Recapping a wild 51 weeks since the Wallabies last played


And we thought 2019 was a chaotic year for Australian rugby.

From the Israel Folau saga to the Wallabies’ World Cup hellhole, Michael Cheika’s unceremonious exit and the continued fallout from that failed campaign, we could have been forgiven for thinking brighter days lay upon the horizon in 2020.

And so they did, for a while at least, as now former Rugby Australia chief executive Raelene Castle secured and director of rugby Scott Johnson convinced Dave Rennie to sign on as Cheika’s Wallabies replacement.

When Rennie landed in Sydney in late January, coronavirus was little more than a 30-second voiceover between the third and fourth advertising breaks of the 6pm news bulletins. Super Rugby was rocketing through its early weeks, even resulting in two Australian wins in New Zealand. The rest of 2020 was seemingly filled with hope and prosperity.

But just six weeks later when New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced the closing of the country’s borders, and Australia counterpart Scott Morrison soon followed, the game in Australia was staring down complete obliteration.

And Sunday afternoon’s Bledisloe opener could not have been further from reality.

But here we are just a few days out from a first Test in the southern hemisphere, a match that, somewhat amazingly, will be played just a week shy of a full year since the Wallabies most recent outing: the 40-17 quarterfinal thrashing by England in Oita.

Here’s how the last [almost] 51 weeks have gone down.


Repeatedly quizzed about his future immediately after Australia’s loss to England, Cheika called for a bit of empathy on the part of journalists buried deep within the corridors of Oita Stadium on Oct. 19 last year. We knew his time was over. He knew his time was over. But Cheika would wait until the following day, conveniently just as the France vs. Wales quarterfinal was kicking off, before announcing he was stepping down. In the weeks and months which followed, stories of Cheika’s, at times, explosive, reign would emerge; the two biggest of which were a public run-in with Castle at a Wallabies fan event in Tokyo and Michael O’Connor’s forthright appraisal of his fellow selector’s coaching ability.


Once Cheika had retreated back to the Wallabies’ Oita changing room, consoling his team for what he knew would be the final time, and the Australian players had themselves trudged through the mixed zone, the travelling pack of Australian journalists were told to stay behind for an opportunity to speak with Castle. She was quizzed, rightfully, about RA’s decision to retain Cheika at the end of a disastrous 2018 when Australia won just four of 13 Tests, but she also insisted it had identified a clear choice as to who could replace Cheika in the top job and that he hadn’t been available when the review was conducted at the end of 2018. Thirty-one days later, Castle had her man, as Dave Rennie was unveiled on a three-and-a-half-year deal.


The warm glow of a new coaching announcement didn’t last long, however. The Folau social media saga, which by then had been running for nine months after he had reignited his anti-gay postings in April, was finally resolved via a confidential financial settlement on Dec. 4. It was reported in some publications as being as much as AU$8 million but more accurately placed in the region of AU$2-4 million. Folau would later take up a contract with Catalans in the English Super League, while stakeholders across the game in Australia were happy the ugly saga had run its course. As for Folau, a three-time John Eales Medalist, and his legacy? Well that depends on whom you talk to.


For 25 years, Rugby Australia had tied its content to Foxtel. The two parties had enjoyed a largely successful partnership, though the increase that came with the last deal had largely been borne out of a bidding war in the United Kingdom. When Castle refused an initial offer from Foxtel to continue the partnership for another five years, at virtually the existing price, she took rugby’s broadcast rights to market, initially receiving genuine interest from telecommunications provider Optus, who were then reportedly keen to expand their sports offering beyond football. The decision was seen as a public campaign to undermine Castle and prove that rugby was in no position to ignore its original offer.


It wasn’t until Mar. 14 that Super Rugby was suspended, and then later cancelled, but the writing had been on the wall for weeks. The Sunwolves — who may or may not be ever seen again — had been forced to base themselves in Australia with the COVID-19 situation already deteriorating in Japan, and it wouldn’t be long before the pandemic would hit Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Argentina; the latter two nations still fighting to contain the spread of the virus today.


In what proved to be one of the final blows to Castle’s tenure as RA chief executive, 11 Wallabies co-signed a letter calling for change at the top of Australian rugby. “In recent times, the Australian game has lost its way. It is a defeat inflicted not by COVID-19, or an on-field foe, but rather by poor administration and leadership over a number of years,” the letter read. Nick Farr-Jones was believed to be the leader of the group with interim chairman Paul McLean later issuing response that he was prepared to meet with the group and that RA would “value” its input as the code attempted to save itself from ruin. Just a couple of days later, the group had seemingly achieved its central goal: The removal of Castle.


In the end, the noise just became too loud for Rugby Australia to ignore. On the afternoon of Apr. 23, interim RA chairman Paul McLean informed Castle that she no longer had the support of the board, which led her to step down from her role as chief executive. Such had been the News Corp campaign to unseat her, Castle simply had no fight left. Most disturbing was McLean’s revelations that Castle had in fact been the subject of “abhorrent bullying” but she ultimately paid the price for rolling the dice on broadcast negotiations, not knowing the global chaos that was quietly building around the corner, and a reported breakdown with the wider playing group and a lack of transparency in player pay negotiations. Castle was the second of three major Australian sports executives to be shown the door during the pandemic, proving sports administration was an extreme challenge during a pandemic and one not solely confined to rugby.


