Australian rugby needs an Anglo-Saxon coach if it wants to win

Australia will be able to regain something of its former glory in international rugby only when it is coached by an Anglo-Saxon. The Wallabies, as the team is known, may go as far as the world cup final, but will not win until a coach who can understand the prevailing dominant Anglo culture within the team is guiding its fortunes.

Australia takes on New Zealand in a Blesisloe Cup game on 29 July. Courtesy YouTube
Australia takes on New Zealand in a Bledisloe Cup game on 29 July. Courtesy YouTube

Australia has won the rugby World Cup twice. In 1991, Bob Dwyer was the coach; in 1999, it was Rod MacQueen. Both white men, steeped in the same culture as the team.

But now, things have changed quite a bit. There are a fair number of non-whites in the team, predominantly from the Pacific Islands. This is partly because the game tends to come naturally to people from that part of the world and partly because the pool of youngsters from whom one can select possible players is getting smaller and smaller. Rugby is a game mostly played in private schools and is an expensive and physically demanding sport; thus, the numbers who take it up are small.

Further, rugby union is last in the popularity stakes when it comes to football codes in Australia. Rugby league is far and away the most popular and attracts the most players, followed by AFL and soccer (the round-ball game). Union is last and the numbers coming through are falling with each passing year.

The Australian team has long had an Anglo culture which does not really sit very well with a majority of the team. This was the Australian team for its most recent game, on July 29: Andrew Kellaway, Mark Nawaqanitawase, Jordan Petaia, Samu Kerevi, Marika Koroibete, Carter Gordon, Tate McDermott, Rob Valetini, Tom Hooper, Jed Holloway, Will Skelton, Nick Frost, Allan Alaalatoa, David Porecki and Angus Bell.

Only seven of the 15 are white. The substitutes were: Jordan Uelese, James Slipper, Taniela Tupou, Richie Arnold, Rob Leota, Nic White, Quade Cooper and Izaia Perese. Once again, a majority were non-whites, in this case five out of eight.

In the past, the Australian team had a culture built around booze. That has had to be toned down in recent years. The Pacific Islanders are largely from a Christian background, and, even if they are not Holy Joes who attend church every Sunday, Australian culture, which is largely derived from its British roots, does not exactly sit well with them.

One incident, which is not discussed much these days, and one which has caused a good deal of division within the squad, is the Israel Folau affair. In 2018, Folau, the full-back at the time, wrote a post on Instagram saying adulterers, drunkards, fornicators, homosexuals and the like would all go to hell if they did not repent and come to Jesus. In this, he was merely stating what the Bible says about such people. He was cautioned about such posts by Rugby Australia.

A second similar post in 2019 resulted in a fairly big outcry among the media and those who champion the gay cause. Folau had a number of meetings with his employers and was finally shown the door. He was on a four-year $4 million contract so he lost a considerable amount of cash. The Australian team lost a lot too, as he was by far the best player. The main sponsor of the team was Qantas and the chief executive, Alan Joyce, is gay. There have been rumours that Joyce was a pivotal force in pushing for Folau’s sacking.

Soon after this, Folau announced that he was suing Rugby Australia and sought to raise $3 million for defending himself. His campaign on GoFundMe reached about $750,000 when it was pulled down by the site. But the Christian lobby started another fund for Folau and it raised well beyond a million dollars. The case was finally settled, but the settlement amount is unknown. This year, Folau will turn out for Tonga, having qualified to play for that country.

A two-part documentary on the Folau incident was recently screened by Australia’s public broadcaster, the ABC. But given the broadcaster’s inherent biases, the documentary tended to come down on the side of the anti-Folau camp, though it did canvass the views of some of Folau’s teammates who spoke in support of him. Others were clearly conflicted by what happened. Had the whole squad been accepting of the Western interpretation of this incident — that Folau was in the wrong — then there would not have been a problem. But there was clearly division which has not, allegedly, yet gone away.

The new Australian coach, Eddie Jones, is of mixed parentage: he has a Japanese mother and an Anglo-Saxon father. He was in charge during the early 2000s as well and guided the team to the 2003 final, where they lost to England. The team that played in the final was: Mat Rogers, Wendell Sailor, Stirling Mortlock, Elton Flatley, Lote Tuqiri, Stephen Larkham, George Gregan, David Lyons, Phil Waugh, George Smith, Nathan Sharpe, Justin Harrison, Al Baxter, Brendan Cannon and Bill Young. The substitutes were: Jeremy Paul, Matt Dunning, David Giffin, Matt Cockbain, Chris Whitaker, Matt Giteau and Joe Roff.

It is easy to see that the majority was of Anglo-Saxon origin. The culture within the team reflected that. Jones was the oddball among the lot and the team lost at the last hurdle.

In 2015, Australia again made the final, but this was due to a ghastly error by South African referee Craig Joubert in the quarter-final. As a report says, “World Rugby has conceded that the controversial decision by Craig Joubert to award Australia a penalty in the dying moments of their late victory over Scotland was wrong…” Had the correct decision been made, Scotland would have advanced to the semi-final where they would have played Argentina. Who would have won is anybody’s guess. Australia defeated Argentina but was soundly beaten by New Zealand in the final.

After Australia lost to New Zealand on July 29 just gone by, Jones made reference to cultural problems within the team, without providing any detail. It is pertinent to mention here that New Zealand had a cultural problem within the team in the early 2000s; the team, known as the All Blacks, have a decent percentage of islanders.

However, this culture issue was sorted out by the players and officials and resolved to everyone’s satisfaction. It is detailed in a book titled Legacy: What the All Blacks Can Teach Us about the Business of Life, and any rugby fan who wants to understand how the culture within a team can hold it back should get hold of a copy and read it.

Australia needs to go through a similar exercise to sort out its identity and decide on the culture that the team will adopt. But given the dominant culture in this country, it is unlikely that there will be a consensus on anything other than an Anglo-Saxon culture. And that is why only an Anglo-Saxon coach will be able to restore the primacy of Australia as a rugby power.

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