Australian rugby seems to be in their darkest hour at the moment. They haven’t won the Bledisloe Cup in over ten years, they haven’t come close to beating their Australasian rivals – the All Blacks – in over two years and their up and coming stars are poisoning the system from within. Now whilst beating the All Blacks is no mean feat, you’ll agree that dominance on a rugby field will ebb and flow with the bounce of the ball inevitably going in your favour at some stage and that results on the field can be worked on, however it is the rotting from within which at this stage is the biggest problem towering over the ARU. The root of this infection lies with three players: Quade Cooper, Kurtley Beale and James O’Connor.
The bellow piece was written by Andrew Webster, the chief sports writer for the Sydney Morning Herald, and I feel he hits the above mentioned issue on its head and is certainly worth the read.
Someone had to say something.
It is August last year, and the scene of the crime is Eden Park. It often is.
The All Blacks have just smoked the Wallabies 22-0, and Sonny Bill Williams held the flame-thrower.
It is the first time in 50 years that Australia has failed to score a point against New Zealand. It is their 14th straight loss to them. It is the 10th time in as many years that they have failed to get a fingernail on the Bledisloe Cup.
Within the confines of the away dressing room, the mood is predictably bleak. In such times, coach Robbie Deans barely talks. He will have no choice in the next half-hour when he fronts a news conference to explain – again – why he should not be sacked.
”It’s not about me,” Deans will say. ”It’s about the team and what we do.”
But right now, the coach is in a dark place and will not be delivering any spirited oratory about where to from here. Someone prods ARU chief executive John O’Neill. Gen-Y, assume the position …
”Twenty per cent of you are letting down the other 80 per cent,” O’Neill says, according to witnesses in the room that night. ”That 20 per cent are the same 20 per cent who have their mobile phone in their hands right now. The same 20 per cent are the ones on the grog midweek instead of complying with the rules.
”So put your f—ing mobiles away. In fact, don’t even bring them with you on match day. I’m your employer. I’m not your mate. You’re getting paid for the privilege of wearing the gold jersey and representing your country. And you are letting us down.”
O’Neill did not single out any player but he had tapped into an intractable stench that attached itself to the Wallabies throughout the Deans years – and still lingers if ever so slightly heading into Saturday night’s Bledisloe Cup opener at ANZ Stadium under new coach Ewen McKenzie.
It is the stench of a generation of players who have forgotten about the history and significance of the jumper they wear.
Specifically, many point to the self-appointed ”Three Amigos” of Quade Cooper, James O’Connor and Kurtley Beale, all of whom have drifted in and out of the side, in and out of the prized No.10 jumper, and in and out of favour with senior players and coaches and the wider rugby family.
Blame it on alcohol. Blame it on social media. Blame it on Generation Why-The-Hell-Not-Don’t-You-Know-Who-I-Am?
For many fans their ilk is a far cry from the days when the likes of Farr-Jones, Horan, Lynagh, Poidevin, Eales, Burke, Gregan, Larkham, Mortlock and others wore the jumper.
A new dawn is promised under McKenzie but as it stands, those same supporters are entitled to ask: How did it ever get to this?
When they came into the Wallabies set-up five years ago, Cooper, O’Connor and Beale represented the fresh vanguard of Australian rugby. Young and abundantly talented, they were schoolboy superstars destined for fame and fortune and television advertisements spruiking vitamins while wearing purple pants.
Then O’Connor went AWOL on the morning of the announcement of the squad for the 2011 World Cup, at Sydney Airport, in a major embarrassment for major sponsor Qantas and ARU management. He had been spotted at the Golden Sheaf in Double Bay and The Eastern at Bondi Junction the night before.
Then Cooper made the astonishing public declaration, via Twitter, that he could no longer play in the ”toxic environment” of the Wallabies under Deans – something that stunned his teammates who had seen him miss team meetings and rehab sessions and thumb his mobile phone minutes after soul-destroying international losses.
”We were stunned,” says one senior Wallabies player. ”Because he had been at the centre of the toxicity.”
Then a drunken Beale punched Rebels captain Gareth Delve and teammate Cooper Vuna in Durban – which resulted in a sobering flight home after Vuna revealed the incident on Twitter.
There is no need to trawl through every incident concerning all three players. No need to examine if the burgers really are better at Hungry Jacks. At 4am. Days before a critical Test against the Lions.
Perhaps the most damning episode in the short lives of the Three Amigos came in March this year, when they posted on social media a photo of themselves a day after the Queensland Reds had defeated the Melbourne Rebels. Clad in iridescent speedos, with tattoos and flexed muscles glistening in the sun, Cooper, O’Connor, Beale, former Wallaby Digby Ioane and AFL star Lance ”Buddy” Franklin posed up in a rooftop spa. The ensuing night ended with an associate of Ioane charged with assault.
As Ioane told the Twittersphere: ”I’m a lover not a fighter … God always has my back … #truth #Godbless my twitter friends.”
As McKenzie said a day later, after he had stood down his player: ”As an organisation and as a team, we’re not happy about some of these things that are going on and the headlines that goes around with that.”
As it stands, Ioane and his brother Jayson are still facing charges over an alleged assault outside a Melbourne hotel. They will next face Melbourne Magistrates Court next Thursday.
In the eyes of some rugby officials, Melbourne had become their code’s own version of Vegas.
That is where the Three Amigos transform into the self-named ”Bungy Brothers” and hook up with Franklin. The nocturnal habits of the Hawthorn full-forward, who is the brother-in-law of discarded Wallaby Matt Giteau, is the stuff of legend in Melbourne.
For some time, the ARU has been concerned about the influence of Franklin on some of their players. Others, though, identified a poisonous influence on the likes of Beale and O’Connor long before this year.