After Castle’s exit, a resolution was quickly reached with the Rugby Union Players Association as Australia’s professional rugby cohort agreed to reductions at an average of 60 percent of their full wage. Those more heavily affected, such as senior Wallabies Michael Hooper, Matt To’omua and Dane Haylett-Petty were, as part of the negotiations, granted the opportunity to take up an overseas playing stint, which Hooper later exercised in signing a six-month deal for 2021. But the “one-in, all-in” sentiment wasn’t agreed to by everyone as Reds trio Izack Rodda, Isaac Lucas and Harry Hockings refused to agree to their revised contracts and walked out on the club and Australian rugby. Just as the game was climbing back off the canvas, and an eight-second count, this was another brutal blow but more a slap in the face to the trio’s 189 colleagues who were prepared to do their bit for the game to survive. There are suggestions Rodda could be back sooner rather than later, but an interesting reception awaits each player if or when they do return to the Australian game.


It was hard to ignore the irony. The same team that was banished into Super Rugby obscurity to help secure Australian rugby’s future in 2017 was then asked to save it from a similar fate by joining a five-team competition just three years later. There are still those in the west who have a healthy distrust for Rugby Australia, and current interim chief Rob Clarke, and rightly so; but they could all agree that returning to the national fold was both in their best interests and that of the Australian rugby community, many of whom had lamented their exit in the first place. On May. 27, Western Force owner Andrew Forrest revealed the team would join the Super Rugby AU tournament albeit with the warning: “My views on the mismanagement of the game under the previous Rugby Australia administration are well known and remain steadfast. Change is imperative at the top for rugby to thrive long term.”


At one stage it appeared as though Peter Wiggs could take on the role as RA chairman – then filled by Paul McLean on an interim basis — but the former Supercars boss lasted just 37 days after first joining the RA board alongside Brett Godfrey and Daniel Herbert. Wiggs had wanted to insert Matt Carroll into the role of RA chief executive, but was outvoted by the board and promptly packed up his briefcase and headed out the door. That created an opportunity for former Channel 10 boss Hamish McLennan in the middle of June, and he was immediately elected into the role as chairman. The change Force owner Forrest had called for was here, and one of McLennan’s first moves was to break bread with the rugby fraternity in Western Australia. McLennan has been steadfast in his “five teams or bust” mantra ever since, almost moving into a position of strength as New Zealand Rugby slumps from one misstep to the next.


It might not have begun with the same fanfare as Super Rugby Aotearoa, nor the same high quality of rugby that was contested across the ditch, but Super Rugby AU still got off to an encouraging start when the Reds defeated the Waratahs in an entertaining opener at Suncorp Stadium on Jul. 3. The rugby steadily improved from thereon out, culminating in an intriguing closing few rounds of the regular season — unlike Super Rugby Aotearoa where the Crusaders had looked the winners from the outset — and the eventual crowning of the Brumbies as tournament champions on Sep. 19.


As the Super Rugby AU season edged towards its successful conclusion, there was further good news when it was confirmed that Australia would host the Rugby Championship. For months it had appeared that New Zealand would be the lucky nation to stage the tournament “hub” but as coronavirus found its way back into the New Zealand community and the government reinstituted restrictions, the powerbrokers at RA realised the opportunity and quickly worked with the New South Wales and Queensland Governments to steal the tournament from New Zealand’s grasp. That resulted in a blame game across the ditch, while the trans-Tasman relationship is at its lowest ebb, according to McLennan anyway, as discussions continue around the tournament’s draw and the very real prospect that the All Blacks players will spend Christmas in quarantine.


A week prior to the Super Rugby AU decider between the Brumbies and Reds, Wallabies coach Dave Rennie unveiled a 44-man squad to contest the Bledisloe Cup series and Rugby Championship. There would be no room for the established Jack Dempsey, Isi Naisarani and Tevita Kuridrani as Rennie looked to the future with 16 uncapped players included in the squad. He also left space for two further additions under the recent overhaul of the Giteau Law, which allows for two overseas-based players who are short of the 60-cap threshold to be selected by the Wallabies for this year only.


Given the topsy-turvy nature of 2020, it’s impossible to rule anything out, particularly when you consider both the Wallabies and All Blacks are embarking on new eras under coaches Dave Rennie and Ian Foster. The Wallabies have been listed as $7 outsiders by bookmakers, which is not their longest ever price for a Bledisloe Cup match but one that still pits them as massive underdogs in a two-horse race. Just how much of an overhaul Rennie is attempting from the outset will be known when he names his Wallabies 23 on Friday, and it is all down to those very players from thereafter. Most Wallabies supporters will be satisfied with a gutsy performance where the scoreline doesn’t blow out to embarrassing levels, but the Wallabies won’t and shouldn’t be content with anything but victory. The game has come through too much in the last 51 weeks for them to roll over meekly. It finally has its head ever so slightly back above water, and the Wallabies must swim, not sink, from the opening whistle on Sunday.

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