Holbeck: Is Wallaby character under question?

by James Holbeck

Since the loss last weekend some have written of a lack of character by the Australian players and poor tactics by the coaching staff.

How have the Wallabies so quickly lost the respect of supporters or is this really just a reflection of the temporary hurt of losing to our traditional foes?

Any suggestion of a negative character assessment would certainly displease the Wallabies because Michael Cheika’s motivational narrative is based on bleeding for each other in order to earn the respect of the public.

Some pundits, perhaps in a moment of reactionary defiance, have even suggested that we replace Wallaby coaches Cheika and Larkham with Jones and Ella. How did this happen?

England remain undefeated under Eddie Jones. Photo: ARU Media/Stu Walmsley

How did we go from wholeheartedly believing in this team during the Rugby World Cup and its ability to represent us as a nation and now wanting to discard them? Simple we lost to the English. And twice!

What do we actually want the Wallabies to represent for us anyway? Apart from winning, what markers do we measure them against?

Traditionally, Australian sport has been uncomfortably couched in the values passed down as based on the ANZAC spirit. The lovable, underdog larrikins who fought and sacrificed their lives for Australia. There are some inherent issues with trying to fulfil this narrative from a sporting perspective. 

The identity of the underdog compels us to always want to win but its power can only be generated and maintained by never completely fulfilling that drive. We want to win but we do not want to be favourites. That can mean that we like to construct scenarios where we start from a position of disadvantage. We seem to have positioned ourselves nicely like that in this series!

I remember the meeting at the ACT Brumbies when we were told that a successful few years meant that we had to abandon our motivation of fighting as poor cousins to taking on a new identity of striving for excellence. To have the ability to lead from the front.

The Brumbies enjoyed a successful era in the early 2000's under Eddie Jones. Photo: Getty Images

A further way of understanding what we want from the Wallaby team is to do the tombstone test.  This technique is often used to clarify a person’s values. This might be seen as fitting by English supporters who would say the Wallabies essentially died on Saturday night.

What would be important to write on a tombstone that reflects what the Wallabies stand for?

According to the ANZAC narrative it might read:

Here lie the Wallabies who fought with endurance, courage, ingenuity, good humour, larrikinism, and mateship for the country and people they represented.

Most people would agree that if we measured the Wallaby performance against those values, that ingenuity was not upheld last Saturday. Cheika in his after-match press conference took responsibility for his part in failing to get the players to fully understand how to apply their style of play to the English. That suggests we did not see the full array of tactics to counter the English defensive wall.

Good teams find ways of winning. They can get out of trouble or comfortably lead from the front. Surely the Wallabies needed to find something at their disposal last weekend to change their point of attack. I guess we get to find out what that looks like on Saturday night.

Champion teams find a way to win, even when they're down. Photo: ARU Media/Stu Walmsley

I even had a former Sydney first-grade winger shouting at the screen for the forwards to pick and go. Now that says something!

Psychologists might say that a way in which we can try to understand ourselves is based around finding, highlighting and holding onto critical experiences in life that reinforces this value system. These stories if you like, give a substance and a sense of how to see our selves by essentially constructing a life narrative. They are the flesh to the bones that are the values. Is it worth just forgetting this series?

It is easy to suddenly start questioning the identity-based narrative this team has created and to even ponder on what might have been if Scotland had won the World Cup quarterfinal.

Have we just constructed a false story of character for this team? Like life, we tend to choose what memories we hold onto to fit our self-concept and forget the one’s that do not.  Narratives are therefore not necessarily reflective of reality.

This final test match surely is enough to fire up the anti-British sentiment and the narratives reinforced to Baby Boomers and Generation X supporters through movies like Bodyline or Gallipoli.

The story of the English as imperial rulers trying to unfairly enforce their power over Australians as less worthy and dispensable cousins. We are remittance men, sent from our English families in embarrassment to the backward colonies. We are poor and lowly convicts. Ok, that was probably too much but you get my point!

I was however, grounded after hearing Rob Horne’s recent comments, who spoke of playing for what the jersey represents and following the identity of how the team wants to play. Of course he is right. A team overly reactive after every setback is bound for a long haphazard season, chasing a new focus each week. Thank goodness most of us are not the Wallaby coach.

There's an expectation of the Wallabies since their successful Rugby World Cup campaign. Photo: Getty Images

So, let us get back to the original question. Is the Wallaby character under question? Of course it is! Character is tested in every contest and the long-term secret is to not let a loss take away from the substance of the character already formed. The character of this team and the team’s story is continuously being written.  A great chapter was formed during the World Cup but now it’s time to stand up again.

If we follow the values of ingenuity, courage and endurance into this test, the Wallabies can turn this last game into a fight against our regal oppressors. Once again we will earn the respect of the public, thereby freeing the spirit of the convict and remittance men alike. It will be a story of the great underdog comeback! Then we can start striving for the excellence needed to beat the All Blacks!

Go the Wallabies!

James Holbeck is a former Brumbies and Wallabies centre with an Honours in Psychology. James has since earned a reputation as an insightful mentor & coach at Hope Beckons


The opinions expressed in this article are the views of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the ARU.