I’m wary of attributing too many life lessons to the sporting field, but there’s one every rugby forward was meant to know back in the day: Whatever else is happening, whatever the score, whatever time is left on the clock, whatever your pain, you extract yourself up from the bottom of the ruck and get to the next one.
And so, once more, an attempt to save the game they play in heaven from the professional hell it’s suffering in Australia – thrashed yet again by those rugby kings across the ditch, losing the Bledisloe Cup for the 16th year on the trot and looking like continuing to lose it indefinitely.
The good news is that the Wallabies can again be the world’s top team and consistently defeat the All Blacks. The bad news is that it will take about 15 years of solid work and investment to get there.
The alternative, though, is to watch the game wither further, sliding down the ranks until we consider ourselves lucky to snatch the occasional game from any of the European sides.
And that investment and work is not where just about everyone else reckons it should be.
After consecutive comprehensive defeats, it’s tempting for fans to blame the usual suspects – the coach, some of the players, the administrators. The reality is that there are no other coaches or players around who would make much difference.
The administrators, however, are responsible for the poor health of the code, for its support being eaten away by other religions. The common cry is that more resources should be put into the game’s grassroots – club rugby. Well, yes, but no.
The former boss of rugby in Australia, John O’Neill, had neatly summarised professional rugby’s fall before Saturday’s Wallabies slaughter, how it had dropped to a distant fourth behind the other codes on key metrics, how AFL in particular was stealing supporters.
Mr O’Neill made good points about the need for a more suitable Super Rugby format, for getting it on prime time free-to-air TV, not locked away on Foxtel, but we members of the rugby faith must hope he is wrong when he said: “The thing you can’t hide from, the health and wellbeing of the game of rugby, it critically hinges on the Wallabies.
“The cold hard truth is what pays the bills is the Wallabies and the Super Rugby teams. They are the rainmakers and they haven’t been making any rain.”
Before the Wallabies and Super Rugby teams can save the game, they have to be saved.
Which is where a 15-year commitment to getting up from the bottom of the ruck comes in: Rugby Union must urgently outperform AFL, soccer and league in grabbing the hearts, minds and imaginations of primary school boys and girls.
Instead of leaving it to the parents and kids to force their way past the other codes and distractions to play rugby – and pay rather dearly for the supposed privilege – the game has to be taken to them en masse, including to the children who don’t have the parental support necessary to play club sport.
And the way to do that is through the soft start of touch Walla Rugby and the opportunity that comes from state and parish Catholic schools not playing competitive team sports.
Provide the development officers to coach and organise mixed-team touch competitions that run all winter. Provide the buses and the insurance and the grounds. Capture their sweet little hearts with the unbridled joy of running with and passing a rugby ball, of banding together against a common foe, of competing, of learning to win and lose.
The schools and teachers would love it – someone else taking the kids off their hands. Heavens, they let in AFL types just for catch-and-kick stuff. For reliable, regular, very professionally organised, wonderfully healthy sport for all shapes, sizes, skills and sexes – they’re yours and off to the staff room. The better teachers will want to be part of it themselves.
And the kids, oh, the kids more than love it. I’ve seen it happen twice in primary schools. Unfortunately they were just one-off tournaments, one a boys knockout tackle comp, the other a half-day mixed touch festival.
After a few weeks training, the mixed Walla Rugby team went so very close to winning the school a new TV. It was huge, as was the cheer squad. The tribalism of sport is a wonderful way to unite a class.
As for the boys’ rugby, I’d like to tell you a little north shore Catholic school, with a core of club rugby boys bolstered by classmates quickly converted from soccer and Aussie Rules, overcame the odds of drawing a much larger school from rugby league heartland as their first opponents.
But they didn’t. They weren’t disgraced. They were certainly tackled. They were bruised and scraped. They never stopped. They scored tries, but just not enough. And with red and green frogs all round after the game, they were happy. They’d all played rugby together. And not all of the heathens stayed with soccer thereafter.
That’s the best way to support the club rugby grassroots – get more cattle, subsidise the development officers to be the code’s ambassadors, kings of the kids, identifying and encouraging talent.
To be beaten by the All Blacks is painful, to be out-proselytised by aerial ping-pong is simply appalling, but that’s what’s been happening. Time to start the 15-year plan to win.