In rugby’s rejuvenated form, there is no better footballing spectacle
One can only imagine the contradictory emotions of rugby – loving Australian republicans on the morning of Sunday, 7 November, 1999. The day before, in polling booths from Brisbane to Broome, their dream of a monarch-free Australia had been ripped from their grasp. Yet in the middle of the night they had watched from afar as the Wallabies became the kings of world rugby. As if to add to the maddening confusion of it all, John Eales was handed the Webb Ellis trophy at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium by the very woman destined to remain his country’s head of state. Talk about a weekend of two halves!
Not since that day have the Wallabies again been crowned world champions – having been thwarted by the fabled boot of Jonny Wilkinson in 2003, and been bullied into submission by the English in France four years ago at the quarter-final stage. However, the men in skin-tight green and gold have headed over the ditch to this year’s tournament in New Zealand knowing that they have the talent, flair and smarts to wreck their hosts’ party. Victory in the Bledisloe Cup at the Suncorp Stadium late last month – during which the top-ranked All Blacks presented early symptoms of that quadrennial malady, World Cup stage-fright – has leant an optimism, urgency and plausibility
to the Australian campaign.
With rugby’s great showcase event now upon us, perhaps we should first point out – especially to those who prefer the amputated version of the game – that we are talking now of a vastly improved product. Had I set out to compose a love letter to rugby union this time two years ago it would have been the briefest of rhapsodies. With the ball hoofed mindlessly from one end of the pitch to the other, and then back again, the game had become a moronic kickathon singularly devoid of flair, inventiveness and ambition. Game plans centred upon forcing errors, winning penalties and preventing opposing teams from playing the game as it was meant to be played, with abandon and exuberance. Coaches stuck to a doctrine of unremitting negativity that turned the referee into the most important participant on the field and the watching public into little more than a revenue stream – a dwindling one at that.
The second thing to remark upon is that Australian rugby has been in the vanguard of the game’s revival. Indeed,
salvation has come from an unexpected quarter: the Queensland Reds, the one-time whipping boys of Antipodean rugby. Deserved champions of the Super 15 title – the first Australian side to win the tri-nations championship since the Brumbies in 2004 – the Reds have stayed true to the founding heresy of William Webb Ellis: that the ball should be picked up, passed between advancing players and carried towards the try-line at maximum velocity.
The Reds’ star player, Quade Cooper, has been the author of much of their success, and should be on the verge of global stardom. He of the lurching sidestep, the extravagant dummy, and the kind of sleight of hand one would normally associate with a sidewalk huckster in Manhattan. I cannot think of an Australian sportsman who offers greater entertainment value. Similarly,
I cannot think of a player in world rugby who I would prefer to watch.
Were World Cups decided on back play alone, Australia might even enter the favourites. Feeding Quade Cooper the ball will be his Queensland teammate, Will Genia, a player also blessed with a sublime skills-set and whose game is all about possibilities rather than percentages. Then there is Kurtley Beale, with his Lamborghini-like acceleration, James O’Connor, with his precocious wing play, and Digby Ioane, who has Houdini’s talent for wriggling out of the most unpromising of situations.
That wily old coach, the Kiwi Robbie Deans, has also pulled off the pre-World Cup masterstroke of taking the captaincy away from an out-of-form Rocky Elsom, and placing it in the hands of the likeable lock, James Horwill. The main effect has been to make the Wallabies even more closely resemble the Queensland Reds, just as the Kangaroos have come to look a lot like the all-conquering Maroons.
Let’s not get carried away. The Wallabies are not the complete package. Far from it. At Eden Park last month, in the first Bledisloe encounter, they were bullied, mercilessly, by the All Blacks. As it proved that night, the pack often lacks the requisite hyper-aggression. On tours to the northern hemisphere, the Australian front row routinely spends so much time with their faces buried in the mud that it looks as if they are attempting to tunnel their way back home – an old joke, I know, but one that still warms the cockles on a frigid November afternoon at Twickenham. The squad, as a whole, lacks depth, and possibly maturity, as the pre-tournament controversies involving Cooper, Beale, and chiefly O’Connor have suggested. Still, to tread the dark-path sporting cliché, the Wallabies know they can beat any team of their day.
The great pity is that union does not have more of a following here or a higher television profile. When first I arrived, and was still oblivious to the sectarianism of Aussie sport, I was astounded by the story of a businessmen overnighting in Melbourne. Hoping to enjoy the Bledisloe Cup, he turned on Channel 7 and was startled to see Julie Andrews sing ‘Do-Re-Mi’ in The Sound of Music. A couple of years later, the same thing happened to me, when the channel’s Victorian affiliate once again ignored the trans-Tasman showdown and screened Cool Runnings, a comedy about the Jamaican bobsleigh team.
However, with your cricket team in decline, the mighty Kangaroos strangely fallible against the Kiwis and the Socceroos set to remain a second- or third-tier oufit, this could indeed be the year of the Wallabies. In rugby union’s recently rejuvenated form, I promise you there is no better footballing spectacle. Tune in this week, and let us hope you get to see the men in green and gold rather than the Von Trapp family singers.
Nick Bryant is a BBC foreign correspondent based in Sydney and author of Adventures in Correspondentland.