The Wrap: A celebration of Blue, 50 and 18 years on

It was as if it was written in the stars. Today, the 21st June, marks the 50th anniversary of the release of Joni Mitchell’s masterful album Blue, rated third in Rolling Stone magazine’s 2020 list of top 500 albums of all time, behind only Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On? and the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. […]

The Wrap: A celebration of Blue, 50 and 18 years on

It was as if it was written in the stars.

Today, the 21st June, marks the 50th anniversary of the release of Joni Mitchell’s masterful album Blue, rated third in Rolling Stone magazine’s 2020 list of top 500 albums of all time, behind only Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On? and the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds.

Having spent decades prepared to die on a hill proclaiming Mitchell’s subsequent album For the Roses superior, I’ve gradually come around to Blue, comprehending how the whole transcends what is a collection of great individual tracks. Another indicator is the brilliance of the cover versions it spawned; among the notables, Holly Cole’s ‘River’, I’m With Her’s ‘Carey’ and, in 2000, Mitchell’s own symphonic reinterpretation of ‘A Case of You’.

It’s not 50 years since the Blues were a decent rugby side, although for long-suffering fans, the 18 years since their last Super Rugby triumph must have felt like all of that and more.

They need suffer no longer. Saturday’s 23-15 triumph, in what was an excellent final, not only goes a long way to exorcising past demons, but the manner of their march through Super Rugby Trans-Tasman suggests that a sound foundation has been laid for continued success in coming seasons.

After the Blues fell away at the tail end of Super Rugby Aotearoa, coach Leon McDonald made no secret of how this competition would be their pathway to redemption. How satisfying then, that a side so often criticised for never managing to be more than the sum of its star players, counted among its best the unheralded trio of hooker Kurt Eklund, halfback Finlay Christie and replacement back Harry Plummer.

After five weeks of watching sides run themselves giddy chasing try-scoring bonus points, the Test-match intensity and attritional nature of the final took some getting used to, but was wholly refreshing. It also underlined what an unusual competition this has been.

Both sides knuckled down in defence, competed hard at the lineout and kicked judiciously for position, none better than ice-cool youngster Zarn Sullivan.

Both sides also got value from their counter-ruck, with little man Christie, on multiple occasions, acting as a fourth loose forward for the Blues on the cleanout and forage. Yet despite what felt like overwhelming first-half dominance, 13-6 was by no means a winning score.

Staying in the fight courtesy of some high-quality exit kicking and scrambling defence, the Highlanders upped the tempo after halftime, edging ahead 15-13 with quarter of an hour left, leaving everyone on the edge of their seats. But it was Plummer who seized the moment for the home side, drilling a penalty goal from near the sideline to reclaim the lead at 16-15, and in doing so, changing the dynamic entering a tense final ten minutes.

It was another counter-ruck in the 76th minute that proved the crucial play, Hoskins Sotutu and Blake Gibson taking full advantage for the Blues’ second try before Plummer iced the title with another superb kick.

Skipper Patrick Tuipolotu stood tall afterwards, not rushing to join excited teammates, but instead consoling his opponents, who may have reflected on how their period of dominance coincided with his being off the field, and how unlucky they were that Josh Goodhue was deemed to have suffered concussion of the ribs, thus allowing Tuipolotu to return as a replacement.

(Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

Despite the truncated and distorted nature of the competition, with the Crusaders denied a place in the final despite being undefeated, only the churlish would deny the Blues their return to the winners’ stage. But with the monkey now off their back, and some handy recruits lined up for next season, if the Blues keep winning – and they certainly have improvement left in them – I wonder how long it will be before that kind of goodwill wears thin?

If you’ll excuse another musical reference, anyone watching Deva Mahal perform the pre-match national anthem, wondering why she was a cut above the norm, might like to check out not only her own album Run Deep, but performances alongside her father, legendary bluesman Taj Mahal and the timeless Boz Scaggs, the 2003 concert at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall, an impeccable addition to her CV.

There was a strong Blues connection to England’s premiership semi-finals, where Pat Lam’s Bristol, with Steven Luatua and John Afoa on board, gave up a 28-0 lead to lose 43-36 in remarkable fashion, to a Harlequins side containing not only the gifted Marcus Smith, but recent Blues centre, Joe Marchant.

They will face a tough task in the final against the seasoned Exeter, 40-30 winners over Sale. 21 tries in two semi-finals spoke to a continuation of the bright, but still combative rugby seen all season; which is what can happen when lawmakers, referees, coaches and players all sing from the same hymn sheet.

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Note the Australian connection too – Luke Morahan and Louis Lynagh both on the scoresheet, with Ben Tapuai joining Lynagh next week on the big stage at Twickenham.

With local focus shifting to the Wallabies’ upcoming series against France, there remains the critical matter of Rugby Australia and New Zealand Rugby agreeing to a competition format for next year and beyond, that satisfies a range of conflicting desires and necessities.

As if this wasn’t important enough, confirmation this week of South Africa further embedding itself into the fabric of northern hemisphere rugby – consolidating an already pronounced financial disparity with their increasingly in name only, SANZAAR partners – highlights the need to get things right.

