With RWC kick-off now only 64 days away, the first international match of 2015 seems to have captivated Australian Rugby fans significantly more than in previous years. It’s an extraordinarily pleasant and refreshing change of discussion for Australian Rugby, brimming with optimism, and it has hopefully put an end to the negative and financially fearful dialogue around the game.
It’s an optimism, which isn’t founded by one-eyed biased views, but rather feels justified following the Brumbies and Waratahs Super Rugby semi-finals reach, the impending uplift from the new broadcast deal and the selection of a national team packed with experience and quality.
It’s hard to recall the announcement of a Wallaby team that sees so many talented players not only left out of the match-day squad, but the training squad entirely. That players the calibre of Ben McCalman, Kurtley Beale and Bernard Foley aren’t in this week’s side, and the squad is without Wycliff Palu, James O’Connor and Benn Robinson (to name a few) speaks to the quality of the team that has been named.
Talent aside, a stat revealed on FoxSports’ Rugby HQ last night shed a new perspective on the 2015 Wallabies; that should each of the 23 take the field tomorrow night, it would be the most experienced Wallaby side to do so, and the second highest capped international team to play…. ever. Far from a Dad’s army, rugby history shows the value of hardened international match practice. This squad is primed for future success from the lessons of their past.
The squad boasts depth, experience and is led by coaches that also bring familiar experience. For Stephen Larkham and Nathan Grey, winning a World Cup is a favourite pastime. And for Michael Chieka, there are few coaches who captivated and conquered European Rugby as he did, before he returned home to do the same. The optimism seems completely validated and, on behalf of RUPA, we wish the Wallabies team management all the best for season 2015.
While it’s far too early to be banking on Test wins, there’s no doubt the Wallabies have been given a significantly better chance of success based on the above factors. Factors which haven’t fallen magically into place, but are the result of aligning policy to outcomes years ago. Who’s to know how the games will unfold, but it’s important to recognise three important issues which have assisted in reaching this position.
1. Growing depth and player experience via the NRC
The Buildcorp National Rugby Championship (NRC) still has a long way to go in becoming a commercially viable and sustainable domestic competition. Improvements have been made in 2015 from lessons learned in 2014, and the iteration will likely continue year on year. What cannot be disputed is the value the NRC has added as an additional third-tier rugby competition that allows developing players to experience more elite-levels of the game.
Rory Arnold and Samu Kerevi will go down as the two biggest finds of the 2014 NRC. Whilst their quality was always likely to shine, regardless of the NRC, the competition provided them with a nationally broadcast platform to show just how good they are. Likewise, seeing Sean McMahon a cut above the rest earned him a seat on the Spring Tour plane.
Outside of these future stars of the game, there was also another benefit directly linked to this weekend’s team. At the start of last year’s NRC, Will Genia and Quade Cooper were in the final stages of rehab from serious injuries, while Will Skelton was playing below his best. Whilst these players had limited game time in the NRC, the time they did play was significant in allowing them to progress their individual circumstances and was a key part of their pathway to where they are now.
It’s these sorts of stories that give us plenty to look forward to in this year’s NRC set to kick off in approximately a month’s time.
2. Introducing more flexibility in approach to talent
A lot has been made of the return of Matt Giteau and Drew Mitchell to the squad and the 155 caps they have between them. Their selection wouldn’t have been possible without the flexibility introduced into the Wallaby eligibility rules by the ARU Board, nor the selection of Dean Mumm without the repatriation component of that same policy.
Their additions to the squad have not only provided much-needed media exposure and positive rugby content, but added their talent and European knowledge to the team itself.
Equally, the flexible contracts offered and accepted by Israel Folau, Bernard Foley and Ben McCalman have been crucial to their retention. This hasn’t impacted their availability for the Wallabies this year, but it has certainly added another dimension of positivity around the campaign. Rather than being the last hurrah for the exodus of Wallabies, the end of 2015 has the great opportunity to be the needed leap forward in rugby’s renaissance.
3. Advantage of no June window
The timing of the Rugby World Cup has forced changes to the World Rugby calendar for 2015, removing the June inbound Tests for southern hemisphere nations. It’s something that has flown somewhat under the radar and outside of being assessed as a huge negative for the game given the lack of revenue derived from three additional marquee domestic Tests.
Whilst there is no disputing the financial cost to the game, the silver lining has been the continuity of the Super Rugby season. The removal of the four week hiatus allowed fans, players and all involved in the game to see through the entire competition before turning collective attentions to the next exciting tournaments of the year, the Rugby World Cup and NRC.
It’s arguable that without the turbulence of the mid-season interruption, players and teams have had a greater opportunity to seamlessly manage player loads and welfare. It could be one reason to explain the reduction in long-term injuries suffered by top players. In fact, of the players currently of national interest, Sam Carter is perhaps the only player not available due to injury. Credit must go to the athletic development staff at each Australian professional rugby body for their management of players in 2015 as, on the basis of this data, it would seem all programs have and continue to advance in preparing players to perform at their peak.
The unbroken 2015 Super Rugby season won’t be experienced again until 2019, and World Rugby has shelved any plans to amend the international tour schedule any earlier than 2020. Let’s hope when those review discussions arise that, for more reasons than just this one, the motion to push the June window to July can regain some momentum. Rugby is complex enough without needing to further confuse fans with such breaks or destroy teams commercial viability by forcing them to go weeks without local content. It’s a broader topic for another day…
On behalf of RUPA, our congratulations to Stephen Moore on his deserving appointment as Wallaby captain for 2015. As one of our Board Directors, RUPA has been fortunate to experience first-hand from Stephen’s intelligence, maturity and leadership, which will no doubt benefit the Wallabies also.
Well done to Adam Ashley-Cooper and Michael Hooper on their appointments as Vice-Captains, further recognition of their quality as people and as players and another honour for them both in their distinguished careers.
Go well Wallabies…