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Golden era kicks off at last as Australian rugby climbs off the canvas | Angus Fontaine
Rugby union Sport

Golden era kicks off at last as Australian rugby climbs off the canvas | Angus Fontaine

Men and women laughing, children skipping, gold scarves worn proudly and goofy winning grins everywhere. None of this existed last year. Fans trudged and kids whined as a madman was steering the Wallabies through a winless 2023 home season then into a storm in Paris. For Australian rugby fans there was only tunnel at the end of the light.

But the Wallabies’ 25-18 victory over Wales – and the Wallaroos’ 64-5 thrashing of Fijiana in the curtain-raiser – in Sydney last night has put pep in everyone’s step. The Joe Schmidt and Jo Yapp eras are up and running, a new generation of golden boys and golden girls has been blooded, and an embattled code is climbing off the canvas.

Defeating teams ranked 10th and 15th in the world wouldn’t normally warrant such excitement for a proud sporting nation. But after the men’s side’s cataclysmic World Cup in September and the Wallaroos drop to second tier last month, it’s come to this.

Not only did both Australian sides secure much-needed wins under new coaches, they did it with style. Wallaroos winger Desiree Miller crossed a record four times in a 10-try demolition, while Wallabies full-back Tom Wright, after a night slipping on banana skins, finished a late 70-metre burst with a shimmy-shimmy-whoosh to vanquish Wales.

For the Wallabies, victory is worth its weight in gold. Not only does the men’s side desperately need forward momentum before the British & Irish Lions juggernaut lands on these shores in 2025 and a World Cup two years later, the fans need hope. The women, already Olympic Sevens heroes, have a home World Cup to target in 2029.

Flying winger Desiree Miller scored four tries in the Wallaroos’ rout of Fijiana at the weekend.View image in fullscreen

The other gold here is the broadcast rights which are up for renegotiation imminently. That contract, worth A$32m per year to Nine (down from A$50m with Fox), has slid with Rugby Australia’s ailing stocks. But on-field wins equals on-screen wins, and if lost or latent union fans return to a winning side via TV first, ticket sales are next.

Although the Wallabies remain the primary ‘rainmakers’ for a code A$89m in debt, women’s rugby is growing faster and stronger in terms of participation and support. Should Australia’s sevens captain Charlotte Caslick bring home a Paris gold to match the famous bullion she and her team won in Brazil in 2016, all boats rise on the tide.

Both sides blooded a raft of new talent on Saturday, with seven debutants for the Wallabies and four for the Wallaroos. If the sight of newly-retired former captain Michael Hooper tucking into pies in the press box wasn’t a sign of change, this was.

Michael Hooper carried the match ball for the Australia-Wales Test. The former captain’s retirement last month ushers in a new era.View image in fullscreen

Along with wins, Australian rugby desperately needs heroes. Speed freak Maddison Levi, 22, and sister Teagan, 20, are a double-barrel blast of charisma that blows away all comers on and off field. Marketed astutely ahead of 2029, they can be powerful agents of change in the rise of women’s sport and the changing face of local rugby.

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After years advertising the game on bung heads and behemoths, the men’s game has a few telegenic faces of their own to trade on. Josh Flook and Billy Pollard, both 22, and Charlie Cale, 23, lit the fuse on big futures last night. Then there’s Joseph Sua’all’i, 20, the A$5m man lured back from the NRL as Rugby Australia’s posterboy from 2025.

But it’s lipstick on a pig if neither team wins. Sport and TV survive on good numbers and racking them up on the scoreboard trickles them into TV deals, sponsorships, gold jersey sales, seats at the games and retention of talent come contract time.

Australia are 2-0 in this Test window but both need big weeks after their big wins. The Wallaroos face New Zealand in Brisbane on Sunday (after losing 67-19 to them in May) while the Wallabies face a return bout against Wales in Melbourne on Saturday night before a one-off Test against Georgia, whom they pipped 35-15 last year, on 20 July.

But even when shit gets real, Joe Schmidt’s men find themselves in the box seat. World champions South Africa play twice in Australia this year, in Brisbane on 10 August, then Perth on 17 August. The Wallabies’ final home Test is against the All Blacks in Sydney, a chance to win the Bledisloe Cup for the first time in 22 years.

That scenario seemed a million miles away last year, but got one step closer last night. For now the game and players have hope in their heart and sunshine under their feet. A change of coach and wave of new stars has put light at the end of the tunnel at last.

Source: theguardian.com