READERS of last Saturday's Herald might have been surprised to find in the news section of the paper a self-described ''traitorous'' rugby opinion piece by Mike Carlton. He put the boot in early by stating that he was ''thrilled to bits that Scotland beat Australia at Newcastle''. Then he launched a huge bomb by stating he wanted Wales to ''thrash'' the Wallabies that night in Brisbane. The justification offered for these sentiments was that ''Australian rugby is in deep crisis at every level, national and state … It's viral, possibly terminal … The Waratahs are the worst …''
And the Carlton answer to the crisis? Nothing less than a ''blood-soaked revolution … on and off the field, from top to bottom. Heads must roll.''
Most of this critique is based on an attack on the ARU by the former Wallabies coach John Connolly. Connolly is demanding a full review of the ARU if the Wallabies lose this three-Test series against Wales.
We need to understand some rugby politics here. Connolly was deposed as Wallabies coach when the chief executive of the ARU, John O'Neill, came back for a second term in 2008.
O'Neill promoted Robbie Deans to Connolly's job. Since then, Connolly and other reasonably influential dissidents, publicly and behind the scenes, have been trying to get rid of O'Neill. They have often attacked Deans's record and his appointment as a way of undermining O'Neill.
O'Neill explained last week that the Connolly/Carlton line that everything in Australian rugby is rooned is ''not supported by fact-based evidence''. And he makes a convincing case. There has been a 25 per cent increase in playing numbers throughout Australia. Television ratings are at record highs. The Queensland Reds won last season's Super Rugby tournament. They have more than 30,000 members and are playing before large crowds at Suncorp Stadium. The Wallabies won the 2011 Tri Nations tournament. They are the No.2 team in the world rankings. Last year they defeated the Springboks in three successive Tests, an achievement without parallel in their history.
These facts suggest that the claim that ''Australian rugby is in deep crisis at every level, national and state'' is hyperbole, to put it mildly. Carlton was right, however, to attack the Waratahs franchise. It does have ''one foot in the grave'' with the other foot ''kicking the ball away to lose possession''. It is letting its supporters and Australian rugby down. And there needs to be a cleanout at the franchise.
But the Wallabies are not the Waratahs. Moreover, when Waratahs players step up to the Wallabies their game improves and they become winners rather than losers.
There were seven Waratahs in the Wallabies run-on team last weekend. The all-Waratahs front row held its own with a strong Welsh front three. Adam Ashley-Cooper, who has been ineffective with the Waratahs, was in great running and catching form for the Wallabies. Even Berrick Barnes, rightly criticised for kicking too much for the Waratahs, ran and passed effectively. He did kick the ball away once inside the Wales 22, which (rightly) incurred the criticism of Rod Kafer. Old habits die hard. But, in general, Barnes did a good job organising a rolling series of Wallabies ball-in-hand attacks that Wales found hard to cope with.
Sam Warburton, the impressive, young captain of Wales, said the pace of the Wallabies game in the first 40 minutes of the Test was too fast for Wales to keep up with. Many experts, especially those from Britain, had believed that Wales had too much speed and size for the Wallabies to hold. But, in the end, the Six Nations champions were comfortably defeated.
The beauty of the three-Test format is that both teams have a chance to regroup and rethink their tactics. Wales, for instance, are expected to kick for field position a lot more tonight in the Test at Melbourne. If this is the case, it is a concession that the most skilful team in Europe cannot trust itself to match its skills with the Wallabies.
It also provides a coaching challenge for Deans to set up the systems for counter-attack to exploit the possession that Wales might kick away.