How COVID-19 became the circuit-breaker Australian rugby needed

Outgoing Nine Entertainment Co. chief Hugh Marks [L], RA interim chief executive Rob Clarke [C] and Stan boss Mike Sneesby mark the historic announcement of the broadcast deal at Rugby Australia's headquarters in Sydney JOEL CARRETT/AFP via Getty Images

When they sit down to write the Australian rugby almanac for 2020 it's unlikely those involved will be able to keep it to one edition. We should, in fact, prepare ourselves for volumes II, III and IV, such was the chaos created by the coronavirus pandemic.

Those involved with the game, no matter the level, could have been forgiven for expecting brighter days early in 2020, after a forgettable 2019 when the Israel Folau saga had dominated not just sports news but mainstream news, and Michael Cheika's Wallabies had flopped, all too predictably, at the World Cup.

So when Dave Rennie was sighted at Rugby Australia's [RA] Moore Park headquarters in late January, then-chief executive Raelene Castle able to proudly present her man to the game's various stakeholders, a sense of hope - both for the national team and the wider rugby ecosystem - filled the mid-summer air.

That we are here now, breathing in that same summer air - albeit without the presence of ongoing bushfires - recalling the extent of the bloodletting, mud-slinging, the departures and arrivals, the breakdown of alliances and reconfiguration of others, the cards of both colours, the cost-cutting and then the critical financial injection, is cause for a cold beer and a few hours in front of the cricket.

That was a tough year, Australian rugby, and it's time we took a break from one another.

And no-one deserves a spell more than the players, who were forced into one of the longest seasons on record when the Reds and Brumbies took to GIO Stadium in Canberra on Jan. 31 amid scorching conditions and poor air quality. For the likes of Harry Wilson, James O'Connor, Scott Sio, Alan Alaalatoa, Tom Wright and co. it ended on a wet night in western Sydney some 10-and-a-bit months later.

But they're also fortunate they had a game to play at all.

When Super Rugby was suspended on the evening of Mar. 14 as New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced the nation's borders would close at midnight the following day, it quickly became evident that the coronavirus pandemic was going to wreak havoc across the world.

From a rugby perspective, and specifically an Australian rugby viewpoint, the game's fraught financial position was quickly front and centre, for not only was the game's monetary backbone suddenly crumbling - that being Fox Sports' cash for Super Rugby and Wallabies content that suddenly no longer existed -- but also there was no surety what the broadcast picture would look like beyond 2020.

Castle had declined Fox Sports' offer for a continuation of its current deal late in 2019 and while there had been genuine interest from telco Optus at one point, it soon dried up, leading to an all-out campaign from Fox Sports' majority owners News Corp. to remove the much-maligned Castle and secure the game's broadcast rights on the cut-price deal they had originally sought.

Castle's exit was ugly, no matter which way you spin it. While there is no doubting the 11 Wallabies captains who put their name to the letter that called for drastic change at RA had the best interest of the game at heart, the scorn that Castle was treated with in some quarters was embarrassing and downright despicable.

In the end, Castle saw it fit to stand down when told she no longer had the full support of the board. Castle's position had indeed become untenable such had been the maneuvering and fearmongering beneath her, but then interim RA chairman Paul McLean's revelation that she had been the victim of "abhorrent bullying" left a lasting stain on the game.

The black eyes will take some time to fade.

As for Castle's legacy? Some will say that she drove the game to the point of ruin, but that would be overlooking the work she had done in bringing together the "whole of game" package which was later swallowed by a broadcaster that emerged from left field - more on that later - and that she was also central to bringing Dave Rennie to the Wallabies.

We'll have a better idea of just how critical those moves were from next year.

Castle's exit did however pave the way for the return of interim chief executive Rob Clarke and, in a roundabout way, the arrival of Hamish McLennan, and the two businessmen have since secured Australian rugby's immediate future.

They were able to oversee the establishment of Super Rugby AU- which wouldn't have occurred without some fence-mending from McLennan with the Western Force and club owner Andrew Forrest. They took a much firmer line with New Zealand Rugby after the Kiwis' "two or three Australian teams" slap in the face, as they tried to reshape provincial rugby in this part of the world all on their own.

There was the hosting of the re-imagined Tri Nations -- a feat only achieved via some hard work with various governments and their respective health departments -- a tournament that lost some star power following the Springboks' withdrawal, but one that soon delivered in the shape of Argentina's first victory over the All Blacks.

