Lions can do the game of rugby in Australia a great service
While the game continues to flourish around the globe, in Australia it is struggling and in need of some help
Will Genia of the Reds, likely Wallaby scrumhalf against the Lions. Photograph: Getty Images
I doubt the Lions have ever toured a country where the hosts needed their visit more.
Like a winemaker who has neglected his vines and focused on the marketing of the product, the Australian rugby vineyard, that produced such great vintage Wallaby teams, has been left fallow and will take time to regenerate.
In the past I have written articles about this neglect. I have also written directly to the ARU. I am not surprised I did not receive any form of reply.
However, joyously, the embers of change appear to be glowing.
Bill Pulver, the newly appointed chief executive of the ARU, is going to the IRB with a series of special requests. These are about creating a new tier of competition in Australian rugby.
It is an Australia Super Rugby second XV competition to hopefully develop quality players. Australian Super Rugby needs a feeder competition.
The wonderful Sydney and Brisbane grade competitions, that produced almost all of Australia’s Wallabies have been so degraded they are tragically irrelevant. Like Ireland, many clubs are insolvent and the playing standard is poor.
Pulver will request the IRB to allow experimental laws in this new competition. The ARU wants 60 minutes games with five-minute sin bins. The motivation for this is born out of desperation. Australian rugby is broke and cannot fund a new “stand alone” competition.
The second XV games will be coached by the Super franchises’ Academy coaches and played as curtain-raisers to the main Super rugby fixtures, so the costs are negligible.
The hope is the punters will come one hour early and watch the “stars of the future”. If you think this reeks of desperation I would agree with you. However, Bill Pulver knows what I am telling you. It is desperate measures in desperate times in Australian rugby.
I hope the IRB understand that those of us who have been around a long time and love the game have grave concerns for the long-term viability of rugby in Australia.
In the past the ARU focused on the elite end of the game. They did this with great success for the Wallaby and Super rugby teams. However the ARU ignored the alarm bells being sounded by many rugby people, like myself, about the state of the game below the professional teams.
While the player production line has not collapsed, the quality of the skills in the creative players arriving at Super rugby has alarmingly reduced. Thankfully the new leadership in the ARU under Bill Pulver is attempting to put in place new structures. The IRB needs to help Australia help itself.
While the game continues to flourish around the globe, in Australia the contraction of supporters and sponsors is massive.
The recent media response to the announcement of the Lions touring squad as “slabs of meat” was to say the least, embarrassing.
Australian rugby is cut off from the rest of the rugby world. European rugby is not reported in Australia. The understanding of European rugby is negligible.
For example, despite an Australian relationship with Leinster stretching back to my commencement in 1999, the appointment of Matt O’Connor as Leinster coach was not mentioned here.
The education of Australian rugby people about the global aspect of rugby has deteriorated to the point of non- existence.
Here, dear readers, I am giving out a heartfelt and forlorn sigh.
So let me put it to you straight from an Australian perspective. The Lions are a very good squad. They are not slabs of meat. Robbie Deans know this.
The Lions management have thrown off the Ian McGeechan mantra that the mid- week team is the heart and soul of the tour. The 2005 Lions to New Zealand won the mid-week matches. They then got smashed in the Tests.
The Lions of 2013 are coming for the Tom “Rusty” Richards Trophy for the winning of the Tests.
For the first time in the professional era, the Lions are favourites.
I also believe the massive international interest in the series will shock the sporting mainstream Australia and intrigue the xenophobic media. With a lot of other rugby people who love the game in Australia, I pray the tour is a roaring, clamouring success.
The Wallaby team faces a massive challenge. To watch how they respond will be fascinating.
The Brumbies and the Reds are playing some good rugby. The Waratahs are fighting but are on a long journey. The Force and the Rebels are brave but low on talent.
A highly competitive 15 exists in the franchises. Those selected will wear the famous gold jersey so, underdogs or not, they are not to be dismissed.
While the stunningly beautiful Australian landscape will strike wonder into the hearts of the Lions supporters, those same supporters, who are coming in their tens of thousands, will force the sports-mad populace of Australia to remember the uniqueness of rugby’s spirit.
Maybe, just maybe, the IRB and the glorious tradition of the Lions can help Australian rugby people resurrect the game we love in Oz.