Tough times for Australian rugby
Keiran Smith
April 27, 2009
Australia Sevens skipper Shawn Mackay, New Zealand Sevens, February 2 , 2008
The late Mackay in action for Australia 7s during the 2008 New Zealand Sevens © Getty Images
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It's been a tough month for Australian rugby. The Waratahs have lost their way, while the rest are struggling to find anything resembling consistency.

However the on-field action has been overshadowed by a terrible tragedy, which saw Brumbies forward Shawn Mackay pass away a few days after being hit by a car in Durban.

'Macca' was your typical journeyman footballer. He had stints in rugby league, then the Waratahs before becoming a regular on the Sevens circuit.

There have been many uplifting and insightful stories into Shawn's life and I also had the opportunity to personally experience his renowned strength of character at the Adelaide Sevens last year.

Following Australia's loss to Tonga in the Plate semi-final I was with a group of journalists at the edge of the players tent waiting for comment from Mackay, who was captain. From where we were standing we could see him doubled over, choking and physically sick from his effort in a losing cause. Seeing his condition the group of journalists unanimously decided to direct their questions to coach Bill Millard instead.

But to our surprise, and what should put many other highly-paid and pampered players to shame, Shawn had already seen us standing there, took a moment to compose himself before coming outside to be interviewed by a completely slack-jawed media pack.

One of Shawn's great qualities was that you always knew you would get 100 per cent effort and commitment in everything he did, whether it be a carrying a young, inexperienced Sevens team or helping to lift the profile of a fledgling tournament.

These traits were echoed by his Brumbies coach Andy Friend, who said it was Macca's outstanding character as well as his rugby skill that led to him being recruited for this season.

In my experiences with Shawn, nothing was ever too difficult for him. He was even willing to get into a shark-proof tank off the coast of South Australia for a media photo opportunity for the Adelaide Sevens. The shark dive never did eventuate, but you have to wonder whether the Great Whites' would have been more worried about Macca than he of them! R.I.P. Macca. You will be missed.

The accident is sure to have further ramifications for all Australian touring teams. They will now need to reassess how they structure their after-match activities, particularly the time at which they end.

I, like many others, am surprised that in the day of elite professional sport, players are allowed to finish at 4am after a match the night before. This is in no way critical of the Brumbies team management, but more the rugby ethos itself.

Surely, from a sports science view point, it's not beneficial for a player's physical recovery to be out so late after what is a physically demanding sport. It will be interesting to see what lengths the team managers may now go to better protect their players.

Over at the Waratahs, their season may be slipping away, but they're management have certainly been more productive, bolstering the playing ranks for the next few seasons.

In the past week, the ARU and Waratahs have been trumpeting three signings, with Luke Burgess and Phil Waugh committing for a further two seasons, while Drew Mitchell has been coaxed from the Western Force.

"...the Western Australian government has let them down badly with delaying construction of a purpose built rectangular stadium."

With Waugh, it's a case of sanity finally prevailing after a sorry protracted saga. You do have to ask why it took so long and the very real threat of the 77-Test veteran heading overseas to have this sorted out.

If the Wallabies management are genuine in achieving depth across all positions, the world's third best No.7 (after George Smith and Richie McCaw) has to be in the squad. Waugh still has a lot to offer, but it's clear Robbie Deans is not overly convinced the Waratahs flanker has a future with the Wallabies.

Given Deans' almost flawless track record of player judgement, Waugh is up against it, but it's the sort of challenge he thrives on. He was one of the best in a second-rate Wallabies pack during John Connolly's reign and it would be a brave man to write off a player of his tenacity and combativeness.

The signing of halfback Burgess was expected but the Tah's will be very pleased with their work in securing Drew Mitchell to replace the outgoing Sam Norton-Knight at fullback.

Mitchell's departure is yet another blow for the Perth-based franchise who seem to suffer setback after setback. Granted, some are self-inflicted, but the collapse of their once major sponsor, Firepower, has now led to two frontline Wallabies, Giteau and now Mitchell, returning East.

As much as Mitchell claims the move wasn't about the money, it certainly would have played a part, as would have the continued strained relationship between the playing group and coach John Mitchell.

With top players departing and crowd numbers falling, times are grim across the Nullarbor. Unfortunately for the Force, the Western Australian government has let them down badly with delaying construction of a purpose built rectangular stadium.

For those who haven't been to their current home at Subiaco Oval, you're not missing much. Imagine trying to watch rugby from the carpark (that's how far away the action is from the seating bowl) and paying handsomely for the privilege.

The problem lies in rugby being very much the second choice code in a one sport town. If it's not Aussie Rules football it barely rates a mention in the West and the government will continue to baulk at funding a new stadium for what it sees as a marginal sport. With the country now in recession and the State's mining bubble in tatters, it's hard to see the status quo changing despite some attempts to influence the situation by John O'Neill.


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