The Wallabies celebrate.

The best marketing for the Wallabies is to win

It was heart-wrenching to see the devastation on the faces of the Wallabies squad after their heavy loss against England and exit from the Rugby World Cup.

Even sadder is that this wonderful group of young men could have done so much better had they not been let down by rugby administrators who have allowed the marketing tail to wag the Wallabies dog for too long.

Most notably marketing imperatives have prevented the Wallabies from having any sort of intelligent kicking game, much to the palpable frustration of World Cup-winning fullback Matthew Burke, who now commentates for Channel Ten.

Burke has been banging on about the Wallabies needing to have a good kicking game, particularly to exit their own 22, for a long time, yet his educated advice has been studiously ignored by departing Wallabies coach Michael Cheika. Instead Cheika has drilled the Wallabies to try and confect a counterattack from their own 22 against set defences, a tactic doomed to fail, which is why no other team has tried to do it.

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That it has gone on for so long is a testament to Cheika’s stubbornness, but since he is leaving it is vital to look beyond him for why it persisted to ensure that it never happens again.

The root cause is that Rugby Australia has tried too hard to gain commercial advantages in the hyper-competitive Australian footballing market and has forgotten what made the Wallabies so popular at the turn of the millennium. This popularity was exemplified by the record crowd of 109,874 at Stadium Australia in 2000 who watched the Wallabies and the All Blacks duke it out for the Bledisloe Cup in ‘the greatest game of rugby ever played’. The Wallabies were pipped at the post 35-39, but being the only nation to have won two world cups and the Bledisloe Cup for the last two years, the Wallabies were still winners. A good kicking strategy was a vital element of their success.

What Rugby Australia have got so wrong is pandering to vocal elements in the Australian rugby community who loudly and incessantly complain if rugby doesn’t fit their idea of what looks pretty. The obsession with ‘running rugby’, for which kicking the ball for field position or attempting a field goal is seen as a heinous sellout, is a peculiarly Australian phenomenon.

The impact of this fan preference was undoubtedly amplified by the incessant trash talk by rugby league pundits during the decade following the turn of the millennium. The leaguies desperately fought to pin the tag ‘boring’ onto what was a rising commercial competitor. It was a good commercial tactic, as it contributed to Rugby Australia to blink and interfere to change the way the Wallabies played.

The Wallabies celebrate.

(Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

This crystallised in 2013 when market researcher Bill Pulver took over as CEO of the then Rugby AU and replaced New Zealand-born coach Robbie Deans with Ewen McKenzie. Deans had kept the Wallabies at second or third in the world rankings, compared to seventh now, but he included a fair bit of tactical kicking, which was considered by Pulver to be too boring for Aussie tastes. Pulver’s made his intentions in hiring McKenzie clear when he said, “Arguably the most important (criteria) is that he has the ability to coach the way the Australian public wants the Wallabies to play – smart, creative running rugby.”

Winning was no longer the most important job for a Wallabies coach, and Pulver’s marketing-led purge of putting boot to leather continued beyond McKenzie, being adopted with gusto by Cheika. The rest is history.

The question that the Rugby Australia board needs to ask themselves when reviewing this debacle is: did any of the other 109,873 attendees at Stadium Australia on 15 July 2000 hear the bloke bellowing “Don’t kick it!”?

They didn’t care, because they were following a team of winners, and that is what Aussies love most. The fact that Stadium Australia hasn’t seen a crowd for the corresponding fixture to the 2000 match of more than 70,000 since 2015, with the low point being the 54,846-person attendance in 2017 after a horror year in 2016, amply demonstrates this.

The Rugby Australia board needs to have the statement ‘the best marketing is to win’ painted in big golden letters on their boardroom wall. They need to tell the marketers that they are paid to sell the product the way it is instead of trying to change it.

Only when Rugby Australia prioritises winning over all else will we see the Wallabies rise back to the heights we all know they’re capable of.

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