It has been a year to forget for Australian rugby. The public relations storm of the Israel Folau situation, however, is simply the culmination of a sustained slide since the 2015 World Cup. Four years ago, they recorded their largest ever victory over England at Twickenham and were eventually defeated in the final by a New Zealand side widely regarded as one of the greatest ever. Now, months out from the next world cup, they appear rudderless, devoid of the direction required to regain their role as one of the world’s elite.
Since 2015, the Australians have lost home series’ to both England and Ireland, dropping to 7th in the World Rankings, their lowest ever position. Currently, they sit 6th, and optimism amongst fans regarding their World Cup performance is hard to come by. Ultimately, there is a sense of stagnation about the playing group that fails to inspire hope.
When comparing the 2015 squad to that likely to feature this year, obvious consistencies are apparent. But is that part of the problem? At halfback, that the prospect of a Genia/Cooper axis remains a possibility, eight years after the 2011 World Cup, seems utterly ridiculous. Rivalling Cooper for the playmaker role are To’omua, Foley and Leali’fano, all of whom made their debuts in 2013. At the heart of Australia’s decay is the failure to develop fresh options. The core of the squad remains the same: Foley, Beale, Kurindrani, Hooper, Sio, and Pocock (Folau of course would have been further evidence of this trend if not for his infamous Instagram antics).
In comparison, New Zealand have gone through a cycle of evolution in these last four years. The immediate departures of McCaw, Carter, Conrad Smith and Nonu allowed for the blooding in of new talent, and whilst this transition has not been seamless, and some key figures from 2015 remain critical, New Zealand have without doubt engaged in a process of renewal. Australia on the other hand, have neglected to do so. Australia have not won the Blediscoe Cup in nearly two decades, and there appears little chance of this trend reversing soon.
Stasis in personnel has however been overshadowed by off the field turmoil. Rugby Australia is facing a series of truly existential threats. Reports emerging in 2017 suggested that the governing body could have been forced to cease trading if it had not dropped the Western Force from Super Rugby. Furthermore, the percentage of children playing rugby union has flat-lined at around 4% since 2006, and the failure of the National Rugby Championship to gain traction has done little to change this. Rugby union in Australia then, remains a sport restricted to a small minority, mainly geographically limited to New South Wales and Queensland.
These problems are deep seated, potentially terminal, and to tackle them leadership with vision and competence is essential. Leadership of any quality, however, seems entirely absent. A senatorial inquiry into the future of the code revealed this in stark terms, finding that Rugby Australia “cut Western Force from the Super Rugby competition without appropriate explanation or justification.” Indeed, Senator Reynolds went as far as to say, “there were also inappropriate and misdirected attempts by ARU officials to stop this inquiry.”
Furthermore, in a year when clarity is required, the Folau incident has brought chaos and controversy. It has also deepened the financial difficulties, with Rugby Australia reportedly facing losses of up to $12m for the forthcoming year, placing them on the brink of insolvency. Folau is only the catalyst however, Australia’s problems are systemic, and whilst the Brumbies’ form may offer some solace, the cracks are widening and any upturn in the fortunes of the national team can only serve to paper them over.
Written By Joe Ronan