The Wallabies and the rugby league myth

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Despite the shambolic Rugby World Cup campaign, the Wallabies are already in rugby’s best ‘club’: SANZAAR.

Former Rugby Australia chief executive Andy Marinos was big on it: the fact that the unique and brutal challenges of the Rugby Championship prepared the four SANZAAR teams for World Cups in a way the Six Nations couldn’t match.

And, here we are, on the eve of the Rugby World Cup semi-finals with that very thesis proving to be true again – three southern hemisphere teams in the last four, to be overseen by two SANZAAR referees.

It’s nothing short of a massive vindication of the partnership itself, and arguably shows that the Rugby Championship is peerless in terms of preparing players for the World Cup, and more important than the (flawed) Super Rugby Pacific competition that sits underneath it.

There are clearly massive benefits to being part of this four-nation club, opportunities that Fiji, Japan, Samoa, Tonga, Uruguay, Portugal, Georgia et al would walk over broken glass for.

That’s why it’s hard to cop the constant moaning in Australian rugby about the challenges presented by the NRL and the AFL.

Rugby’s woes have little to do with the dominance of the NRL and AFL, they are almost all self-inflicted.Credit: AP

They don’t know how good they’ve got it, and it’s time for the game to collectively dry its eyes, harden up, and get a lot smarter about what makes a good rugby team.

Rugby has become so specialised, and so different from league (never mind AFL), that you could probably count on one hand the number of NRL players who would make any sort of the difference to the Wallabies.

And that works both ways. Here’s a specific example: when the Australian under-18s lost their two-game series to New Zealand Schools in September, the two players who impressed me the most would be of zero interest to NRL scouts. Zero.

Tight-head prop Will Goddard and No.7 Austin Durbridge caused the Kiwis issues because of their ability to scrummage and contest for the ball on the ground, respectively.

How much work do the Wallabies have to do to be competitive again, Eddie?Credit: Getty

In other words, Rugby Australia doesn’t even need to compete for the players that can actually improve their teams – they’re already out there, and they’re willing to bust a gut for the Wallabies jersey if administrators could do their jobs properly.

For every $100 of Rugby Australia development money, $95 of it should be spent on blokes like Goddard and Durbridge, and $5 for the almost irrelevant pool of ‘crossover’ athletes – outside backs who could play in both the NRL and rugby.

Here’s how you build a rugby team: you get four props who just want to scrum, one nasty 200cm lock and one intelligent 200cm lock, a 195cm No.6 who can win lineouts, a ruck-pig No.7, a Teddy Wilson at No.9, a No.10 and a No.15 who have played the game since he was zero years old, and a smart No.13 who can read the game and win breakdown penalties out wide.

There is no NRL route to Wallabies success. The two most ‘league’ teams in the Rugby World Cup – Ireland under Andy Farrell and France with Shaun Edwards as defence king – went out last weekend, after the All Blacks decoded Ireland’s league attack and France couldn’t cope with high balls or the Springboks’ superior prop rotation.

Players like Portugal’s Nicolas Martins would do almost anything to have the Rugby Championship opportunities gifted to the Wallabies.Credit: Getty

It defies belief that this stuff needs to be pointed out – and it certainly doesn’t help when the Wallabies coach is a big NRL fan who gives the impression that if Souths came knocking he would ditch the Wallabies and Japan.

So, for all of its flaws, Australian rugby is part of the annual championship that has dominated Rugby World Cups far too often for it to be a mistake. Since their admission to the Rugby Championship in 2012, Argentina have a better World Cup record than any of the Six Nations teams bar England.

You can therefore spare me all the talk about the hurdles facing Australian rugby: the current predicament is purely the result of self-inflicted wounds, poor decisions and an inability to properly develop gold nuggets such as Goddard and Durbridge when they come along.

Watch all the action from Rugby World Cup 2023 on the Home of Rugby, Stan Sport. Every match streaming ad-free, live and in 4K UHD with replays, mini matches and highlights available on demand.

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