Rugby's Culture Wars

One Round of Rugby can reveal a lot about the cultures of a country...

Ewen Mckenzie is on the record saying it's not good enough to win ugly. But win ugly is exactly what the Waratahs are doing when they're not losing ugly. Meanwhile, a rag tag bunch of kids and rejects in Canberra is playing exciting open Rugby much like their predecessors did even before the laws were changed to encourage just that sort of game.

Why is it that the Waratahs, the most talented players in Australia on a whole and certainly by reputation, play safe Rugby when they should be expansive, kick away good ball, or push passes under pressure when they should be playing tight and safe? Waratahs matches have a tendency to feature desperate defence and scrambled tries.

And it's not just this season it's every season. Waratahs supporters have grown accustomed to the early season promise, the scrapped win, the flash of brilliance and hope only to see it dashed late in the season when the New Zealand big guns arrive or conversely when the Waratahs set foot in New Zealand. If coach after coach, star league recruit after star league recruit, and brilliantly talented youngster after brilliantly talented youngster can't make a difference then the problem lies deeper.

The Brumbies on the other hand have proven to be Australia's most successful provincial Rugby team (sorry, franchise) since their inception, winning a number of Super Rugby titles with rejected players from the traditional Rugby heartlands of New South Wales and Queensland. Not only are the Brumbies successful but they have won with style, flair and, most importantly, innovation. Rod MacQueen, the first Brumbies coach and later Wallaby Coach, and his Brumbies Wallaby core of Gregan, Larkham and others even won a World Cup.

This season, after a slow start, the Brumbies hit their straps in traditional style against the Queensland Reds. With an injured list that would make an impressive first XV and Julian Huxley, one of their few remaining experienced players knocked out of the match after two minutes, the Brumbies turned to what they knew best, throwing the ball wide and probing for gaps. It worked spectacularly.

Of course any team can throw the ball around. But when the Brumbies do it the ball sticks and the movement flows. The Waratahs do occasionally, but not until a match is wrapped up or they're desperate and when it happens it all tends to break down through fumbled passes and a lack of intuition.

The Waratahs malaise is not about player or coaching talent, facilities, support or the media. It's inherent. It's the Sydney zeitgeist, that intangible Sydney characteristic that spends too much time sitting in traffic worrying about real estate prices and child care. That has the best harbour in the World and isn't afraid to admit it. That has great beach weather and great beaches that the vast majority of its population is too busy to ever go to.

Rugby should be either a passionate priority (as it is in new Zealand) or a passionate escape (as it is in South Africa). But in Sydney, Rugby is just another competing distraction. An enjoyable one when it goes right, but not an important one. Sydney spectators, irrespective of the sport, are notoriously fickle, and will support any winning team. But at the end of the day, most Sydney-siders would like the Waratahs to win but don't really care, and it's an attitude which infuses the Waratahs playing style and passion or lack thereof. When you have everything in your own backyard why be adventurous?

And Canberra? How does a dull notoriety of public servants and roundabouts translate to the adventurous Brumbies playing style? It's all about balance. Grey at work and at home, Canberrans express themselves when they're out as there is nowhere else to do it - no beaches, no mardi gras, and few restaurants, cafes, arthouse cinemas or tourist attractions that don't feature politics, war or art. If a football team wants to get the attention of its potential supporter base it has to provide something different. And it helps if you win.