Spiro takes the story on Andrew Walker and turns it into another story on Let's Get Rid of the Force..
If ever the Force needed ammunition for their first game of the season then this is it!
Let us cut to the chase. Stephen Larkham’s flirtation with selecting Andrew Walker as a playing member of the 2017 Brumbies squad was inexcusable and inexplicable.
It suggests that the Brumbies coach is reconciled with the probability of his team having a poor Super Rugby tournament. It is also an indictment on the development and identification of young rugby players in Australian.
As it happens, Larkham has gone to New Zealand’s Whareniu Hawera for his back-up playmaker.
There was no rugby or team-building logic in the Walker option. Admittedly, Walker had played for the Wallabies. But that was much more than a decade ago. And admittedly, again, he wasn’t the worst player in the Brisbane Tens tournament.
But there was nothing to suggest with his play that he could perform consistently at an acceptable level throughout the rigours of a Super Rugby tournament.
Decades ago, I was at Concord Oval and watched Andrew Walker play a blinder for a composite side. He was 16 at the time. I wrote an article for the Sydney Morning Herald suggesting that Australian rugby may have discovered a new Mark Ella.
Not quite, unfortunately. He never fulfilled his undoubted talents in rugby as a running playmaker. Moreover, he had problems coping with the discipline of being a professional athlete. He is now 46. He plays some rugby league but he hasn’t played serious rugby for well over a decade.
He wouldn’t last more than 40 minutes of real rugby in a Super Rugby match, even against one of the weaker sides.
If Andrew Walker is the question, what is the answer?
I have gone into some detail over this matter because it highlights some major deficiencies in the way Super Rugby is organised in Australia.
According to Larkham, a major advantage of having Walker in his squad, aside from covering up the losses to Brumbies playmaking numbers, is that he would provide leadership and experience to the younger players in the squad.
This is the same nonsense that the Wallaby coach Michael Cheika spouted in justifying bringing back Adam Ashley-Cooper, Matt Giteau and Drew Mitchell into the Wallabies last year.
The point here is that coaches should never look to over-the-hill veterans to provide leadership and insights into what it takes to be a professional for the younger members of their squads.
Current Brumbies coach Stephen Larkham
This leadership and experience should come from the older members of the squad, not ring-ins. And from the coaching staff. Isn’t this sort of leadership part of the job description of a rugby coach, after all?
What additional leadership and experience could Andrew Walker, say, provide to the Brumbies playmakers that the coach himself, the great Stephen Larkham, one of the greatest number tens in the history of rugby, could not provide?
My point here is that talent identification is not particularly strong within the Super Rugby franchises. A case in point is the way the Waratahs have lost great talent from its club system to other franchises because, for one reason or another, the coaching staff have been slow in recognising the ability, current and potential, of young club players.
Reece Hodge, now a star at the Melbourne Rebels, is a case in point.
Luckily, Larkham came to his senses and decided that the Brumbies actually need a back-up halfback, rather than Walker, to bolster the squad in a position where they are vulnerable.
And here we come to another endemic problem that is, and has been for a long time, creating problems for the Australian Super Rugby teams – the lack of a central contracting system run by the ARU.
The Brumbies desperately need a back-up halfback. But the Waratahs are warehousing three halfbacks, all of them capable of being starters in Australian Super Rugby teams: Matt Lucas, Nick Phipps and Jake Gordon.
Under a central contracting system, one of these three could be contracted out to the Brumbies.
This won’t happen under the franchise warehousing model. So the Waratahs will have three top halfbacks when they need only two. And the Brumbies have only one, when they need two.
For the sake of making a point about all this, if one of the Waratahs’ halfbacks had to go, my choice would be Nick Phipps.
The Waratahs' Nick Phipps makes a break
I know Phipps has been re-signed by the Waratahs and that he will be in the Wallabies squad. But it is time for the Waratahs and the Wallabies to move past him to younger players who have more to offer at halfback than he does.
The future for the Waratahs (and possibly with the Wallabies as a back-up halfback) lies with Jake Gordon, with Matt Lucas as his back-up.
Last year, the Brumbies started the Super Rugby tournament with a brilliant 52–10 annihilation of the Hurricanes. And after a strong start, they faded away but held on to win a top spot in the Australian Conference, with an automatic home final, even though they were ten points behind the top New Zealand side, the Hurricanes.
I can’t see the Brumbies coming close to emulating this (in the end) disappointing season. I think they will struggle to get out of the bottom five of the Super Rugby teams.
