Rugby in Australia is currently riding the crest of a wave thanks in most part to the success of the Wallabies in what has been a stellar year.
The future development of the sport will depend on how the Australian Rugby Union (ARU) uses that success: will it be a wipe-out or will it achieve the growth for which it has been striving?
Australia has a wealth of rugby players, men and women, but the pathways they can follow vary greatly.
The Australian representative teams at a professional, national level are the Wallabies in XVs and the Australian Sevens (both Men’s and Women’s).
The women’s XVs -- the Wallaroos -- is the only non-professional representative squad. This team participates at the Women’s Rugby World Cup every four years -- the next of which is in Ireland in 2017.
These women are not contracted, their program is camp based and most play club rugby across the country with players selected for state teams to compete at the annual National XVs Championships.
Under the guidance of new coach Michael Cheika, the Wallabies squad has emerged from the quagmire of controversy, poor performance and player discipline problems to lay down performances in 2015 which have changed perceptions of the sport and of the team both internally with the players themselves and in the eyes of the public.
With 10 wins this year -- the team’s best performance since 1999 -- including the Rugby Championship title and a successful Rugby World Cup campaign (despite the fall at the final hurdle), the Wallabies have surprised both their supporters and the rugby world at large with the rate of development under the new coach.
Cheika’s philosophy of hard work, a strong team culture and enjoyment of the game is a testament to the keen eye this man has for the sport but more importantly for people management.
But the Wallabies are just the tip -- the very visible tip -- of the proverbial iceberg in the Australian rugby landscape.
Sharing the national responsibilities on the world stage of rugby with the Wallabies is the Australian Sevens rugby unit -- a Men’s team and a women’s team.
Existing far more, and not out of choice, in the shadows of the Australian rugby landscape, both Sevens teams are full time, professional, contracted squads of at least 21 players per squad with a clear development plan for growth over the coming years.
These two teams are among the busiest of the nation’s rugby players, playing the World Rugby Sevens World Series each year as well as the Rugby Sevens World Cup, the Commonwealth Games and, as of next year, the Olympics.
Mistakenly viewed by many as a subordinate to XVs, Sevens Rugby in Australia is played both at the grass roots/club level in urban and regional communities as well as at the national representative level.
Where once the Australian Sevens team was seen as a stepping stone only to XVs rugby and perhaps to Wallabies selection, it now shares the professional sporting platform with the XVs national team.
Former Australian XVs and Sevens player and now Australian Sevens coach, Tim Walsh, says that Sevens is a big piece of the development puzzle for Australian rugby.
“It’s one of the fastest growing women’s sports in the world and is also growing in popularity in the men’s game,” he told The Huffington Post.
Where once Sevens was seen as just a pathway to Super Rugby and even the Wallabies, Walsh says it is now also a career in its own right with a full-time professional program and decent salaries.
Walsh is the Women’s Head Coach and is also currently operating as the interim Head Coach for the Men’s team following the unexpected resignation of Geraint John in August.
He believes that people logically want to see the best players playing for Australia.
“Whether that is XVs players that come across, it all depends. The argument is the testing of the waters around what it would take to be a Sevens player: if you haven’t played sevens before, how quickly can you adapt to it, how quickly can you understand the games -- I think it’s all on an individual basis,” Walsh said.
“(Sevens) is a place to make your Rugby better. You make twice as many passes, you make twice as many tackles, you’re under massive amounts of pressure because all your skills are magnified (and) you have to be able to do everything on the field – you’ve got to be jack-of-all-trades and be the master of a few. Everything you do, you have to do at a really high level. And to play for Australia, you have to do it an elite level,” he said.
In the modern era of rugby, more nations are realising that the two forms are not mutually exclusive and that, for the right player, Sevens offers another avenue to hone your skills and to have it as a career or utilise the pathway to XVs.