That’s no easy task, given the existing on-field performance gulf, which informs each country’s viewpoint.

A full trans-Tasman competition is popular with New Zealand franchises and coaches, because every rugby player loves going on tour, as long as it isn’t too far and for too long. Australia also provides a welcome ebb to the high-level intensity faced in the New Zealand derby matches.

Isaac Henry celebrates after scoring a try.

(Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

Captains and coaches always take care to couch such comments so as not to insult or slight Australia, but as genuine as that may be, everyone knows how, for the most part, matches against Australian franchises aren’t as intense or physically taxing.

Six weeks ago, Rugby Australia and its new broadcaster were so emboldened by the success of Super Rugby AU they may well have dug in, to ensure that greater weighting was given to the domestic piece at the expense of a full trans-Tasman competition.

But two wins and 23 losses later there is the triple realisation that hiding away under one’s bed is no solution, a professional domestic competition to help develop players is and a Mickey Mouse five-week cross-over isn’t actually a proper, sustainable competition.

The potential addition of Moana Pasifika and the Fijian Drua adds scheduling complexity, cost and an immediate attack on the prospect of a new Blues dynasty. On the other hand, with fan sentiment overwhelmingly in favour, this might just be the authentic, identity-making, circuit breaker Super Rugby has long needed.

Further, with the flow of coaches and players to Japan only increasing, and with seasons largely aligning, there is no better time than now to shift heaven and earth to bolt-on Japanese participation in a post-season finale, in conjunction with admission to the Rugby Championships.

No one is pretending this is easily done, but if Australia and New Zealand are to avoid running the isolation gauntlet, the days of Japan rugby being associated with words like ‘potential’ and ‘the future’ must be over. The future is now.

The trouble is, the past is also now, and the spectre that has hung over Australian rugby since the advent of professionalism – failing to find compatibility between a domestic and regional rugby solution – is as acutely relevant today as it ever was.

Len Ikitau celebrates with his Brumbies teammates.

(Photo by Brett Hemmings/Getty Images)

The timing and nature of New Zealand’s internal squabble over the proposed equity investment is also no help. One, because no amount of money is going buy a pathway out of isolation, and two, because this is no time to be fractured and disunified.

Positions are genuinely held, and if player’s bosses David Kirk and Rob Nicol believe that there are better financing options than Silver Lake, that is entirely their prerogative. But is being the financial guardian of New Zealand rugby really the role of the players?

After all, it’s difficult to imagine CEO Mark Robinson wandering onto the pitch at an injury break 20 minutes into a Bledisloe Cup match, tapping Codie Taylor on the shoulder and telling him to sit down on the bench, because “mate, I don’t think you’re throwing is up to scratch any more, and I’d like to see Samisoni Taukei’aho have a run instead.”

Unlikely? Well, perhaps as unlikely as a bunch of ex-captains deciding who should be running Australian Rugby. It’s old-fashioned I know, but the notion of administrators running the game, coaches picking the team and the players concentrating on playing is surely still well-founded.

For now, despite the flaws of Super Rugby Trans-Tasman, let’s not downplay the achievement of the Blues, not the efforts of administrators on both sides of the Tasman to deliver rugby in what have been extremely challenging circumstances.

Blake Gibson of the Blues celebrates after scoring the match-sealing try.

(Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

There is living proof that, in many respects, the game has never been in better hands. But those feel-goods are already history. Today’s challenges around finances, grassroots participation and, in Australia, high performance, have never been greater.

This feels like a critical juncture for rugby in our region. I’m betting that Joni Mitchell’s Blue will still be admired and enjoyed in another 50 years’ time. What odds people are thinking the same thing about Super Rugby?

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Consolidate to survive: Five teams must become four if Super Rugby is to survive

Australian rugby made some real strides during the COVID period. The Reds and Brumbies have been strong, the Force and Wallabies improved, and the new TV deal has seen ratings rise. As we enter the beginning of the end of COVID, Rugby Australia is redesigning the Super Rugby competition and, if there is one lesson […]

Consolidate to survive: Five teams must become four if Super Rugby is to survive

Australian rugby made some real strides during the COVID period.

The Reds and Brumbies have been strong, the Force and Wallabies improved, and the new TV deal has seen ratings rise.

As we enter the beginning of the end of COVID, Rugby Australia is redesigning the Super Rugby competition and, if there is one lesson they must learn from the Trans-Tasman competition, it is that Australia absolutely cannot field five teams in the future.

In the new competition, Australia will need teams winning every week, pushing deep into the finals and, yes, winning championships.

In the crowded Australian sporting market, the standard has to be very high for punters to switch on the rugby over the NRL or the AFL.

With this, and the 23 out of 25 Trans-Tasman losses in mind, there is one harsh truth that we as Australian rugby fans must learn: we must consolidate to survive.

Let me explain.

The core argument is simple: cutting a team makes Australian rugby stronger, and we need to be stronger.

Cutting a club results in a higher concentration of player and coaching talent which, in turn, builds stronger rugby teams.

Without stronger rugby sides, we cannot compete with New Zealand and, if we fail to compete with our cousins across the ditch, Super Rugby is doomed. No one will buy into a competition that is uncompetitive; our sides must become stronger, this is a fact.

