Paralysis by analysis: Supporting the Wallabies these days is exhausting

Following the Wallabies nowadays sometimes feels more like following a machine that is constantly in need of repair or new parts, rather than following the gang of superheroes we looked up to when we were young.

Here’s what I have learnt about the Wallabies this week:.

  • The Wallabies lineout calling against Argentina was immature
  • Argentina successfully attacked the “joint” between the Wallabies’ defensive line and backfield
  • Tom Wright is a luxury we can’t afford at fullback although one day maybe we’ll be able to but only if he learns more about his craft
  • There is a lack of experience in and around the leadership space
  • Sometimes we’re carrying too much in our forward pods
  • James O’Connor needs to step up more at first receiver
  • Australia failed to provide a protection screen against a box-kicking blitz
  • The Wallabies are focused on shoring up the drop zone
  • Australia has tweaked training loads in response to a series of freak occurrences

All of these things are, no doubt, true. And I am fairly sure I understand what they all mean, basically. But having learnt all of this while reading the massive volume of articles written about what the Wallabies are doing right, what the Wallabies are doing wrong, who should be Wallabies and who shouldn’t, I have to say: I feel quite exhausted.

And in my exhaustion I am driven to ask – and yes I know that I am a greying middle-aged fogey constantly looking back at the past with misty eyes behind rose-coloured glasses and grouchily refusing to give the modern day any credit, I know that but nevertheless – didn’t being a rugby fan used to be a bit more…fun?

I can only speak in the Australian context, of course: I’ve no idea what it’s like being a follower of any other nation’s rugby fortunes. But it seems to me there was a time, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, when supporting the Wallabies was a bit more about cheering on a rugby team and a bit less about technical analysis.

Now, the first thing to say about what I am saying here is: I know I am wrong. That is, I know that back in my salad days people were analysing rugby just as intently and voluminously: it’s just that I didn’t notice it. Maybe there was a little less of it in the media, but it’s not like rugby teams in the 90s just turned up half an hour before kickoff, pulled on the jumpers and went berserk.

We’re not sure this will appeal to Ben Pobjie but the rest of you Roarers might get a kick out of the latest Roar Rugby Podcast with Brett McKay, Harry Jones joined by Tim Horan

But I know that in my teens and twenties, I never found myself wading through the vast swamp of insight that I do now. About lineout calls and tighthead technique and pods and channels and exits and screens and diamond formations and drop zones. And while back then there were always arguments about who should be picked for the team, there didn’t seem to be so many. Every position on the field – and on the bench – is now a subject for furious and prolonged discussion, and there seem to be four or five different contenders for each one.

Again, it’s exhausting.

It may be, of course, that the big difference between rugby in my youth and rugby now is that the Wallabies mostly won back then, and these days this is far from being the case.

But I don’t think that’s the whole story here. There were years, even back then, when Australia came in for hidings. There are times, even now, when Australia pulls of stirring victories. But the hidings back then never felt as depressing as the hidings do now, and the triumphs of today never seem to stir one like they used to.

Players of Australia huddle during The Rugby Championship match between Argentina Pumas and Australian Wallabies at Estadio Malvinas Argentinas on August 06, 2022 in Mendoza, Argentina. (Photo by Daniel Jayo/Getty Images)

Players of Australia huddle during The Rugby Championship match between Argentina Pumas and Australian Wallabies at Estadio Malvinas Argentinas on August 06, 2022 in Mendoza, Argentina. (Photo by Daniel Jayo/Getty Images)

It’s hard to put the finger on just why this is – and again, there’s every chance it’s just an ageing curmudgeon growing disillusioned with the new world – but I’ve got a growing hunch, which is this:

As methods of analysis of a sport grow more sophisticated and detailed, the sport becomes more interesting and multi-faceted for fans. BUT there comes a point – let us call it the Analysis Horizon – when as much interest, as many facets, as can be wrung out of the game have been, and from that point on the increasing sophistication of analysis stops fascinating and intriguing, and starts to dull the visceral excitement that made us love the game in the first place.

To put it more bluntly: when we forget how to follow a sport like a kid, we stop enjoying it like a kid.

Kids analyse sport too: as a child I was obsessively into lists and statistics. But kids don’t focus on intricacies and details. They don’t get into biomechanics or angles, channels or pods. Kids watch sport to see heroes do heroic things. To see dazzling runs, quicksilver ball handling, big hits and last-ditch try-savers.

Kids rejoice to see their team’s scrum demolish the opposition’s – but they don’t concern themselves with the prop’s bind or the position of his elbow. Kids love to see a giant soar to take the ball in a lineout – they’re not really that fussed about the complex planning that went into the moment.

Kids don’t really want to know what was put on the whiteboard before the game, as long as the results get the blood pumping and make you want to roar.

It’s not just a matter of wanting to see your team win: the game can be exciting when you lose, as well. You can still marvel at great deeds done in a losing cause, or to soothe the wounds you can vent your spleen at the team’s failings.

But the way it seems to go nowadays is to neither vent nor marvel. When we lose we must go straight to forensics to pinpoint every reason why. When we win, if we’re lucky we’ll get ten in-depth analyses of what we did right: if we’re unlucky we get ten in-depth analyses of why we’ll have to be a lot better than that to win again.

Of course, I’m in the sports-writing game. My colleagues and I depend on the appetite for raking over coals in the aftermath of every event. And there’s enjoyment to be found in analysis too: digging into the hows and whys of rugby can enrich it.

But I think there’s still room for us, from time to time, to step back and watch the game like we did as kids: as an epic story rather than a mathematical equation. There’s still room for rugby to be magic. At least I hope so. It’d be wonderful to end a weekend feeling exhilarated again, not exhausted.

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