Wallabies face nightmare scenario of further decline and World Cup woe
Jake White's exit from Brumbies and recent heavy defeats hint at troubles Down Under
Jake White, one of the smartest coaches in world rugby, has just walked out on Australia's best provincial team, the Brumbies, with two years left on his contract. To those who argue that the World Cup-winning South African's undeniable gift as a strategist will always be the prisoner of his grasshopper mentality, this says more about White than it does about the state of things in Wallaby country. To others, it is another sign of a great union nation in decline – another brick working itself free from the crumbling green and gold wall.
White wanted the Wallaby coaching job – he made that abundantly clear back in June, when he guided the Brumbies to a famous victory over the British and Irish Lions in Canberra – but the Australian governing body felt it could not risk opprobrium by replacing one foreigner, Robbie Deans, of New Zealand, with another, and plumped for one of their own in the former Test prop Ewen McKenzie. White has yet to go public on the reasons behind his departure, but there must be an element of thwarted ambition in there somewhere.
There is, however, a bigger picture. International-class Australian coaches like Eddie Jones and Brian Smith see no future for themselves on native soil; Steve Meehan, one of the most forward-thinking tacticians of the younger generation, can find no fulfilling role for himself in his homeland and will probably end up returning to professional club rugby in Europe. White's sudden decision to skedaddle back to Springbok territory reinforces the impression that Wallaby rugby is in turmoil.
By coincidence, Australia's focus has now switched to South Africa. In Cape Town, White met one of his Brumbies protégés, the back-row forward and occasional Wallaby captain Ben Mowen, to explain his thinking. Mowen, who led the national team in their one-point victory over Argentina last time out, failed to talk him into a change of mind, and was left contemplating this weekend's scarily difficult meeting with the Springboks in the same city.
No one expects anything other than a decisive South African victory and if the Wallabies go down as heavily as they did in losing 38-12 to the Boks in Brisbane earlier this month and then lose to the Pumas in Rosario in nine days' time, the whiff of crisis will quickly turn into a stench. Defeat by the Lions, thorough hidings from both of their fellow southern hemisphere superpowers, deep-rooted financial problems, a dysfunctional provincial set-up, disciplinary issues that go to the very heart of the Wallaby squad – one of their most exciting talents, James O'Connor, has spent much of the year up to his lovingly tended eyebrows in trouble – and a continuing inability to scrummage their way out of a wet paper bag? This is the stuff of nightmares.
To make matters worse, they will soon find themselves at Twickenham, facing a fresh England team keen to make an early point – by scoring lots of the things – ahead of the 2015 World Cup pool meeting in London. They have already fallen below Stuart Lancaster's team in the global rankings and by the time the big tournament comes around, they could easily be behind Wales, another of their group opponents. As things stand, there is a growing possibility that the Wallabies will fail to reach the knockout stage for the first time in World Cup history.
So what has gone wrong? One of their best players, the long-serving hooker Stephen Moore, identified the most pressing of the micro issues when he admitted that the Australian set-piece remains seriously underpowered. "I don't suppose you need too much guessing to figure where we need to get it right," he said. "We have to get the scrum fixed."
Moore also indicated during the Lions tour that if pain-in-the-backside miscreants like O'Connor failed to toe the line, they would have to be dealt with by the senior personnel.
But it is Australia's macro issues that are raising the spectre of disintegration in the face of rival attractions as potent as rugby league, Aussie Rules and football. The first two of those codes dominate the Australian media on a daily basis and have first claim on a high proportion of the country's sporting talent. The last of them is gaining ground on everyone at a ferocious rate.
A successful Wallaby side has often kept the wolf from the door, but success is increasingly hard to come by when the brightest youngsters are playing different games. All things considered, it is a classic Catch-22. Still, Australian union could be worse off. It could be cricket.
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