The British and Irish Lions and Rugby Australia have just announced a partnership for the forthcoming Lions tour, scheduled for 2025.
As the CEO of RA, Andy Marinos commented, “It is especially pleasing to be able to confirm the commercial joint venture that we are entering into with the Lions – and we firmly believe that this agreement presents both parties with the best opportunity to realise the commercial potential of this Tour while engaging deeply with all sports fans.
“We have now begun our work with the Lions to ensure we deliver a tour that captures the imagination of fans across Australia and Lions fans around the world, as well as maximising the commercial return –it is an exciting opportunity for us all.”
If the tour is to deliver true quality, and ‘capture the imagination’ of supporters as Marinos promises, Australia needs to be able to provide credible opponents outside the Test series, for what could be one of the strongest and best-coached Lions squads in history. In 2001 and 2013, that never happened.
The 2001 tour produced a memorable Test series, with its fate going down to the final wire: the very last five-metre lineout in the dying embers, stolen at the death; Justin Harrison pinching the throw off Lions’ colossus Martin Johnson to seal victory for the world champion Wallabies.
The rest of the tour could not have provided a greater contrast. The average score between the Wallabies and the Lions was 26 points to 22 over the three matches but over the other seven tour games, the average score was 55 points to 14 in favour of the tourists.
Graham Henry told me afterwards that the structure of the tour itinerary to Australia would be the key to the success of future Lions tours in the country – not just success for the tourists and their supporters, but credibility for the hosts. He suggested a compact six-match tour, with three Tests and three matches against full-blown provincial opponents, with none of their Test candidates withdrawn.
If Australia could not provide enough legitimate local opposition, it threatened to derail the content and integrity of a tour by the four home nations. It was not so very different in 2013, with a tight Test series decided in the final game but the Lions beating their opponents outside it by an average margin of 32 points. The debate is still highly topical and very much ‘on trend’.
In a new millennium, Rugby Australia leveraged the achievements of the World Champion Wallabies outfit built by Rod Macqueen, John Muggleton and Eddie Jones, and expanded its Super Rugby representation from three franchises to five.
The Western Force (based in Western Australia) launched in 2006, with the Melbourne Rebels (based in Victoria) added five years later. The two extra franchises gave Australian rugby a footprint in areas of the country outside the traditional power bases in Queensland and New South Wales, creating marketing opportunities for the game and playing/coaching pathways to the level above.
There is a lesson there about the relationship between marketing style and sporting substance.
Unfortunately, it forgot to do the one thing that gives the expansion theory credibility: the expansion teams did not win games consistently, and they never developed successful sporting cultures. The win rates of the Force and the Rebels from inception until the end of Super Rugby Pacific 2022 stood at 30 per cent and 32 per cent respectively.
Between them, the two franchises have only enjoyed three winning seasons out of 27 and one solitary qualification for the knockout rounds. That occurred when the Rebels made the playoffs in the all-Aussie Super Rugby AU competition in 2020. Both the Force and the Rebels have drifted inevitably to the foot of the Super Rugby Pacific table with two wins and five losses in the current season.
It accurately reflects the history of rugby expansion in Australia. While Australia reached out towards alluring marketing horizons, New Zealand stuck with its five original franchises and kept the winning formula.
Since Super Rugby reduced to Australia and New Zealand (with the vitamin supplement of two extra Pasifika franchises), Australian sides have won only 11 out of the 55 games they have played against the five Kiwi ‘originals’. There is a lesson there about the relationship between marketing style and sporting substance. Split five ways, the talent base that has always existed in New South Wales and Queensland is simply too diluted to succeed.
Of the two franchises, the Western Force have been the more enterprising in their trawl for talent to fill holes in an undermanned squad. They recruited ex-Ireland and Leinster full-back Rob Kearney at the age of 35, Fijian wing Manasa Mataele by way of the Crusaders, and Leicester Tiger Jordan Olowofela to spice up their back three over the past three seasons.
Kearney added veteran leadership and IP at the back, while Mataele and Olowofela were unqualified successes on the wing. Last year, Mataele finished with the most carries of any Australian backline ball carrier (135) for the most metres (1355m) with the highest number of clean breaks (14). Olowofela, meanwhile, became something of a Force folk hero, scoring a hat-trick of tries against the unbeaten Reds in only his third match for the club.
The Force have spread the net just as wide with their recruitment for 2023, picking up South African scrumhalf Gareth Simpson from Saracens on loan, and English centre Sam Spink and wing Zach Kibirige out of the ruins of Wasps’ and Worcester Warriors’ financial collapse in the Gallagher Premiership.
