Ewen McKenzie has a lot to think about after a disappointing performance against the Springboks in Brisbane on Saturday night. Photo: Cameron Spencer
To prosecutors of the game, rugby league is a relatively easy target. There's a crisis off the field almost on cue; some comical, some deadly serious. The code regularly aims at the foot and blazes away, even at more modest levels of competition. Hello, Anthony Watts.
But its redeeming feature as it stands accused in the dock, its constant saving grace, has always been the product. And when the marketing types say 'product', they really mean the players. Stars come and go but the league talent factory seems to chug on regardless.
The NRL will begin its finals series this weekend with a coterie of top-line superstars operating for their various clubs. Some are destined to be considered as all-time greats, others appear to be well on their way.
The pickings are rich. North Queensland will send out their inspirational captain Johnathan Thurston to face the Sharks, where he will meet Paul Gallen, an unrelenting, regularly controversial and almost unbreakable forward.
Manly bring Brett Stewart, Kieran Foran, Jamie Lyon and Daly Cherry-Evans to the party. The Storm present with Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater. The Roosters have Sonny-Bill Williams and the Rabbitohs, in Greg Inglis, may trump them all.
The Roosters-Rabbitohs game gave fans a taster of what can be expected over coming weeks. When Williams raced up to belt Inglis, only to be shrugged off as 'GI' danced his way over the line, it was the kind of superstar collision administrators dream about.
To state the obvious, NRL games bear little resemblance to rugby Tests, nor does a player in one code necessary correlate to the other, given rugby's specific requirements in size and shape throughout its forward pack, in particular.
Yet in terms of the skill levels displayed on Saturday night against the Springboks, the cream of Australian rugby looked to be running a distant second to their NRL rivals when it comes to natural ability and the smarts to be able to play instinctive, attacking football.
So disheartened was Wallaby coach Ewen McKenzie with the litany of turnovers, dropped balls and missed moments that he wondered out loud whether he would have to 'dumb down' his apparently complex game plan.
Here was a man with a team that was widely applauded as the best of the bunch, trying to play a style of game fans had demanded after an era of limited imagination under Robbie Deans. With highly-paid professionals to pick from, McKenzie never dreamed it would be a bridge too far.
Nick Cummins dropped the ball on his first two touches, the first of which was a ball delivered right to his chest. The Wallaby halves of Will Genia and Quade Cooper struggled for any coherency behind a forward pack battered from pillar to post by the ravenous Boks.
Then there was Israel Folau, a man the Wallabies desperately want to be a devastating ball-runner in traffic but in reality does his best work when given space to finish out wide, which was always his forte in the NRL.
He has been given a fairly soft run in the rugby media thus far but looked lethargic. Christian Lealiifano had every right to give Folau a serve after the fullback turned his nose up at a gap in the Springbok line, leaving the inside centre holding out the ball like an unwanted gift.
Ultimate responsibility rests with the playing group and coaches but underneath the surface, a breakdown in recruiting, opportunity and development has left rugby union struggling to find its share of new-age superstars in a deeply competitive marketplace.
On that front, it would appear that many of the leading Brisbane private schools are taking the fight back to league, unapologetically swooping on talented juniors before the NRL clubs lock them away for the immediate future.
Brian Edwards, the shrewd Canberra Raiders scout in the fiercely-contested Logan region, said rugby scouts had been feasting on 14- and 15-year-old players from the region west of Brisbane, seducing them with scholarships and the prospect of a costly GPS education.
"Recently, there was the Queensland Under 15 championships at Wynnum. Out of that championship, nearly 20 players didn't return too the school that they went to those championships from," Edwards said.
"They started their next term at a private school. That system has gone as crazy as I've ever seen it. Schools have now got their Under 15 and Under 14 sides choc full of league players. They have really upped the ante.
"As families, that's a great opportunity. I believe some of those families would never have heard of those schools prior to the championships. Now they have boarders there.
"They (the schools) have obviously been through the rugby teams in the Logan region but may want a better type of player. They go to the league championships and pick the cream off the top."
That's a loss for rugby league but in many cases, a short-term conundrum. With the well-publicised lack of a workable third-tier competition greatly curtailing the already limited opportunities in Super Rugby, talented players have scope to return to league, through either the high-quality Intrust Super Cup or the NRL's Under 20 Holden Cup.
Rugby league has always had the wider pool from which to pick their players, given the niche space in which union has existed. Yet in spite of limited resources, Australian rugby has always managed to not only compete strongly internationally but occasionally thrive, with golden eras leaving a wonderful legacy for those treading behind.
But the warning signs for rugby are loud and clear. And the code faces further alienation if the product doesn't match the ticket price. ARU boss Bill Pulver believes winning is simply not enough, hence the pressure on McKenzie to ensure victory comes with a certain pizazz.
The very suggestion that league players are stretching the skill gap to concerning levels will no doubt infuriate union diehards, who will maintain the codes require different talents, timing and techniques.
But anyone who closely follows both codes closely could only drool at the idea of having a player like Thurston, with his relentless will to win, or the sheer destructive power of Inglis being unleashed in Wallaby colours.
And Gallen as a loose forward? He wouldn't take a backward step, although you could bet your house on a yellow card or two.
The pressure is mounting on McKenzie to find something, anything, in a group of players that on recent evidence, have obvious limitations. The same expectation is rising on individuals within the Wallabies to prove they deserve the jumper and the exorbitant pay packet that it accompanies.
Yet the real onus is on Bill Pulver and the ARU to make proactive change to the way the game recruits, develops and retains potential stars, of which rugby currently has precious few.
And if there is one thing on which they can count, it's that the NRL and AFL won't take any prisoners in their search for the players to advance the code to the next level. The question is whether rugby can start to keep pace.