Australian rugby union upbeat despite lean times as ‘golden decade’ looms

<span>Photograph: David Gray/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: David Gray/AFP/Getty Images

As the local mining community would no doubt agree, to find gold in Western Australia this week you have had to go looking for it. There is the odd Wallabies flag fluttering in the wind but blue and maroon have been the dominant colours in Perth, which staged the second State of Origin match last Sunday to considerably greater fanfare than that which greets the first Test between Australia and England on Saturday.

Maybe that should come as little surprise given the limited appeal of rugby union in these parts compared with the National Rugby League, but for all that starting the series on the west coast was a well-intentioned move to grow the game in that area, it jars that the Wallabies still haven’t arrived from their base on the Sunshine Coast.

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The first Test is not on course to sell out the 65,000‑seat Optus Stadium as the State of Origin match did, but there is scant evidence of promotional or marketing campaigns to drum up interest. There is no point in relying on Eddie Jones to cut through to the Australian public when he is evidently on his best behaviour and no longer has his old sparring partner Michael Cheika to trade blows with in the press.

Scratch the surface, however, and a bit of post-lockdown apathy is a small price to pay given the longer-term optimism brought about by the fact the British & Irish Lions are due in 2025, the 2027 and 2029 World Cup tournaments were secured in May and the Olympics is coming to Brisbane in 2032.

The Rugby Australia chairman, Hamish McLennan, speaks of a “golden decade” for the sport with a mixture of anticipation and relief considering how the pandemic brought the organisation to its knees to the extent that a $40m loan – at a considerable rate of interest – from a US investment firm was required last year. Tellingly, he also speaks of how the “lean years” will be between now and when the Lions arrive. But the brighter future that McLennan talks about at least offers security.

Hamish McLennan, the chairman of Rugby Australia
Hamish McLennan, the chairman of Rugby Australia, is looking to bring in private equity as the Six Nations and New Zealand have. Photograph: Tom Dulat/Getty Images

“You just need to look at our financial accounts and the cupboard is bare,” McLennan told the Guardian. “When I came in 2020 there was a real chance the whole thing was going under. We secured a $40m line of credit, we pay a fair interest rate for the money but we used it as a lifeline while we got the game better organised, got a broadcast deal done and secured the World Cup. It was really just a game of doubling down on a pathway forward.”

McLennan has wasted little time capitalising, delivering a warning to his counterparts in New Zealand that Australia could walk away from Super Rugby once the current deal expires at the end of 2023, insisting “all bets are off”. Those comments have been widely perceived as an attempt to secure a bigger slice of the broadcasting revenue, but if nothing else they demonstrate how McLennan believes he can negotiate from a position of strength with the golden decade he speaks of on the horizon.

“Thankfully we succeeded in the sense of underwriting the game, the Lions coming out and the World Cup – we’ll be able to pay the [$40m loan] back,” he said. “The lean years are between now and 2025 for us and beyond then we think we’ll be in a healthy position.”

To strengthen Rugby Australia’s hand further, he is eager to explore the private equity avenue as the Six Nations and New Zealand have done with CVC and Silver Lake respectively. “We still need more for player retention and grassroots, so we’re very keen to talk to CVC, Silver Lake and anyone else who is interested in rugby in Australia. And there’s a real possibility that we may go and borrow more money to fund ourselves through to 2025.”

What a fillip it would be, then, to end England’s eight-match winning run against the Wallabies and clinch victory in what could be the last series between the sides should the global calendar be overhauled and a Nations Championship be introduced.

Within Australian rugby circles there is a degree of scepticism as to whether a financial agreement that works for all parties can be hammered out this year but, even if this does not prove to be the last Anglo-Australian series, there is no shortage of motivation given the 3-0 whitewash of 2016 is still fresh in the memory.

Quade Cooper, one of the Japan-based players available for the series against England, in training last week
Quade Cooper, one of the Japan-based players available for the series against England, in training last week. Photograph: Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images

There is optimism on that front, too – not least with the bookmakers, who have Australia as the favourites. The Super Rugby final was again played between two New Zealand sides but the Waratahs improved beyond recognition after a winless 2021 and the Brumbies were edged out by only a point in their semi-final against the Blues in Auckland.

Australia might have endured a chastening northern hemisphere tour last November but there were young players who will benefit from suffering those scars and perhaps most notably the head coach, Dave Rennie, has been able to call on the Japan-based players Quade Cooper, Samu Kerevi and Marika Koroibete for this series. That La Rochelle’s Will Skelton was not considered shows how “Giteau’s Law” still hamstrings Rennie, somewhat but with the exception of Tom Banks, who heads to Japan next season, McLennan believes that the problem of player drain is not as grave as it once was.

“In 2020 after the World Cup it would be fair to say there was a fair degree of disillusionment with the performance and the vision but we’ve just this year had a great success rate in retaining our top-flight players and the World Cup is an added inducement to keep players here,” he says.

“We’ve actually signed most of who we wanted to keep and not with outrageous sums, either. The good thing is there’s renewed interest and passion in pulling on the gold jersey, which goes beyond just money. We’re not arrogant or overconfident but there is a feeling of improvement from the [November] tour.”