In 1992, after a year of press scandals and other misfortunes that plagued the royal family, the late Queen Elizabeth II would come to describe that tumultuous year as her annus horribilis (her horrible year for those of us not versed in Latin).
Australian rugby fans would be inclined to borrow Her Majesty’s terminology to describe this year. I certainly would.
We have been well-accustomed to PR snafus from Rugby Australia.
As the Wallabies began their descent from grace post-2003, we’ve seen a cycle of coaches getting strapped into the coach’s chair and getting ejected out fighter jet style unceremoniously when glimmers of success end up unsustained.
The perceived fall of the Wallabies and Australian rugby was further accelerated by off-field incidents (especially those involving the three amigos), baffling selections and media meltdowns from Michael Cheika, the tumultuous departure of Raelene Castle, and the threat of losing a broadcast partner in Foxtel.
By the time the Wallabies got dumped from the 2019 Rugby World Cup, fans would have started feeling that Australian rugby had hit rock bottom.
Some signs of better times began to appear in the following year. A new broadcasting deal was secured with Nine-Fairfax. An ad-hoc domestic version of Super Rugby and the Rugby Championship (minus the Springboks) were held while the pandemic raged and brought sports to a standstill elsewhere globally. The Rennie-coached Wallabies debuted and delivered a respectable draw in Wellington in October 2020.
The long national nightmare was ultimately still far from over.
Rennie’s run as coach was mediocre, with a string of injuries influencing narrow losses of his final few games in 2022.
On the other side of the world, the writing was on the wall for Eddie Jones over at the Rugby Football Union. McLennan, Marinos, and others may have been cunning in sensing the opportunity to bring back arguably Australia’s most famous rugby brain to our shores. Still, it’s hard to not feel as though Rennie had been treated without consideration. One can now only speculate whether he could have done better with the Wallabies this year.
Yet another PR snafu, but perhaps it was the bitter pill we had to swallow. The recently returned Eddie’s bold coaching choices seemed to be something that at least was different from what didn’t work in the past, even if it all seemed too ambitious, if not hare-brained.
What did we end up getting? The first pool exit in the Wallabies’ Rugby World Cup history and the Wallabies’ first wooden spoon in the Rugby Championship. Long-time servants of Australian rugby had their credentials and drive questioned. Perhaps the worst outcome of Eddie’s return was a chaotic and vitriolic sequence of media back-and-forths fuelled by a toxic cocktail of rumours, speculation, hostile comments, and of course, the failure to deliver the “smash and grab” promised to Aussie fans.
The Wallabies are now coachless, Eddie’s plans for the Wallaroos (if there were any) are unrealised. Eddie’s young squad will almost certainly carry the scars of this failed Rugby World Cup campaign for years to come. Unselected senior members of the squad who deserved their place must have watched in horror as the Wallabies crashed out of the tournament. The anguish of knowing they may not be around for 2027 surely adds salt to the wound.
Countless Wallabies fans who spent their hard-earned money travelling to France, buying merchandise, as well as those who tuned in despite kick-off times at absurd times in the morning must feel duped.
The absolute chaos that is the management of the Wallabies and Rugby Australia will surely scare off potential coaches and investors.
What happens now remains up in the air. We might see the return of McKellar, or a Wallabies coached by Bernie or some dark horse competitor for the vacant post. We might see mass-scale institutional change such as centralisation, the relaxation of Giteau’s law, or perhaps a chop-and-change of the format of Super Rugby and domestic rugby.
There are paths ahead, I’m not intelligent enough to say for sure what will work. In any case, I am certain Australia will not become a dominant Test side overnight.
Acknowledgement must be given to standout players such as Mark Nawaqanitawase who made their mark despite the horrific results that will serve Australia well in the future, alongside the victorious Wallaroos that gave the French girls a run for their money. We also have fans such as you, dear reader, who care enough about our sport to invest time, energy, and money to support our game.
Sports opinion delivered daily
Despite Mr Jones’s potential chagrin, I will not be giving myself an uppercut for the negativity expressed in this article.