Judging from their play in the Brisbane Tens, a terrific tournament which provided useful insights into the capabilities (or lack of them) of the Australian teams, the Reds are likely to be the strongest Australian franchise.
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The Waratahs will be close to them. The other franchises, the Brumbies, the Rebels and the Force, don’t look to have the players or the organisation on the field to make a serious challenge to winning the tournament.
I say this with some regret because I have been hoping for some years that the Rebels would have a break-out season. When Tony McGahan came on board as coach, I thought he would be the mentor to make the team competitive as a real force in the tournament.
This hasn’t happened. It doesn’t look as though it is going to happen this year either.
The same critique applies to the Force. The point here is that the Force has far less potential to develop into a Super Rugby force than the Rebels. There is the tyranny of distance factor, in the first place, and the smaller market factor as a second consideration.
On Monday, the ARU board is apparently going to discuss the fate of the fifth Australian Super Rugby team. My hope is that the easy decision to scrap the Force and return the format of four Australian Super Rugby teams is not taken.
The better solution is to shift the Force to Parramatta in Sydney.
Dane Haylett-Petty of the Force
There is going to be a new league/football/rugby stadium built there. There is the potential of the large Islander communities, with their history and passion for rugby, living in the area. And there is the likelihood, if the marketing is spot on, on developing an east versus west sort of rivalry that football and the Big Bash have created.
Another consideration is that this would generally guarantee Sydney with at least one Super Rugby match each weekend.
A lot of work has already been done on the idea. Papers have been prepared which detail how the concept could be made to work. The ARU is in possession of these papers.
Does the ARU Board have the nous or the will to make a decision along these lines which could revitalise Super Rugby in Australia?
The point here as Andy Marinos, the chief executive of SANZAAR, has pointed out is that Super Rugby is the most watched tournament in the world, with 50 million viewers.
Marinos also insists that any changes to the Super Rugby format have to be agreed by all the SANZAAR unions. This gives the ARU the right to insist on keeping the fifth Australian team and then moving it to Parramatta.
Despite all the criticisms about the format of the Super Rugby tournament, it was as successful, as Marinos pointed out, on the field as it was off the field. Last year, for instance, points scored in Super rugby matches increased from 45.3 to 52 points and tries were up from 5.1 a match to 6.4.
Marinos is also hopeful that the Sunwolves, the Kings and the Jaguares will be more competitive this year than they were last year.
The Jaguares should be more competitive this year than they were last year. But the Kings, especially, and the Sunwolves, probably, will continue to struggle.
The Sunwolves, for instance, have to play the New Zealand teams this season. New Zealand rugby writers are predicting that there will be at least one match where the Sunwolves concede a century of points.
We shall see.
The point here is that in the long term there is more value in having the Sunwolves in the Super Rugby tournament than there is with a sixth South African team.
Sunwolves captain Shota Horie catches rugby
Either the Kings or the Cheetahs need to be dropped from the South African Super Rugby roster as a matter of urgency for 2018. Given the politicisation of South African rugby, the likelihood is that if a team is dropped it will be the Cheetahs, a perennially under-performing side.
There have been three Indabas (a conference, meetings or gathering of leading figures to come to important decisions) about the future of South African rugby and how to coordinate contracting, coaching and playing structures throughout the Republic.
The feeling is that the dismal performance of the South African Super Rugby teams in 2016, aside from the Lions, might be turned around. This is unlikely.
The Stormers, for instance, last year’s second best African Conference team, have to run the gauntlet of playing the New Zealand teams. This is certain to result in more losses than wins for them against New Zealand Conference teams than when they played against the Australian Conference teams last season.
The fascinating question in this year’s Super Rugby tournament is whether the New Zealand teams will dominate the teams from the Australian and South African conferences the way they did in 2016. New Zealand teams played 44 matches against the teams from the two other conferences. They won 36 of these matches, conceded seven losses and a draw.
It is salutary to reflect, in the light of these statistics, that the first New Zealand Conference versus Australian Conference match in 2016 resulted in the Brumbies thrashing the Hurricanes 52–10 at Canberra.
New Zealand teams tend to start their Super Rugby campaigns slowly. On Thursday, therefore, the Rebels need to defeat the Blues at Melbourne to give themselves any chance, in my view, of making the finals.
My fearful prediction for the Super Rugby 2017 tournament is that the two tops teams in each of the conferences will be:
Africa Conference: The Lions and Jaguares.
New Zealand Conference: The Crusaders and Hurricanes.
Australian Conference: The Reds and Waratahs.