(Photo by Mark Evans/Getty Images)

A stronger and more vibrant competition will attract higher TV ratings, greater fan engagement and more sponsorship dollars for the remaining clubs.

The core assumption here is that the competitiveness of a competition is key to its success.

For an example of this, you need to look no further than the 2021 Super Rugby AU competition.

This competition was not necessarily of a high rugby standard, but the competition between sides was excellent, and this resonated with the rugby public; culminating in more than 40,000 people attending the grand final and over half a million watching on TV.

This sort of close, competitive competition format must be replicated in the new Super Rugby competition. If Rugby Australia can succeed in doing this, not only will it keep Australian rugby alive, but it will provide us with an opportunity to thrive.

There are those within the rugby community who argue that a competition with one less Australian team will result in fewer games and consequently, less TV revenue.

This certainly is true (at least in the short term) but it is a trade-off that has to be considered, as an additional game per week in an uncompetitive comp is hardly going to translate into ratings, ticket sales or sponsorship.

This financial trade-off becomes particularly pertinent when you consider the case of the Melbourne Rebels and their finances.

Like every Australian club, the Rebels rely on Rugby Australia funding to survive and RA have spent tens of millions propping up the Rebels over the past decade. This may have been a justified expansion strategy ten years ago but, certainly in 2021, this is no longer the case.

Every dollar sunk into the Melbourne Rebels is a dollar taken from grassroots rugby or high performance rugby and, if the Rebels were cut, Rugby Australia would have millions of dollars a year of extra investment.

If these savings were spent on high performance, Australia would be in a much better position to prevent players such as Samu Kerevi, Will Skelton, Richie Arnold, Brandon Paenga-Amosa, Marika Koroibete and Sean McMahon from leaving the country.

Will Skelton of La Rochelle

Will Skelton. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Not only would this have benefits for the Super Rugby clubs that produced these players, but it would have flow-on effects for their sponsors, and, of course, for the Wallabies.

Alternatively, the savings from the Melbourne Rebels could be spent on grassroots.

If the money was given to clubland, spent on getting rugby union into state schools, or pumped directly into community rugby in Victoria, the fact remains: the money that could be saved from propping up a failing club could be used to create sustained long-term growth in the game.

To my mind, the question is not should we consolidate, but who should go?

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And the answer is undoubtedly the Melbourne Rebels.

There are a number of reasons the Rebels must fold and the aforementioned financial reasons are chief among them. But beyond the finances, the Rebels, on and off the field, are an uncompetitive club.

In terms of their on-field results, the Rebels have spent a decade playing rugby with very little success and show no signs of turning this around.

With the exception of Super Rugby AU 2020, they have never made the finals.

They have been stronger in the past, however, their strongest ever season saw them finish ninth (2018) and they have never completed a season with more wins than losses or with a positive points differential.

The long and the short of it is that the Rebels have been poor for a very long time.

The Rebels’ on-field performances may not have been strong, but their recent off-field performance may be worse.

They have seen a revolving door of player movement across the course of their existence, and the player exodus has accelerated in the past few seasons.

Last year alone, 19 players left the Rebels with established players Anaru Rangi, Luke Jones, Angus Cottrell, Tom English and Billy Meeks among them.

If not to add insult to injury, the Rebels have sacked their head coach this year, they are very likely to lose marquee players Marika Koroibete and Isi Naisarani to overseas clubs, and their captain, Dane Haylett-Petty, to concussion symptoms.

These poor results and the revolving squad have all but severed the Melbourne side’s connection to their fans. While rugby union has a small but stable community presence in Victoria, this does not translate to fan engagement for the Rebels.

Reece Hodge of the Rebels

(Photo by Michael Dodge/Getty Images)

Attendance at Rebels games has decreased steadily over the past few years. This year’s Rebels-Force game attracted just 3,983 spectators – this may seem like an anomaly, but their highest attendance this season was against the Waratahs, where they attracted just 5,156 spectators.

Between the on-field struggle, the erosion of the playing squad, the persistent financial issues and the absence of a firm fan-base, the Rebels sadly really are a lost cause and the sooner Australian rugby realises that, the better.

Instead of continuing to prop up the Rebels, it would be far wiser for Rugby Australia to take what remains of the Rebels squad and absorb it into the other four provinces. Spending millions more to maintain an uncompetitive side would be a mistake.

The Rebels don’t have to completely die – they could be merged with the Brumbies and play games across both Canberra and Melbourne. But whatever the end scenario, consolidation is key.

If you remain unconvinced, consider the warning issued by Eddie Jones (in 2010, no less): “The reason they’re in is because of TV rights.

“The current 14-team competition is just starting to find its feet [and the] addition of another Australian franchise is not good for Australian rugby.”

Jones went on: “Another Australian side is just going to weaken the third and fourth teams. It’s unrealistic for Australia to have five teams and it will be bad for Wallaby rugby in the short-term, for the next ten to 15 years.”

We didn’t heed the warning and look where we are now.

Australia is stronger with four teams: it was true 11 years ago, and it is true now.

Australia must consolidate to survive.

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