All three have made an immediate impact in Western Australia. Simpson had already been elevated to the captaincy after only four playing weeks with the Force. He was injured for the recent round eight game against the Waratahs, but nonetheless provided a fascinating topic for discussion between telly commentator Sean Maloney and analyst Morgan Turinui during a break in play:
“A late change for the Force – Gareth Simpson, a surprise package at scrum-half out of the UK, getting ruled out late. It’s a shame he’s heading back to Sarries. What a pick-up for the Force, he’s been awesome,” Maloney said.
“There may be a post-script to that,” added Turinui. “If you’re the Force, you’re moving heaven and earth to keep him. A kid doesn’t come and become your captain without you fighting to keep him. You’ve got to keep a talent as good as that.”
How is it that all three can turn up in Western Australia, without the benefit of the pre-season runway, and become ‘oven-ready’ performers at a major Australian franchise?
This is the expansion problem for Australia in a nutshell. Mataele was moved on by the Crusaders to make room for Leicester Fainga’anuku, Olowofela found no space available on the Leicester Tigers roster when he returned home, leaving for tier-two club Nottingham instead.
Simpson will have to work his way up the pecking order at Saracens, and neither Spink nor Kibirige were automatic first choices in their time at Wasps. How is it that all three can turn up in Western Australia, without the benefit of the pre-season runway, and become ‘oven-ready’ performers at a major Australian franchise? It speaks to the shallowness of a true five-team talent spread in the country, not its depth.
The instant success of players like Kibirige and Mataele in the back three has also helped to frame the debate for the Wallabies hopefuls in Eddie Jones’ new squad:
Both these tries come from the round eight match-up against the Waratahs, and they feature two outside backs who have passed under the international radar beating players of Wallaby quality to the punch. In the first instance, Mataele (in position ‘Z’) out-muscles young NSW sensation Max Jorgensen (in position ‘A1’) to the ball.
In the second, Zach Kibirige beats not one, but two potential Wallabies to convert a 50/50 opportunity into a score, regathering the cross-kick over Izaia Perese and weighting the chip over Jorgensen exquisitely to dot down. Both kicks were made by Hamish Stewart, another undervalued asset in Australian rugby.
Kibirige has been doing it all season with six tries in his first six games, and he is especially lethal after the cross-kick:
The straight-line speed and acceleration of the ex-Wasps man leaves edge defenders and backfield cover alike, floundering in his wake.
Kibirige and Simpson were developing a strong psychic connection on short-range attacking kicks before Simpson was injured:
If two native young Aussies were linking as seamlessly as this on attack, they would be getting rave reviews. But a young South African and a young Englishman do not warrant the same headlines.
Zach Kibirige has been as outstanding in his work for the Force this season as Manasa Mataele was in 2022. Just as Mataele would be a genuine challenger for Marika Koroibete’s spot in the Wallabies, so Kibirige would be firmly in the frame for the other wing on form, were he qualified to play for Australia.:
Here is Kibirige, leaving Wallabies wannabee Suliasi Vunivalu in the backwash of another scoring sprint to the line, then beating Jordie Petaia in the last line of Queensland defence, just for good measure:
Kibirige has been equally effective against New Zealand teams as he has been versus domestic opposition:
The success of overseas players washed up on the shore of Super Rugby Pacific by the financial collapse of Wasps and the Worcester Warriors on the other side of the world begs an urgent raft of questions for Australian Rugby.
But it is not just Zach Kibirige, Sam Spink and Gareth Simpson. It is Manasa Mataele, Chase Tiatia and Jordan Olowofela too. All pitched up at the Western Force and have become key performers at the skill positions in their backline in no time at all.
Mataele was the outstanding wing in Australian rugby in 2022 after being released by the Crusaders. Zach Kibirige is fast proving to be his equivalent in 2023, and both look just as good, if not better than their young Australian-born rivals. Gareth Simpson was awarded the captaincy at the Force, and received the ‘Turinui stamp of approval’ after only a couple of matches, even though he has yet to make his mark in England.
While the Force are to be roundly applauded for their enterprise in recruitment, the grim subtext is that Australian rugby is in danger of becoming a victim of its own insularity. It overestimates its own assets and it underestimates those from overseas. It believes it can field five fully competitive professional franchises from home-grown players when history, particularly against opponents from New Zealand, proves otherwise.
Does Australia have enough legitimate opposition to put in front of a Pride of British & Irish Lions? Can it deliver on the promise of capturing the imagination of supporters on both sides, as surely as it milks the commercial largesse from their support of the tour?
Only the Brumbies would give the tourists a decent run for their money at the time of speaking, the rest would be eaten for breakfast. It is time for Rugby Australia to forget the glitz and the marketing moves, and get down to brass tacks if it does not want to become the laughing-stock of world rugby in two years’ time.
Join free and tell us what you really think!Join Free