Former England five-eighth Danny Cipriani breezed into Melbourne in 2011, played a handful of matches, stole a bottle of vodka from behind the bar, was stood down for failing to reach ”team standards”, missed some tackles and was released last year.
”He’s been awesome around the club, he’s been so good for club culture,” O’Connor said at the time. ”He’s definitely left his mark.”
When it comes to the waywardness of the Three Amigos, the fingers of blame are pointed with the speed of a drunken tweet. In the wake of the Durban incident, the people closest to Beale privately blamed O’Connor for leading him astray.
Some have blamed dumped Rebels coach Damien Hill for failing to bring the pair into line. Now the coach and both players have left the Melbourne franchise.
Those who know Beale, who has admitted to deep-seated alcohol issues, feel his expected move to the Waratahs will be beneficial because he cannot rely on O’Connor when he needs support.
As for O’Connor, Melbourne Storm players – who often share facilities with the Rebels at AAMI Park – report he was a player on the outer. ”He seemed very much on the nose,” offers one.
O’Connor’s people will point to the fact that their guy has never faced a police charge, has his own charity and does shoots in glossy fashion magazines while the other two have led themselves astray.
But then one senior ARU official tells Fairfax Media this: ”Kurtley gets into trouble because of alcohol. Quade doesn’t know any better. O’Connor was the most cunning. He knew what he was doing. It was never an accident. He always escapes before the heat arrives. He’s usually the architect of the problem. The best result is not having the three in the one team at the one time.”
But the main finger is always pointed at Dingo Deans, and the amount of rein he handed his Three Amigos.
The coach rubbished reports in August 2011 about an incident in Paris the previous November when the three teammates were reportedly involved in an altercation with each other during a night out in the French capital.
Photos taken before kick-off for that match, on November 27, clearly show Beale sporting a black eye. The Amigos laughed it off, as did Deans.
”Some of the suggestions are nonsense,” the coach fumed. ”Yes, they had an argument, which people who are close do. Beyond that, there was nothing. There was no incident as such. There’s no police file. There’s no file of an internal fine. There’s nothing.”
That defence of his Gen-Y stars bewildered senior players, even today. ”Well, there was definitely an altercation,” a player who witnessed the incident said this week. ”And there was definitely law enforcement there. I guess the language barrier saved us. If it happened in Australia, there would’ve been lengthy bans. The senior players imposed player fines. Money was to be donated to charity through the ARU.”
The breathless defence from Deans had been too much for some senior players to stomach.
The early years of the Deans era had been stamped by his decision to move on the likes of Matt Giteau and George Smith. Challenging him did not help.
Some players had grown tired of seeing younger upstarts walk into team meetings with headphones plugged in, and the formation of a ”team within a team”.
When Deans dropped Nathan Sharpe for his 100th cap, for the World Cup semi-final in 2011, it rankled many within.
”The three of them got away with too much, too early,” says one player from that campaign. ”And they became bigger than the team. Robbie backed them when they got into strife. I don’t know whether it was pride or what the reason was, but he wouldn’t go back to calling on guys he’d left out.
”In my opinion, for too long, there was too much that was swept under the carpet. There was an understanding they could get away with more than most because of their value to the team. They would’ve learnt their lesson if they were dealt with earlier. But they were always picked the next week, always went on the next tour.”
Deans supporters say criticism of his defence of Cooper, O’Connor and Beale is unfair.
He invested many hours into Beale, who late last year looked like developing into the No.10 the coach had long craved since Cooper’s fall from grace at the World Cup.
Beale and O’Connor often strayed when they were in Melbourne, away from the Wallabies fold. How, then, to explain why Cooper only seemed rebellious whenever he was under Deans’ command?
Irrespective of how he treated them, what is not in dispute is the inescapable fact that the ones Deans valued the most were the ones who ultimately cost him his job.
He did not reply to Fairfax Media’s request to be interviewed.
At his first team meeting as Wallabies coach, McKenzie told his players they had a clean slate – but also what is expected of those wearing the gold jumper he once squeezed into himself.
That said, claims he is a ”disciplinarian” are off the mark. ”He’s not that at all,” insists one Reds powerbroker. ”He works around the grey.”
If Gen-Y has infected the Wallabies, McKenzie can at least rest easy knowing he has dependable men like David Pocock, James Horwill, Stephen Moore and Adam Ashley-Cooper maintaining the tradition.
Many see the decision to select Matt Toomua as the starting five-eighth for Saturday night’s Test as a signal that raw ability does not automatically ensure inclusion.
The Three Amigos have been accused of reading too much of their own press, but they are also making the right noises. Publicly at least.
”You learn from the past,” O’Connor said this week. ”If I could change a lot of things, not only what’s happened this year but in previous years, I would.”
”I had made mistakes and I got chances,” Cooper said last month. ”But when you do get your second chance, or you’re lucky enough to get a third chance, you’ve got to make sure you do all that you can to show the respect for those people that showed faith in you.”
If change is to happen, though, it will start and end with respect – and that starts and ends with the boss.
After a World Cup match in New Zealand in 2011, the Wallabies climbed on to the team bus.
O’Neill was among them, and jumped into a vacant seat. ”You can’t sit there,” Beale told him. ”That’s Quade’s seat.”
O’Neill’s response did not come with a hashtag, an emoticon or any other form of Twitterspeak – but it was loud and clear.
And that is how the cookie is crumbling right now Downunder, mate. Now being a Springbok fan, the more my rivals struggle, the better for me and I usually wouldn’t give something like this a second of my time, however when a bunch of punks begin to drag the game, the ARU and the Wallaby jersey into disrepute, my ears prick up and I start to pay attention. It’ll be interesting to see what a traditionalist like Ewan McKenzie does to rectify the situation.