
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swivel 139 days ago

Report said it was for 2025 BIL tour email communications that the name Melbourne Rebels be used, nothing else (only a fool listens to media reports mind you). Nothing happened with the joint Aus and NZ team? Would have been a good starch builder if MP were used to strengthen the Rebels for that game. Hope it’s exchanged for a Drua match v Lions now, even combined Drua/MP team.

Entitlement is not the right word for those at the top of Aussie rugby, more like all the bad stuff arrogant NSW types bring to the game. You’d hope that these current ones arent of that and the likes of Foote and Friend can be used when Joe cones in to create his team. Copying QLD might be the best idea for the Wollobies. A lot of incoming new debutants by way of who they play for. One mess after another but you can’t ask for much as a Australian supporter.

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Rodney 141 days ago

Yep I remember the great battles Wallabies versus abs.still haven't got over 1978 game lol.
You guys will be back. Love your never give up attitude .
Hope you smash lions

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JD Kiwi 141 days ago

Grand read Nick and fantastic to see Kiss and Friend back home. Good point too about building links with the likes of Exeter.

Did you notice that they've replaced you in the other place with the deep technical insights of Peter Bidwell? 😂

m
mitch 142 days ago

Just don’t google Les at work. :-) Great to see him back and hopefully take the Reds to another level and improve for the next few years or so.

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Adrian 142 days ago

Thanks again Nick

Having read your analysis and watched 2 Reds trials, something indeed might be going to happen.

Since McKenzie coached the Reds, they have had this glaring inability to co-ordinate action between backs and forwards.

I don't mean just Thorn, but Stiles before him, and someone before him. Often they have had talent in both areas, but nothing has come of it. Put bluntly, they haven’t had coaches that understood backline play, especially at the point of winning the ball or defending possession.

I think that there are brains in the current team that might be able to adapt to things like a double out the back and the importance of quick ball.

Not withstanding all of his passing deficiencies, few halfbacks are as lethal as McDermott when he gets quick front foot ball. His implied threat to run causes hesitation in the defence, meaning that a quick short pass to a propper 5/8 or a rampaging runner can be lethal. Of course he might run too. I saw that a couple of times last year with the Wallabies when 2 or more of Skelto, Tuopo, Bell or Valetini were surging and he was getting quick ball.

I’ve never seen this with the Reds…..ever

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Derek Murray 143 days ago

This article is a bit hard to read as an ex-LI fan. We haven’t found a suitable replacement for our rugby fandom since LI died.

Les had a talent factory in the LI academy and he’ll get the same sort of quality youngsters to work with in Brisbane.

They were great to watch and, whilst sometimes a little too easy to score against, they never gave up.

Towards the end of last season, before their worst performance of the year against Sarries, the defence had hardened up and they had scoring options everywhere - including through the lineout maul (perhaps they can convince Gus to make a trip south?).

We need two Australian sides to make the semis this season. I suspect one might be Qld.

All that said, I want my Tahs to make Les’ first experience in SR an unpleasant one this weekend.

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Mzilikazi 143 days ago

Plenty to mull over and discuss in this article. Thanks, Nick.

We hope that Les Kiss will bring a much tighter and accurate game with his coaching. He would be by far now the most experienced Australian coach on the planet in terms of his range of places he has worked since becoming a Union mentor. And he and Schmidt will know each other well from Les’s days with Ulster.

Looking at the pre season Qld. win out at Roma, I thought there were very good signs. A lot of LQB at the breakdowns, an impressive rolling maul, very good defence, shutting down the dangerous players NSW have, like the powerful Bell. But the scrums were just plain awful with the starting props on. That is a worry. Nonggorr really was poor, and that is a surprise after the way he finished last year.

I thought Uru was a real standout in the pack, great footwork, always makes the crucial metre or two on contact. Great hands too, great lineout. McReight had good passages, as did Paisami. Was disappointed that Harry Wilson was not more prominant, and he still seems not to use much footwork going into contact.

Overall, I would not be confident that any of the Australian teams will match the NZ sides for breakdown excellence, and speed of counter on turnover ball. I hope I am wrong.

Saw this just now. I hope it works ot and is adopted worldwide.

https://www.the42.ie/dupont-law-loophole-6304345-Feb2024/

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Mitch 143 days ago

It’ll be great to have a sophisticated coach at the Reds this season. Brad Thorn was about hard work, staying in the fight, fighting to the end playing for each other, the jersey and for Queensland. I even had his deep voice in my head when typing all that. What Thorn was about is important don't get me wrong but a top coach needs sophistication to go with the bare fundamentals around attitude.

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Jack 143 days ago

Nick, I hope Friend's name is sitting on the draft media release announcing Schmidt's coaching team along with Lord Laurie (after dangling two carrots in front of him, unrealised aspirations and a Lions tour)

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d 143 days ago

Great read. I agree with the entitlement from the top but have a slight hope that Waugh and Herbert may be better in this area? Let's see if I'm naive.

Good to know re Les Kiss. I noticed London Irish were competitive but didn't make the finals in his last two years..but this analysis above suggests he has a great record. I have some hope there!! On paper Qld look about the same strength as NSW but will be interesting to see if he gets them up against their old enemy!

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