Australian rugby is in turmoil.
The national team are without a head coach with less than a year to go until the World Cup.
Fifteen months ago, the Australian Rugby Union (ARU)set a target of winning the British and Irish Lions series, regaining the Bledisloe Cup and a top-place finish in the Rugby Championship.
Australian rugby can trace its problems to a lack of money and poor attendance at matches
A 2-1 loss to the Lions, New Zealand’s continued possession of the Bledisloe Cup and a third-place finish in the Championship meant they fell well short in all three outings.
To make matters worse, Australia’s dip in form has been accompanied by an embarrassing soap opera off the field.
Before his resignation McKenzie was forced to deny allegations of an intimate relationship with another team official.
James O’Connor and Kurtley Beale have been suspended for poor behaviour and former captain Ben Mowen deserted the team after a pay dispute.
The cash-strapped ARU was even forced into controversially imposing a $200 tax on every club in the country.
There have been a few brief moments of joy though, including the Waratahs’ victorious Super XV campaign and the Wallabies’ astonishing 12-12 draw with the mighty All Blacks in Sydney.
However, these achievements have served only to paper-over the cracks of a sport that has been struggling for some time in Australia.
The Wallabies’ slide began last year when the British and Irish Lions claimed a comprehensive series victory in Australia.
Coach Robbie Deans deployed players out of position and after the final match, star player O’Connor was suspended from national duty for breaking team curfew and trying to board a plane while drunk.
Fast-forward fifteen months and Beale’s inappropriate texts about a team official to fellow players and the team’s maiden loss to Argentina reveal how little the Australians have progressed since that Lions tour on or off the field.
“Australian rugby can trace its problems to a lack of money and poor attendance at matches,” former Australia international David Campese told Al Jazeera.
“The team is still suffering after the appointment of New Zealander Robbie Deans who implemented a boring strategy that goes against the traditional attacking Australian style of rugby that people want to see.”
|Broadcasting value of Australian sport|
Sport Annual income (USD)
Statistics from Australian Financial Review and are approximate values
A lack of entertainment on the pitch led to falling match-day attendance for a sport that now holds significantly less broadcasting value than the three other football codes and cricket.
From high to low
In 2004, Australian rugby was on a high after winning the World Cup and a Bledisloe Cup match against New Zealand was played in front of 83,000 spectators at Sydney’s Stadium Australia.
In October 2014, the same fixture attracted 68,000 fans with patches of empty seats clearly visible around the large venue.
Meanwhile, despite a lucrative tour by the British and Irish Lions to Australia in 2013, the ARU still finds itself low on finances with the five Super Rugby franchises combining to lose around $5m annually.
This has lead the governing body to cut $4m over the last two years from rugby development programmes, while the players were forced to take a 20% pay cut.
Subsequently, star players like Digby Loane, Drew Mitchell and Matt Giteau moved abroad in search of greener pastures.
With lack of competition, the national team’s standards slid. Players like O’Connor and Beale were given many chances before action was taken against them.
A new beginning?
November sees the Australians embark on a challenging tour of the northern hemisphere where their already over-stretched playing resources will be severely tested.
However, Australia’s leading try-scorer Campese believes that a challenging tour is exactly what the Wallabies need in order to restore some pride and win back their supporters at home.
“Make no mistake, it will be a tough run of matches. But they can use the time together to galvanise the team under a new coach. This tour is also about the fans and there is obligation to give them something to shout about again.”
The first job for the new coach will be to restore some harmony to a fractured playing squad.
While the ARU are clearly keen to make an example of Beale, the team have publically declared their support the fly half in the media.
Compare these actions to Australia’s high-flying neighbours New Zealand: The All Blacks recently suspended fly half Aaron Cruden because he overslept after a night out and missed the team plane for Argentina.
The New Zealand staff dealt with the matter quickly and efficiently (suspending Cruden) and kept media attention to a minimum.
The immediate reactions from the players after their actions speak volumes.
Cruden accepted his punishment and apologised for letting down his teammates whereas Beale stubbornly continues to play the victim.
New Zealand have fostered a winning environment where everyone is answerable for their own actions and it is this level of maturity that Australia must now look to emulate on their November tour if they are ever to return to their best form on the field.
However, if the Wallabies suffer another dismal run of results, it is difficult to see where this downward spiral will end.