What has stirred and shifted in the hearts of the Australian Rugby supporter? What have Michael Cheika and the Wallabies done to return the prodigal sons and daughters back home to be embraced by the game they once loved? What are we even admiring in the current Wallabies? If you want to understand what has transpired you may well go back to an interview with Sarah Ferguson on the ABC after Cheika had seemingly turned the NSW Waratahs into a team worth believing in again. The themes that run through the article I believe speak to our cultural identity and therefore the narrative lens through which we see ourselves as a nation. http://www.abc.net.au/7.30/content/2014/s4060684.htm
When asked what he brought to the team Cheika answered “simple hard work” and creating training environments where the players were “sweating together and bleeding together to build respect”. Those that were fortunate enough to play with Cheika will know those words are true of his character, a real competitor. Opposition teams no doubt have other names for him for he was one who never took a backward step. I have to admit that he is the only team-mate in 25 years of playing Rugby to ever split my head open in the days when rucking (i.e. removing players lying in a ruck from blocking access to the ball by using the bottom of one’s boots) was allowed. Instead of being angry with him at the time I realised that if he thought that I was in the way of getting what he needed, and in this case the ball, it would have been (at least in his mind) justified. He is a man who knows both who he is and what he wants and furthermore he’s not afraid to go get it. Whatever that may take. He makes no apologies for his passion.
From the outside it appears that the Wallabies have really focused on getting a new identity from which to play. Most leadership groups have traditionally just asked, how do you want to be seen and then found behaviours that fit with that branding, keeping players accountable to those behaviours. The new era goes one step further by following businesses that ask about the why. Why do we do what we do? From this position the Wallabies that we have seen at the RWC will fight tooth and nail to “play our way” despite the increasing pressure. They too know who they are and what they want. This attitude has earned the respect that the team had lost from the Rugby lovers of old (N.B. let us leave alone the Wallabies team of 1997, which I was a part of, remembering that once they rid themselves of the deadwood they went on to win the World Cup two years later. Further note - I did not play in the 1999 RWC).
Interestingly, the All Blacks as the dominant side for more years than my memory cares to reflect on, have needed to find further ways to motivate a team already constantly winning. They are the front-runners in Saturday night’s clash. It’s not a label that either country really cherishes. We have forged shared and separate identities of being the under-dog. To the credit of the All Blacks they have created a different focus and have chosen something that transcends winning and losing.
They are expected to be better people as measured by respect, humility and responsibility. They are expected to be humble winners and humble losers but they also demand the highest performance possible each time they play. They are searching for the perfect performance. This appears a distinctly different perspective from the Wallabies. It also may take some pressure off a team representing a country of supporters who know that every game they play their team should win.
The AB’s narrative will no doubt alleviate some of the pressure of the all or nothing approach we love to place on our national teams, as perfectly described by athlete Harold Abrahams in the movie Chariots of Fire. “I will raise my eyes and look down that corridor; 4 feet wide, with 10 lonely seconds to justify my whole existence. But WILL I?” You are, after all, only as good as your last game according to the common man’s wisdom.
It is the performative based and continuous need to prove our lives and ourselves as meaningful and important. We have got what it takes. It positions every game as having the potential to destroy the foundations of everything you have created. From a psychological perspective it’s dangerous but elite teams seem to enjoy and thrive the massive highs and lows that come with that pressure.
As I read the recent articles on coach Steve Hanson, my patriotic competitiveness against all things Kiwi Rugby was melted into simple respect. I have watched players like Jerome Kaino sin-binned in the semi-final and not a word is offered in his own defence as he obediently runs off the field. As I watched I felt guilty for all my ill-disciplined ramblings at referees over the years. I suddenly remember the days of lining up at the start of games to shake the oppositions’ hands, of calling the referee ‘sir’ instead of a few other words I later learnt (probably from Cheika!) and then forming a tunnel to clap off the opposition at the conclusion of games. It’s all starting to make sense again! Distant memories of the traditions of the Rugby culture and of players who seem to appreciate their opportunity come flooding back in an age of unmerited entitlement. I’m sure it has always been there but I can finally see it again and with clarity.
I’m going to be honest here. I have not consistently watched or enjoyed rugby for a long time but something within all of this reminds me of my favourite Australian movie. It is obviously dangerous to find metaphors that compare war and sport and please see that this comparison is based purely on the narrative through which I see both. When I watch Gallipoli and Mel Gibson is sent as a runner to find someone who will over-ride the orders to keep sending the troops to their deaths, I become him and feel that part of me who wants to give all he has for the people around him. The people whom depend on my performance for their survival. When I watch the character waiting for his turn to try to take Turkish artillery positions, I’m telling myself that I’m going to run 'as fast a leopard' until I give my last breath for my mates and my country. I know, in my imagination, that despite what might happen I’ve just got to have a crack. It is a reality of war I’m fortunate to never have experienced but the movie takes me to a place where I am a more noble self. I cry.....then I remember it’s a movie, make sure no-one has noticed and I move on. I watch David Pocock or Michael Hooper and can believe that they fit the virtues our country was built on. They are men of passion and self-sacrifice. Selfless in getting the job done.
The story of the current Wallabies team fits this heroic narrative (or at least we force it to) but obviously it does not replicate the indescribably different environment and experience of war. It has once more become easy to identify with the players because we perceive them to carry the virtues that we were taught as kids to be important. That our country’s story is one involving courage, humility, discipline, respect and responsibility. We have some cultural challenges ahead but surely those facets of character should not be ignored in debate.
Meanwhile, the players are bleeding for one another. They are fighting for the privilege of the jersey - a story we have always heard but it feels like we as a country are finally willing to believe again. We are vulnerable enough to express our passionate support for the Wallabies knowing that we can trust this team to give all they have on Sunday morning. That is it! We trust them to honour the position they have been given in representing our country. They are suddenly worthy of our emotional investment! So many supporters have returned home during this World Cup to the game they play in heaven and it has embraced us all with its arms wide open. And doesn’t it feel good. It has been an amazing World Cup so let the celebrations begin!
So what is the moral of the story? Regardless of the result let us respect the efforts of both teams and learn from our neighbour’s wisdom, that apart from the obvious bragging rights, the result of the game does nothing to change our individual or national importance. It is a celebration of the character our players demonstrate. Esteemed psychologist Martin Seligman wrote years ago of attributional styles or in other words how we deal with success and setbacks. When we think of this in terms of the identity research it is worthwhile asking ourselves who do we see ourselves in victory and defeat.
The All Blacks have created a culture where winning or losing is subservient to displaying the characteristics required to play the perfect game but including virtuous aspects. The Wallabies have set a stage where they are desperate to leave the field proud of what they have achieved. To ‘make’ the country proud of how they have played. It may set up a dangerous all-or-nothing approach but as the underdog, that in itself plays perfectly into our Australian National identity. We can see our own potential nobility in the character of the players.
Go the Wallabies – Just have a red-hot crack!