By Lee Stace
FORMER WALLABIES coach John Connolly was right to recently criticise the state of Australian rugby and say it is ill, because it is.
Its condition is not terminal, but if someone doesn’t find an antidote to cure what ails it as far as player and coach development and the administration of the game at the top level goes, the country's competitiveness on the Super Rugby and international stage will be compromised.
Last month Connolly said there should be a wide-ranging review into all aspects of the Australian game if the Wallabies lost their three-test series against Wales. Australia swept the Six Nations champion 3-0, meaning nothing is likely to happen for the meantime.
But it appears that success has masked over some noticeable cracks in rugby’s foundation across the Tasman.
The problems are noticeable below the professional level.
The Australia Under 20 side’s eighth place finish at last month’s Junior World Championship was its worst result in five instalments of the tournament. It was a far cry from its recent performances, when the team made the final in 2010 and semifinals last year and in 2009.
What that dismal showing highlighted was the impact the Australian Rugby Union’s consolidation plan around player development has had on the game.
It was a move opposed by the Super Rugby franchises and with good reason.
Up until this year, the best and brightest under 20 players used to train on a daily basis alongside Super Rugby players in their respective states. Now they’re only practicing with guys who are the same age as them.
What that essentially means is they’re missing out on the chance to experience from an early age what it is like to be part of a fully professional set-up; missing out on an opportunity to learn from others who have been there and done that.
The Under 20 side’s form is suffering as a result. Those who saw the shock pool losses to France and Argentina will tell you that the side had a wobbly scrum, misfiring attack and substandard defence.
If these are the next tier of players who are going to be future Super Rugby and Wallaby reps, then it’s a worry.
The under 20 players need to go back to training with their respective franchises if this trend is to be reversed.
A second-tier domestic competition, which sits between club footy and Super Rugby, also needs to be established by the powers that be. One was set-up in 2007, but quickly shelved after it bled money by the truckload.
More pathways for promising coaches also need to be created to bridge the gap between club and professional rugby.
New Zealand has in recent years used its under 20 side as a tool to develop future coaches. The team is seen as an opportunity to give them experience of mentoring players on the international stage.
The Australian outfit, on the other hand, has been run by David Nucifora for the past three seasons. It is essentially his baby.
Changing the Australian Under 20 coach each year is a start, but again, the creation of a domestic competition would provide the best opportunity for promising coaches to gain valuable experience and learn their craft.
Connelly also raised a valid concern over the ARU allowing its boss John O’Neill to take over as acting chairman of the Echo Entertainment board.
It’s a fair point. Rugby in Australia needs its leader more than ever at the moment and what is he doing? Devoting his time to another organisation – a non-rugby one at that!
Perhaps it is time Mr O’Neill considers alternative employment.
The rot has set in and something urgently needs to be done in Australian rugby.
Hopefully this warning is heeded before its problems become terminal.
There are plenty of mouth-watering clashes on offer this weekend.
Which player was unlucky not to make the Wallabies’ preliminary squad for the British and Irish Lions series?
Gordon Tietjens’ success in sevens is unrivalled and should place him in the same coaching league as Sir Alex Ferguson.
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen named a 38-man training squad and there are a couple of oversights worth highlighting