We start this week with a fact: there are two sporting spectacles that, without doubt, are guaranteed to make a British summer. The first is a home winner of Wimbledon (check) and the second is a good ol’ thrashing of the Aussies in any sporting discipline (check again following a dominant win in the Ashes and thumping victory in the final Test of the British and Irish Lions series). Based on the two-point assessment mentioned above, the summer of 2013 must rank as one of the best in the sporting history of our fair isle. But as our sun-drenched skies give way to falling temperatures and the leaves turn a shade of golden brown, spare a thought for our Australian brethren who look unlikely to be experiencing a vintage sporting summer of their own. The nation’s cricketers are soon to head home with heads in hands following their 3-0 series loss…but at least they’ve shown signs of improvement in recent weeks and will no doubt look forward to the return matches later this year with a degree of optimism. Of greater concern for sporting fans Down Under is the form of the Wallabies, whose 38-12 loss to South Africa on the weekend was the latest in a run of disappointing results and even more disappointing performances. In claiming victory in Brisbane (itself something they had not achieved for 42 years) the Springboks notched up both their biggest ever points tally and winning margin against the Australians. That particular milestone followed New Zealand’s 100th Test victory against their neighbours (at the start of the Rugby Championship) and the British and Irish Lions’ record haul of points in the Sydney Test. This Wallaby side are record-breakers, but not in the way they would have wanted. It’s all led to some fierce criticism from Australian journalists who claim that the national side’s players are now, “spectators in Test rugby”, while others predict “dangerous days” ahead. So what has happened to the country that made three Rugby World Cup Final appearances and have won it twice? Are the men in green and gold on an irreversible slump to international mediocrity? And what does their current decline mean for the rest of the world, in particular their RWC 2015 pool opponents England and Wales?
What’s gone wrong?
Put simply, the Aussies just don’t have the players anymore. ‘Hold your dingoes!’ I hear you cry, ‘What about Genia, Barnes, O’Connor, Folau, Leali’ifano, Ashley-Cooper et al’? Granted these names wouldn’t look out of place in a World XV, but scratch underneath this surface of quality and there is very little underneath. For the Wallabies, strength in depth is a problem. It’s an issue that many Welsh fans will sympathise with: this time last year the Dragons were in the midst of an eight-match losing streak thanks (in part) to a lengthy injury list. Australia have, historically, always been above such trifling matters and, as such, have sat comfortably within the top three of the IRB World Rankings for many a year. But their cupboard of player talent is becoming increasingly bare and with it their standing in the global game is falling (this week they are ranked fourth in the world and a full eight ranking points behind New Zealand). The worry for Australia would be that, whereas Wales have made notable strides in increasing squad depth over the last few seasons, the Wallabies appear to be going the other way. This is epitomised for me by the attention that’s been given to the recent return of Quade Cooper from the international wilderness. I question whether such attention would have been given to a Larkham or a Gregan ten years ago. For me, it smacks slightly of desperation on the part of the Aussie press.
The Australian player drain is most keenly felt amongst the forwards, which would have been obvious to anyone who saw their mauling at the hands of South Africa last weekend. Look at the list of quality players mentioned above and you’ll notice one thing – they’re all backs. The only truly great forward at the Aussies’ disposal is David Pocock and it’s testament to his talent that the run of Wallaby losses has coincided with his lengthy injury. Pocock’s colleagues in the Aussie boiler room are just too small for the international game (notably so against the giant Springbok pack) which, rightly or wrongly, is now characterised by power up front. It’s a trend that Warren Gatland saw coming on his arrival as Wales coach and led to a programme of adding bulk to not only the forwards but all Welsh Test players in general. As one Aussie commentator noted, “The game is moving away from how Australia wants to play it.”
Can they turn it around?
You’d be foolish to ever write-off a country with such a sporting heritage as Australia but I don’t think it’s unfair to say that Aussie rugby union is at a crossroads. In order to turn things around, the Wallabies will have to look short and long-term. In the immediate future a win against the Argentineans on Saturday is a must. To secure victory, Australia should heed the advice of their World Cup-winning Captain John Eales and go back to basics. So out go the ‘miracle balls’ and in comes the territory and possession game. They’ll need to do this because, one thing is for sure, the Aussies will not outmuscle the Pumas in Perth. In the long-term the game’s administrators Down Under (the ARU) must find a sustainable ‘third tier’ competition for their players to play in. At present, there is a lack of professional rugby competition in Australia below international and Super 15 level. Compare this to the setup in New Zealand (ITM Cup) and South Africa (Currie Cup) and you’ll begin to see why there is a lack of talent emerging in Australian rugby union – the ladder of progression is simply not there. An answer must be found to this question of the ‘missing tournament’ if Australia are to rule the rugby world again. If this issue remains unanswered then a further slump down the rankings will surely follow.
What does this mean for world rugby?
I mentioned a few weeks back that the emergence of Argentina as a major rugby power is good for the global game. In contrast, an Australian slide into Test rugby oblivion would be terrible for the game as it looks to expand into new territories. That said, international rugby union is all about gaining the victories and rival countries will now see a fixture against the Wallabies as winnable. For the northern hemisphere teams that win now becomes imperative. For years the Six Nations countries have tried to break up the southern hemisphere hegemony of the world game with very little success (England in the early noughties aside). As the likes of Wales and England see their international stock rise, they must start beating a comparatively weaker Australian outfit and they must start doing that this autumn in the November Internationals. England, Italy, Ireland, Scotland and Wales will all get a crack at the gold and green later this year and each must make this fixture a target. Wales, in particular, must simply get the Australian monkey off their backs following so many near misses in the last few seasons. In achieving those wins the Welsh (and their English rivals) will receive a massive psychological fillip ahead of their ‘Pool of Death’ clash with Australia in RWC 2015. The prospect of the Wallabies exiting the competition at the group stages for the first time ever is looking increasingly likely…but I guess the Aussies will have something to say about that. As ever, comments below please.
Following yesterday’s news of the impending breakaway by English and French clubs to form an alternative to The Heineken Cup, the blog returns in a fortnight to sift amongst the European debris.