Former Wallabies player Phil Waugh told Fox Sports, the flow and integration of players between XVs and Sevens is important to the growth of the sport as was witnessed by the number of Sevens players involved in the recent Rugby World Cup across many nations.
“The growth of these second tier nations (like Japan and Georgia) is very exciting for world rugby and with the introduction of Sevens into the Olympics you’re going to see more and more teams come up … it’s an exciting time for Rugby,” he said.
The Super Rugby ranks, from which most of the Australian national players emerge, had a debatably good season this year. The experts who judge success by the numbers will tell you crowd figures were down at most matches in Australia, but if you look at the wealth of talent within the Australian franchises, from which Cheika has had to choose most of his national squad, then the competition could be assessed as doing well in terms of the sport’s growth.
The 2016 Super Rugby competition will build on this growth with the inclusion of a team from Japan, one from Argentina and a sixth South African team -- all of which will be added to the South African conference which will then be divided into two parts.
For several years, these rugby competitions have left the Australian system somewhat top-heavy with a gap between club rugby in each state and the Super Rugby and Wallabies echelon at the elite level.
There have been attempts over the years by the ARU to address this but with little real success.
In 2014, Australian rugby’s governing body launched the NRC.
The NRC is a national domestic rugby competition featuring nine teams from across Australia (four states and the ACT).
The purpose of the competition is two-fold: it looks to give players a development pathway to the upper levels of elite competition and it seeks to grow the game’s profile within Australia.
Very much the third (if not fourth) football code behind AFL, Rugby League and Football (soccer), rugby is bridging the gap between grass roots and elite levels of competition -- and it’s succeeding.
In its second year, the competition saw Brisbane City take out the title in back-to-back wins as it benefits from both the support of Super Rugby talent and the development of a strong in-house talent pool.
But in the bigger picture, the competition grew both in the game tactics and in the style of play as well as in the promotion of the format through match broadcasts and online streaming with Fox Sports and local sports broadcaster Bar TV.
Players such as Liam Gill, Sean McMahon and Bernard Foley are just a few of those who have been involved in the various formats of rugby -- the NRC, Super, Sevens and the Wallabies -- on offer in the Australian system with the pathways now becoming more apparent and accessible.
With Rio 2016 on the horizon, interest has piqued from the XVs quarter for players with previous Sevens experience as well as those without, but keen to represent Australia on the Olympic stage.
However the ARU has deemed that any player interested in playing in Rio must put in time in 2016 with the Aussie Sevens team through training and the World Series campaign.
Henry Speight has signed up for Sevens duty and is now part of the training squad having returned from World Cup duties, while recent Toulon inductee Quade Cooper has finalised his French contract with an ‘Olympic clause’.
Although, as Walsh says, the specialisation of the format means those already performing as elite exponents of the sport will be hard to unseat.
“We want to get the best players playing Sevens and the best rugby players playing for Australia," he said.
"Certainly the current squad are on the front foot completely -- they understand Sevens, they’re resilient, they’re fit, they’re elite Sevens players so for other players to come in, they’ll have to prove themselves and prove that they’re going to be able to handle it and understand it. You can’t just rock up and think ‘oh yeah, this is just rugby’, you need to understand the game, you need to understand the ins and outs and your body needs to be able to understand the on/off, on/off three games a day.
“Playing for the Wallabies -- at a Rugby World Cup -- is still every player’s dream. But playing for your country at an Olympic Games as well as in a World Series is going to creep into the minds of a lot of players and I think the benefit of playing Sevens can only benefit, as a player, your ability to force selection for the Wallabies as well."
The next year holds a lot of expectation of the Wallabies but there is also an intense and gruelling HSBC World Series campaign ahead for the Australian Sevens teams ahead of the Olympics next August as well as an expanded and much anticipated Super Rugby season in the new year.
It all bodes well for the calibre of Australian Rugby across all formats, but the ARU must work hard to capitalise on the raised public awareness which is now coming off the back of a strong World Cup campaign.Suggest a correction