Rugby Union Needed a Scandal

Scandal. Hardly a word synonymous with the Qantas Wallabies, until Kurtley Beale’s lewd text message opened the gate for what is perhaps, in my opinion, the most delicious sports scandal of the decade.

It’s delicious because it’s the Wallabies. The Wallabies are like Enron – a giant, soulless corporation now embroiled in a clusterfuck entirely of their own doing. All the Harvard Business degrees in the world couldn’t save them from their own hubris.

The Wallabies have been mismanaged, sure. Not in an illegal, Enron-like way, but in a way that is befitting of their blueblood roots. The Wallabies employed a typically antiquated corporate structure, and boy has it come back to bite. And MacKenzie’s inability to properly man manage a bunch of entitled prima donnas is, if you’ll believe the noise, what brought this all to the surface.

But it cuts far deeper than that.

Great branding
Great branding

In the last 30 years, scandal has been the domain of rugby league for the most part. Low-rent scandal, involving steroids, sexual assaults and racial tirades have become de rigueur – not withstanding the occasional contract fracas and a corporate dispute in the mid-90s that threatened the game’s very existence.

But the Wallabies seemed immune to such calamities.

McKenzie, sadly, has denied all allegations that he had an affair with Wallabies business manager Di Patston. I say this is sad because, really, it would have been on-brand for rugby union in general. A CEO having a sordid tryst with a barely qualified female subordinate is very corporate, and thus very Wallabies.

This would have been the kind of narrative to get people talking about rugby again. It would have been a positive for rugby union. This would have been rugby union’s Lewinsky scandal – an error of judgement designed to humanise the Qantas Wallabies.

But this text messaging/alleged affair ‘scandal’ isn’t the real story. Instead, this story is about mismanagement on a corporate level. The very thing the Wallabies – a corporate entity, run by private school-educated jocks with supposed business acumen – should excel at. It’s also about cultural inertia. Really, it’s a far sadder story than originally met the eye.

Remember me?
Remember me?

The Wallabies have failed to modernise effectively. This week, Malcolm Knox wrote that two decades into professionalism, Australian rugby finds itself “in a similar position to English county cricket in the late 20th Century: a rigid, over-staffed bureaucratic machine dedicated to filling excess time, eliminating risk and burying natural talent under conservative ‘structures’ and ‘systems’.”

He adds:

Thinking of Wallabies of the 1980s and early 1990s, who could possibly say that professionalism has increased anything other than players’ size? There doesn’t seem to have been any increase in skill, and there is a visible depletion of joy.

Knox is right: the Wallabies are risk averse – and not just on the field. They certainly do not play with the joie de vivre of the Campese era, despite their vast pool of backline talent.

What’s more, structures and ‘systems’ do not enable talent to excel. They stifle them. And these models certainly are not indicators of modernity.

Personally, I grew up in the formative years of sports science and ‘systems’ (the 1990s/early 2000s). As a junior, I spent time in unnecessary “youth academies” that were designed to nurture talent and enable it to prosper, but in reality, did the opposite.

"This is how it's done, bud."
“This is how it’s done, bud.”

Those who were slightly outside the norm had their techniques toyed with by ‘qualified’ coaches, thus helping to eliminate unique players  in favour of less talented individuals with a solid technique, a good attitude and work ethic.* Meanwhile, the superstar juniors were given the widest of berths, as Knox pointed out in his article, ala Kurtley Beale, which obviously breeds ill-discipline.

As a private school product myself – one who generally eschewed the typical ‘jock’ pathway in search of something arguably more meaningful – I derive great schadenfraude from the Wallabies’ malaise.

The ARU is run by a bunch of self-entitled, bloated private school jocks who lack the kind of out-of-the-box thinking that drives great companies to innovate; to elevate themselves above mediocrity and into the annals of history. They play it safe.

They invest in low-yield blue chip funds and sit there expecting to see their dividends soar. But by the same token, they will occasionally engage in risky speculation with very little due diligence. This lack of cohesion is what the Wallabies have become today. A share portfolio comprised of solid ASX banking stocks and volatile tech-boom stocks in equal measure.**

Hmm, maybe the banks aren't in such good shape.
Hmm, maybe the banks aren’t in such good shape.

To pen another patented TPA analogy, watching the Wallabies suffer is like watching the popular school jock struggle with alcoholism/drugs and unemployment upon finishing high school. Despite “having it all,” he simply can’t function in the real world.

His state school counterparts – the All Blacks, for example – are relishing in their new-found adulthood. They’re disciplined, culturally cohesive, and single-minded in their goals. The Wallabies, however, are a disparate shambles behind the scenes – and this lack of cohesion and culture has been reflected on the field for some time now.

Despite all this, I do feel sad at the Wallabies’ decline, and I do wish that, generally speaking, Australian rugby could get its shit together.

This is our national team, and this is a national game. It deserves far better than to be run to the ground by a small group of narrow-minded jocks.

By Dave Edwards

 * Obviously I am implying that I was one of these X Factor players. Fuck I was good.

** I hope that analogy made sense. Basically, James Horwill is BHP Biliton and Kurtley Beale is a late 90’s Dot Com bust.

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