Every time this Australian team takes the field there are three undeniable facts that are on display for all of us to witness.
Firstly, the men in gold are giving every atom of their beings to the contest. Their outcomes are not always successful but a lack of effort, courage and commitment are not the problems for the Wallabies.
Secondly, these Wallabies are trying to uphold the great traditions of the famous jersey that sit deep inside the DNA of Australian rugby. At every opportunity, the Wallabies are playing running rugby. This Saturday the Australians will be true to their heritage and implement a high risk, high reward strategy that will attack Ireland at every opportunity.
The third fact weighs heavy on Australian shoulders. No one, not even the Wallabies themselves are sure if Saturday’s performance will be good enough to win.
Their results so far this season tell it all. A win and two defeats against England, followed by a horrible loss and a great victory in Argentina. Then a magnificent performance defeated the Springboks, only to fall against them in an awful display the following week.
Then the Wallabies put in an inspiring performance against New Zealand, only to be robbed of victory in the dying seconds by an unfathomable and unprecedented refereeing decision by French referee Matthieu Raynal.
Last year the Australian government walked out on a multibillion dollar construction contract for French submarines. That decision left French president Emmanuel Macron, confused, angered and shocked by what he saw as an unprecedented and unethical decision that damaged his country. All I can say is, “Mate, I feel your pain, but let’s call it one all.”
Australians then took their usual annual belting at Eden Park. During November, Australia have defeated Scotland when they should have lost while losing to France and Italy in matches they should have won.
This tells us, in a roundabout way, that their form is as hard to comprehend as quantum mechanics.
The heart of the Wallabies’ problems is discipline. In the recent Rugby Championship Australia conceded the most penalties, yellow and red cards of any team. Australia have been guilty of ridiculous head butts, dangerous clear outs, and players simply not doing their job in the high pressure moments of matches.
As they have done for every Australia coach over the past 20 years, the media have started beating the war drums in blaming Dave Rennie. Very few of the vast problems that have engulfed teams over the last two decades should be laid at the feet of any of their coaches. Like all national coaches, Rennie is a hostage to the systems that produce the players.
As I have written many times in this column, the Wallabies and Australian rugby have declined because of two decades of horrific policy decision making by administrators that has damaged the Australian high performance player production line. These administrators made key decisions that deeply affected the grassroots of the game, especially the men’s 15-a-side game in Sydney’s schools and juniors, which is a heartland of Australian rugby.
Inadvertently, these decisions also erased a library of intergenerational Australian coaching knowledge surrounding creative back play. The coaching of scrumhalves and outhalves in the elite Australian pathway system, below the professional levels, has deteriorated significantly.
Added to this is the current cult like educational obsession of focusing on “pedagogy” – which is how to coach, rather than on what to coach. This has led to a drastic decline in the technical knowledge and understanding of the critical content areas that coaches must command if they are to teach their players the creative skills that were once a hallmark of Australian rugby.
All national coaches are dependent on their national high performance system to produce quality players for selection. Rennie is a victim of the rapid deterioration of Australia’s systems, just as Andy Farrell is a beneficiary of Ireland’s excellent sub professional pathways.
When I first coached in Ireland in 1999, the Australian system of educating players, especially creative backs, was vastly superior to Ireland’s. Today the opposite is the case. That does not happen by accident.
I was nurtured as a player and coach across 40 years in a brilliant Australian system. I hold a deep gratitude for having benefited from the knowledge taught to me by excellent and generous mentors. Over the last two decades, being forced to witness its decline from short sighted administrators has been a heartbreaking experience.
However, there is good news for Australian rugby. With the appointment of a strong chairman in Hamish McClennan, a man who is not afraid to stand up against the bullying of New Zealand administrators, alongside chief executive Andy Marinos, a former Welsh international, Australian rugby now has senior leadership that has begun to lift the Australian game up off the canvas and back into the fight.
With both the men’s and women’s World Cups to be held in Australia in the next five years, the financial train wreck that pushed Australian rugby to the brink of bankruptcy is receding. Rugby in Australia had descended into a very dark place. Hopefully, those darkest of days are now in the past.
That same theme holds for the Wallabies. Rennie has a clutch of excellent home-grown assistant coaches in his back room staff in Dan McKellar, Laurie Fisher and Scott Wisemantel. They have been tasked with fast tracking the education of a squad of players that do hold talent. With the return of Michael Hooper, one of the best openside flankers in the world and a national inspiration, the Wallabies are fighting.
Brian O’Driscoll’s first match as an Irish captain was against the Wallabies in 2002. That day, at a drizzly Lansdowne Road, Ireland were underdogs who overcame the odds and defeated the then world champions for the first time in 23 years.
Today the Wallabies are the underdogs facing the number one team on the planet. That statement tells you all you need to know about the quality of decisions made by the senior leadership in both countries over the last 20 years.
While the Wallabies are more than capable of causing a huge upset, they can also give away a string of ridiculous penalties and self-destruct against a high quality Irish team.
I honestly do not have a clue whether Australia will play brilliantly or poorly, but then again, neither do they.