COVID CORRESPONDENCE with Ben Alexander I - If everything is important, then nothing is important. - Green and Gold Rugby
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COVID CORRESPONDENCE with Ben Alexander I – If everything is important, then nothing is important.

COVID CORRESPONDENCE with Ben Alexander I – If everything is important, then nothing is important.

What fascinating times we live in. Right now, in the time of COVID-19 and social distancing, the merit and fabric of our game, it’s management and it’s support networks have been put to the test in ways we’ve never experienced before. The result has led the public unearthing of many ugly sides to our game that have bubbled under the surface for years.

While we now seem to have some sort of guarantee for the future of the game with a new chairman in Hamish McLennan, Dave Rennie staying on, and a new Super Rugby competition set for a July kick-off, the consensus I’ve seen is that this last few months have turned a lot of people off rugby.

Watching the bickering in the public arena while nothing has been seemingly achieved to fix the issues has been a disheartening and saddening experience. It’s challenged many people on their stance on the game, and what it represents. Call this a personal view, but rugby was always, at least to me, something anyone could play. No matter your size, your background, anything, rugby has a place for you. Why is it that the values we pride so highly on the field seem to not translate to what happens off it?

Reece Hodge, Kurtley Beale ,Will Genia  , Marika Koroibete ,Isi Naisarani during national anthem

I’d almost take 2019 and shit rugby than this year!

In March this year, I began chatting on Twitter with 72-veteran Wallaby, highest capped Brumbies player in history, and Finska player, Ben Alexander, following the publishing of a fantastic letter where Ben began calling for a more constructive approach to be taken by the powers running the game. Following GAGR doing our Rewatch podcast series with Ben on the Wallabies victory over the All Blacks in Hong Kong in April, we began an informal letter correspondence, talking about rugby’s key issues, and what could potentially be done to change things around.

In this short series, we aim to expand on key topics around the game. Sometimes we aim for solutions, sometimes we aim to expand on why things are the way they are. Whether we agree on topics or not, the point of this correspondence is to bring differing perspectives to the table, promote discussion and tackle the problems together.

But before we began…

Suncorp Stadium

Suncorp Stadium

BA: Before I start discussing the issues, I’m curious to know what you think is THE most important issue rugby should solve first? If you could only solve one issue, which issue would it be? And why?

A wise man once told me that:

                        “If everything is important, then nothing is important”

Eleven Wallaby captains believe it’s ‘the Leadership of RA’ that is the most important issue. ‘How Rugby is broadcasted’ is the issue I would love to see fixed first, but if we venture off to solve ALL of the games issues, I think we may not get very far towards finding a solution.

From my time at the Brumbies under Rugby World Cup winning coach Jake White, he had a  focus on “upstream issues”, and a belief other issues would “just sort themselves out” if a high order issue was resolved. This thinking, I believe, led to his constant message of “Boy….. you must dominate the set piece.” If you win the set-piece battle, you go a long way to winning the lion’s share of the territory and possession…. and therefore the game.

Of course there is more to winning a game than that, but winning the set-piece battle first always gave us the best chance of success.

In team defence reviews, Jake would bring up a clip of someone missing a tackle. He would then rewind the footage to three phases earlier, to highlight a different player out of position in the defensive line, and then continued to explain how this directly impacted the player missing the tackle.

Rarely would he single out the player for missing the tackle, but instead would highlight the lazy player who failed to get into correct defensive alignment, which to the untrained eye, would go unnoticed. Usually our focus is on what’s happening “on the ball”, that we lose sight of important issues that are happening off it.

If the Rugby public can come to a general consensus on which is the most important issue to fix first, then I think we will go a long way towards the bright future we all want for the game. If we can unite behind a solution, and let RA know “this is what we want you to fix first”, then the path forward for RA becomes clearer. The issue may be very obvious…or it may be “off the ball”.

winners NRC 2019 GF Force v Wikings (Credit Delphy)

Western Force lift the Toast Rack for 2019.

NW: I’m loving that you have asked this question. My response makes me feel like I feel like I’m about to venture into broader topics, but I’ll try and keep it specific.

I find rugby to be such a frustrating entity off the field. It’s scattered, divided and almost always in conflict. But worst of all, it’s so at odds with the values of rugby that I was taught when I was young. On a field, everyone has a role to play, and everyone matters, no matter who you are. If you work together, bringing all your talents to bear, you will succeed.

It’s a life skill that has been proven to me many times over, both within rugby contexts and outside of it. If I nail it down to one specific thing, “everyone to be aligned” would be my response.

Whether it be formally, with a centralised system with everyone working towards the same goal of putting the best Wallaby team possible on the paddock, or informally with everyone being the entities they are but recognising that achievement and success of the game at large comes first. What matters is, as a sport, we do it together. We face the issues and challenges together, like we would as a team on the field.

I don’t want a culture where people, like those Wallaby captains, think they are the only people who can save the game, and must tear everything else down to do it. As Sir John Kirwan touched on when he compared ex-All Blacks to the ex-Wallabies, those brilliant rugby minds band together, acknowledge where the issues are, and together, find a solution. Or at the very least, raise their concerns with them directly, not in the void of the public arena. There are solutions. The fact is, we all play and love the same game. That should be enough common ground to work with.

End of Part I

  • Gun

    Thanks Nick. Great to see some discussion on GAGR. I’ve been visiting that other place to get a rugby fix. Sad given that there is no sport. I don’t have much of an insight into why the game here is so poorly governed. Anyone who has played the game or been captured by the culture knows that the team ethic is uppermost because of the nature of the game as an intense combat sport. I think governance is the root of the problem and this is largely because the game has many fathers. An international HQ in Ireland, a national HQ in Sydney, a provincial comp apparently run the the South Africans and state based bosses as well. In comparison to provincial comps like AFL/NRL it’s like the chalk and cheese. Both those games have absolute control over all aspects of the game from rules to representation. Our rugby bosses have so many masters.

