‘It’ll take a miracle’: decades of decline leave Australian rugby at dire

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It’s the last week of summer and footy scarves are being dusted off nationwide. The NRL is gearing up for a double-header in Las Vegas. The AFL’s main arena just received the rolled-gold endorsement of Taylor Swift, and the Matildas are primed for the final leg of their Paris 2024 Olympic qualification – and their 12th straight sold out home game.

Where is rugby union? Launching a new Super Rugby Pacific season on the quiet in New Zealand last week, bracing for a reminder of the 2023 World Cup disaster after a new documentary went to air on Thursday, and trying to get tickets on sale for the Melbourne Rebels v ACT Brumbies round one game on Friday, despite the former being in administration. For “the game they play in heaven”, 2024 is another fresh hell en route to a final reckoning.

The 2024 Super Rugby Pacific season kicks off on Friday night. Photograph: Alan Lee/AAP

For two long decades, Australian rugby has rotted from its head office to its heartland. The once-proud and powerful code is fractured in so many places, in so many ways, few believe it can be rebuilt. It has heavy debt, a “broken system”, struggling participation rates, anaemic broadcast numbers, bleak crowd figures, major struggles on the field – and balance sheets.

But when you’re going through hell, what else is there but to keep going?

“There a fair bit of PTSD from last season,” says Morgan Turinui, Wallaby #782. “It was a year of big mistakes and wasted opportunities. We’ve still got a system with plenty of flaws. But we’ve got a women’s side who are favourites for Olympic gold this year, a British & Irish Lions tour in 2025, and a men’s and women’s World Cup in Australia in 2027 and 2029 – all great opportunities. Rugby can’t afford to squander them.”

For Rugby Australia, 2024 is the start of the great reset. Chairman Hamish McLennan and coach Eddie Jones exited last year and in came a new CEO (Phil Waugh) and chairman (Wallaby #715 Dan Herbert), a new Wallabies coach (Joe Schmidt) and high performance director (Peter Horne) and a first female coach of the Wallaroos (Joanne Yapp). Together, they’re planning to save the game, and unite rugby’s warring clans at last.

Eddie Jones walked away from Australian rugby in October last year. Photograph: Julian Finney/World Rugby/Getty Images

Many aren’t so confident. “Australian rugby embodies dysfunction at its worst,” one RA executive tells the Guardian. “There was no governance around the decision to hire Eddie Jones and he unleashed unmitigated chaos. The culture [former coach] Dave Rennie built, Eddie destroyed. Phil Waugh is a leader among players and a great guy but getting this game out of the mess it’s got itself in these past 20 years, it’ll take a miracle.”

That miracle mile starts this weekend with a new Super Rugby Pacific season. It seems as good a place as any to discuss the game’s failings and future. No Australian side has won a Super title since 2014,…

Read More: ‘It’ll take a miracle’: decades of decline leave Australian rugby at dire 2024-02-23 02:04:00

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