McLennan also set in motion a greater push to secure the 2027 Rugby World Cup hosting rights with the establishment of an Advisory Committee that includes a who's who of Australian rugby, business and politics.

That tournament is still seven years away, but the value it could bring to the game in Australia both in the lead-up and beyond is immeasurable.

The Wallabies certainly have some work to do between now and then, and far more urgently for the 2023 tournament in France, for which they learned their first two Pool opponents - Wales and Fiji - on Monday night.

Wales are also charting a different course under Wayne Pivac, while Fiji were denied the chance to show their wares under new boss Vern Cotter for all but the final game of the Autumn Nations Cup, but Kiwi Cotter has certainly assembled an impressive coaching cohort.

A 2020 Wallabies season that started with such unexpected positivity in Wellington, despite Reece Hodge's match-winning penalty striking the post, ended two months later with a third draw, and real questions as to whether Rennie had progressed the team from the Cheika era at all.

Certainly some younger players got valuable exposure to the top level, and in Harry Wilson, Tom Wright, Hunter Paisami and Angus Bell there is cause for genuine excitement. But there are just as many holes elsewhere, and significant decisions to be made about how the Wallabies manage their overseas-based locks and how quickly they bring on their talented, but green, fly-half cohort.

Noah Lolesio, Will Harrison and even Reece Hodge will benefit from more time in the No. 10 shirt at Super Rugby AU and trans-Tasman crossover level next year, and new broadcasters Nine Entertainment Co. and Stan will be hoping their growth continues, too.

COVID-19 gave RA an out from the dated and lifeless Super Rugby competition they might not have otherwise have had and while there were some uncomfortable exchanges with the various SANZAAR partners, it is clear that this was a good result for Australian rugby, so, too, that the Rugby Championship's future has been guaranteed through to 2030.

Having Super Rugby live on free-to-air television for the first time is a huge coup for the game and will allow it to hit new audiences with a fresh line-up of broadcast talent - and a couple of familiar names - but in the end it will be up to the players to deliver out on the paddock.

If the rugby is of poor quality, then Stan Sport customers won't waste time switching off their subscriptions like they did their Foxtel. That was always a chore, streaming services are far easier to terminate once a month.

And no-one will be watching as closely as Nine, who will demand entertainment and action the like of which they have been accustomed to from the NRL. Nine executives will have their work cut out changing any of rugby's laws though; working with a global game where provincial rugby closely mirrors Test rugby is far more challenging than having Peter V'landys simply click his fingers and introduce the six-again rule.

But there is still enough certainty in Australian rugby to be cautiously excited about what 2021 might bring. There could be as many as 15 Wallabies Tests, Dave Rennie confirmed on Monday night, while a 12-team trans-Tasman competition for 2022 is also rumoured to be only weeks away from unveiling.

It was clear, however, that Australian rugby, like countless other sport organisations, leagues and teams around the world, was living beyond its means and had to streamline its business model in order to survive in what is now a different environment. There were sacrifices made across the game, not least of which were the departures of more than 47 fulltime staff at RA and other coaches and support staff across the professional game.

Many good rugby people have exited completely or headed overseas, so too a number of players who rightly looked for career certainty when there was none available in Australia.

On the whole, however, Australian rugby has emerged from the pandemic in as good a health as could possibly have been imagined, and for that everyone within the game has played a role, just as Clarke alluded to in his address to the rugby community this week.

"Without doubt, 2020 has been incredibly challenging with the COVID-19 pandemic shocking our game and community to its core," Clarke wrote. "However, through great adversity, rugby has emerged stronger; we are united, leaner, more efficient and ready for the opportunities that await us in 2021 and beyond.

"The sacrifices that have been made across the game have been incredibly tough, but it was the medicine we had to take in order to re-structure Australian rugby for sustainable, long-term success. I am confident that the difficult but necessary decisions made this year will allow rugby to flourish in the future and firmly believe that the best years for our great game are ahead of us."

After a terrible 2019 and a near disastrous 2020, Australian rugby supporters would probably settle for a satisfactory year in which this year's foundations are built upon, no matter however slightly.

As what originally could have been judgement day for Australian rugby, the start of the sport's slide back to its amateur roots, instead turned out to be just the circuit-breaker the professional game had needed.