  • ATrain

    For me the biggest issue and the starting point is grassroots, which under my definition of it at least, is not Brisbane or Sydney club rugby (though this is part of it). It is undoubtedly a myopic view and its predicated on the fact that this is where I first learnt my rugby and was first exposed to it. This might surprise a lot of people but, even though it was freely available on the ABC with both club and Wallabies rugby broadcast, I played rugby for the first time as a 15 year old without ever having seen a game. A new teacher, Mick Meleno (sure the spelling of the surname is incorrect) who was the NSW Country hooker at the time and another teacher, Geoff Schneider, who was perhaps never much more than an enthusiastic club man introduced us to the sport. I played a bit in club colts in Brisbane with an association with one of the clubs with the Queensland Police Academy but I have no memory of watching or having any interest in the 1987 World Cup which would have been on around that time. I think the first time I watched the Wallabies play would have been the World Cup in 1991 after 4 years of indoctrination after starting to play rugby at my university college in Armidale.

    My view is, and it is possibly not a commonly held one, that far too much is made of TV exposure and elite performances driving increases in participation. Personally, I find rugby a much better participation sport than a spectator sport – but once you have an understanding of the intricacies of the game ….well then you are much more driven to watch it – I think it translates reasonably well to TV but, like AFL, is a better spectacle in person. I know the stats are probably against me with strong jumps in participation following successful world cup performance and I am relying on very biased survey of one but for me…well I fell in love with the game first by playing it and then I wanted to watch others play it. I think, by focussing a lot of resources on the elite level, hoping this will drive participation, we have things arse backwards. If I was king, or RA Chairman for the day, I would try to put a bit more focus on ensure we were developing coaches, attracting kids and parents, and getting the game into schools. I think rugby makes better men (and while I have no personal experience of it – better women). I think the game itself and direct participation in it is what should drive it.

    • Yowie

      I played a bit in …association with …the Queensland Police Academy

      Now you’ve got me thinking about that voice impressions/effects guy messing with the opposition lineout calls.

      • ATrain

        Mike Winslow? I should have tried it at least as I was notoriously bad as a lineout jumper – my best work was done with my elbows and when they went to supporting in the lineout I was soon switched to a lifter – throwing up stringbean breakaways.

        I did play with an islander fella in that Police Academy team who was a gentle giant and would have had a similar build to Hightower – we had to try and find him a pair of size 15 boots which was pretty rare in the mid to late 1980s. He also failed his driving instruction (or actually rolled a car on the skid pan which the instructor told us beforehand was almost impossible to do). I think poor driving was one of the running jokes with the Hightower character.

        • Yowie

          Yeah, Mike Winslow.

          That’s gold Re the genuine Hightower in the Police Academy team.

          I reckon Bobcat Goldthwait is a classic Hooker according to Nutta’s article on the subject.

        • ATrain

          Certainly the correct temperament. Not sure if you have seen much from the former journalist Michael Weir who is well known for his work on the Iraq war – he was embedded with US troops and then I think kidnapped by Taliban or ISIS or whichever one was active there (Osama Bin Ladens mob). I played a couple of games with him. He had a similar temperament to bobcat (hair was different).

        • GeorgiaSatellite

          In case you want to look him up, it’s actually Michael Ware. I hope his broadcast voice was different to BGs (I’ve only read his stuff, not heard him).

        • ATrain

          He was a very good and also very passionate player – I can only remember playing the two games in that grade with him (before I was unceremoniously dropped….actually there may have been a ceremony but I don’t remember it). He has a unique take on that conflict having got an intimate understanding of both sides (I think there is probably more than 2 sides there so maybe all sides is more appropriate).

        • GeorgiaSatellite

          That’s how I remembered his name, because he wasn’t a cheer squad for one side (unlike others who just regurgitate official lines). He stood out for me as a journo, and had the same name as a flatmate at the time. Love your ‘ceremony’ quip. Cheers

        • ATrain

          Too be honest the best memory I have of him is myself and the other lock being absolutely blasted by him after we got marched backwards in the scrum. Funny how things stick in your head. I had been playing country rugby 4 weeks earlier and got moved to Brisbane for work mid -season, played 5th grade one week, got 4th grade the next, had two weeks in 3rd grade and went up to the 2’s – pretty young and not very experienced – the club was hit by injuries and I got a good run but I probably needed more time to acclimatise to the lift in pace and quality – a great learning experience. I played a lot with those blokes the next year after having an off-season but I can’t remember if he was probably back in the 1s or had begun his journalism by then.

  • Brumby Jack

    Great read Nick. I think while Oz rugby fans are some of the most passionate, we can also be the most critical. We love to debate all thee things, but noone can seem to agree on what the problems are, let alone how to solve them

    • Nicholas Wasiliev

      Mate, this is a topic we directly cover in our next piece. Hold that thought!

  • RedAnt

    Thanks, Nick, always interesting to get an ‘insider’s’ perspective, looking forward to more. FWIW, I am extremely disappointed in how things have panned out at RA over the past few months, and I’m fast losing interest in the game. In my view, the single biggest problem is the ‘ownership’ of the game. News Corp thinks it owns rugby in this country. Surely the fans/players are the true owners. Surely RA should be working in the fans’/players’ interests, not News Corp’s?

    • Keith Butler

      I played back in the 70s and 80s and I think it would be true to say that the fans and players did own the the game. That did of course change when the game went professional and the money men took over.

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@Nick_Wasiliev

Die-hard Brumbies/Country Eagles fan now based in Sydney. Author, anthropologist, musician, second rower. Still trying to make sense of the 21st century. Dropped a debut novel last year...

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