A two-decade wait continues, but not for lack of passion

As the dust settles on another Bledisloe played and lost, the humdrum of contemporary rugby punditry continues. Inevitably, experts and fans shift through the tried and tested get-out clauses we are so familiar with and which come naturally after two decades.

Injuries, inaccurate coaching, or a lack of discipline all get a mention until invariably, a longhorn of impeccable rugby pedigree resolutely and with the confidence of a man seated firmly on the sideline offers “a lack of passion” as the underlying cause.

For my part, I have found solace in this perspective over the years. I tell myself, “If the boys on the big contracts would just believe a little more and bleed green and gold like the rest of us here in Clubland, then they can’t not but win.”

Sedated by this familiar thought, I wander off cosily into “Maybe-Next-Year-Land” with a feeling of superiority well earned through many self-congratulatory mutterings of “if I had the chance to wear the jersey” and “they need to feel those loses more.”

And so, as you can imagine, it was with great perplexment and furrowing of brows that following Australia’s comprehensive loss to the All Blacks at Eden Park I was shocked to hear an impassioned and articulate riposte of this idea from Stan Sport’s Justin Harrison.

“New Zealand don’t have a mortgage on the jersey and national pride”, he postulated.

Pete Samu of the Wallabies makes a break during The Rugby Championship & Bledisloe Cup match between the Australia Wallabies and the New Zealand All Blacks at Marvel Stadium on September 15, 2022 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Kelly Defina/Getty Images)

(Photo by Kelly Defina/Getty Images)

What this? No, this can’t be right. The results speak for themselves… right? Yet as the celebrated second rower of a Lions Tour and Bledisloe cup victory continued, my confidence faltered.

“Every single time you take a Wallabies jersey onto that field, you have the same amount of pride in wearing that jersey (as New Zealand)… what we are searching for is a team that has consistency.”

Shock Horror! This clear-minded objective analysis isn’t really what we need right now, is it? Surely we can just go back to those tried and tested methods that provide such self-aggrandising comfort.

Now before I go on, I must admit something. I have misrepresented myself above. You see, despite positioning Harrison’s words as a revelatory experience for yours truly.

Truth be told, I long ago shed the aforementioned behavioural patterning of the “passion starved Wallabies fan”. The truth is if there is one word I would love to see struck from the vernacular of Wallabies fans, it’s passion.

To be clear, I don’t doubt the influence that passion can play on a rugby field. You only have to look as far as Michael Cheika’s improving Argentinian team, whose valiant defensive effort against the All Blacks in Christchurch heralded a new era in their rugby fortunes.

Michael Cheika, head coach of Argentina, catches the ball.

Michael Cheika, head coach of Argentina, catches the ball. (Photo by Daniel Jayo/Getty Images)

Undoubtedly the golf club-wielding, coaches box-abusing Randwickian has done what he does best, motivate. Cheika’s capacity to stoke the fire of passion and, in doing so, help a team find a gear they didn’t know they had by now should be his trademark.

But to mark the Puma’s famous victory down to renewed passion and forget the astute kicking, defensive shape, and All Black inaccuracies which catalysed the outcome, I feel, is to short-change a team well and truly on the up.

Indeed, to be more transparent, I have no doubt that passion for the game is the lifeblood of grassroots and that it plays a vitally important role in viewership and participation. But does this hold true at the elite level? On the field? In a Test match? To answer my own questions, I don’t believe it does.

Now that’s not to say it doesn’t matter. But despite what many rugby pundits infer (Mr Harrison excluded), I firmly believe this is not a vital contributor to the Wallabies current predicament.

Case in point, listening to Nick White’s pleading discussion with French referee Mathieu Raynal following the First Bledisloe match in Melbourne’ the passion was plain to see. To put it frankly, it’s a conversation not short on edge, an edge that could only be sharpened by a deeply held passion for the game and the outcome.

Going further, the downtrodden shape cut by the entire Wallabies squad following the Bledisloe Two trouncing illustrates a team genuinely shocked and hurt by the outcome. If they have no passion, why feel a result like that so acutely?

It seems to me we might all have been misled. It seems to me that our national team mightn’t be as short on passion as the punditry suggests.

So why does this narrative continue to be spruiked in perpetuity following another Bledisloe loss? I can’t speak to the motivations of all rugby fans and critics, but for my part, it’s simply easier.

Why run the risk of acknowledging that it’s not a lack of passion hobbling the Wallabies’ when that means admitting to the skillset divide and growing physicality mismatch we face? Perhaps though, with 2023 approaching, it’s time we do just that.

Perhaps it’s time that we heed Harrison’s words and acknowledge that our national team has ample passion and finding more isn’t going to help.

The Wallabies are no longer a top five team in the world. But a lack of passion isn’t why we find ourselves here. So maybe it’s worth exploring a few other reasons why the Wallabies keep falling short, and let’s leave the crutch of passion behind.

Of course, like you all, I have no power in this fight. All I can do is hope that those who do face up to the challenge. As for me, I’ll be sitting and wishing for a successful Spring Tour and will watch the boys in Gold strut their stuff. One more time, with feeling.

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