Aussie failure no shock to Campese
ONE of Australia’s greatest sporting stars, David Campese, is feeling for his countrymen and women as he watches the 30th Olympiad draw to its conclusion.
The former Wallaby winger insists he has enjoyed the Olympic Games, but after witnessing the nation of Rugby World Cup winners lose to Scotland in June, for a first time at home since 1982 and second time in a row, he is not surprised by a similar toppling of green and gold occurring in the UK.
“Not in the least,” he says. “Scotland fully deserved their win in June and all the complaints in Australia about the bad weather and that crap … it was the same for both sides. But the Australia squad is in trouble right now.
“There have been stories of players out in nightclubs before a Test, guys getting beaten up by bouncers. This generation … they think they are better than they are.
“I’m not saying it’s the same in the Olympics squad, but it’s not right there either. It has been tough watching but the signs have been there for a while. We’ve had coaches leaving to go to other countries, including England; Ian Thorpe trying to make comebacks and failing; swimmers suffering injuries doing things they shouldn’t be doing when training for an Olympics; and the spirit has been really questioned. The sort of things that Thorpe doesn’t talk about on the TV.
“People are not happy with Australia’s performance, that’s for sure, but it all comes back to investment. There was great investment in sport in Australia over the 20 years or so leading up to Sydney, but since then we have seen it cut back and cut back and cut back and this is what you get.
“We have overpaid rugby players who believe they have made it, and we have an athletics and Olympics system that is not invested in anymore to the extent of others at the top of the medal table, and coaches going elsewhere.
“I applaud what we have seen from the Great Britain team and the achievements of guys like Chris Hoy and Bradley Wiggins, and it has been great to watch, but there is one main reason for it – money.
“Britain, China and others have done what Australia did before Sydney and invested heavily in sport leading up to the Olympics. I’ve been coaching in China for the past few years and they are investing heavily. The young Chinese swimmer breaking records is being coached by an Australian reportedly earning £250,000, but that’s the price of success.
“Let’s face it, Britain could not host the Olympics and not have more gold medals. So they have gone out and found the athletes and coaches and paid them, invested in their sports, facilities, programmes, and they are reaping the rewards for that. And, hopefully, it does inspire a generation.” Campese knows a bit about the money flowing around sport. He was a world star in 1995 when rugby made the radical move from amateur to professional and was courted with what were then phenomenal six-figure offers to join a world rugby circus. Now, two months short of his 50th birthday, “Campo” speaks to The Scotsman not from his home city of Sydney, but from his home in Durban, South Africa.
The love of Australia remains clear, whether he is praising or criticising. It remains the country into which he was born, grew up and developed a passion for sport, and rugby in particular, that would turn the Wallaby into a household name around the world.
At the height of his powers, Campese was to Australia what Andy Irvine was to Scotland, a free spirit of a rugby player who had terrific ball skills but always searched for the different, the gaps, the change of direction that others could not see far less dared to go for. Sometimes it did not come off – few in this neck of the woods will ever forget his attempt to run the ball from his in-goal area that handed the British Lions a try in 1989 - but when it did his blend of pace, goose-step running and sheer bravado created something akin to the Nike swoosh at a time when branding was starting to hit rugby. He has a World Cup winner’s medal from 1991.
His flair still lights up the highlights film of Australian rugby, Mark Ella and latterly Michael Lynagh intelligence, finished by Campese magic in a 15-year career between 1982 and 1996 in which he won 101 caps and scored 64 Test tries.
His legend and opinions remain attractive and he will be touring the UK in the autumn, stopping off at Edinburgh’s Prestonfield Hotel on Friday 5 October, for a “Long Lunch” to help raise funds for the Bill McLaren Foundation. It promises to be an intriguing event, and one that the late McLaren would have warmed to. Australian rugby will be happy too, the further from their shores the better it seems.
“I have the same passion for the game that I’ve always had,” he explains. “It never leaves you and I have always had a great reception in Scotland, and love it there, so I’m looking forward to coming back.
“But the reason I’m in Durban is simple – Australian rugby won’t employ me. I speak my mind too much for them. I am coaching in South Africa basically because I haven’t sucked up to enough people in Australia. I was the skills coach with the successful Sharks for three years, and then I go back to Australia to see if I can work there and no-one is interested.
“Then I look at guys like Michael Foley who was at Bath and comes back to Oz and struggles with the Waratahs, who have their worst year, and gets moved to Western Force and is still bad, so then is promoted to the Wallabies. Promoted?! You have to speak out about that.
“The Wallaby coaches like to have guys that are not a threat to them, and it’s the same all over. Andy Robinson has pulled together a team in Scotland that he wants, that he doesn’t consider a threat to him. That’s what coaches do, if allowed to.
“I am seen as a threat in Australia because I say what I think. But that was the way I was brought up, and that’s what worked in successful Australian sides I played in. We all had minds of our own and spoke honestly, which pushed everyone.”
It might sound bitter and one sees similarities with a great Scotland player in Craig Chalmers, who ironically spent last month with Australian sides trying to improve his coaching knowledge as he continues to batter at the SRU’s door. Both do speak their mind and that does make unions and head coaches uncomfortable. But they also resonate with the public and the people who kreep the sport alive with their support.
Rugby and the Olympic Games will come together again when London hands the torch to Rio, and sevens enters the Games for the first time in 2016. That has little to do with a desire to join the Olympic movement, and all to do with rugby’s desire to entice the world superpowers, USA, Russia and China, and other rugby-reluctant nations, to grasp the oval ball to their bosom and invest the necessary millions in it to make rugby a global sport.
But for all the positive work of the IRB and talk of a global game, Campese does not see rugby’s founding nations – the home unions, France and southern hemisphere big three - allowing their dominance to be weakened in reality. He points to their continuing quest to convert players from other countries.
“Do you know what the biggest income derived by people in Tonga is?” Campese queries. “I was there coaching and it was explained to me that the biggest single income is what parents have sent back from their sons playing rugby abroad.
“That is why they are happy for their sons to go to New Zealand, Australia, England or even Italy, and delighted when they do well and play Test rugby for those countries, because the money sent home is far greater than anything they could earn in Tonga.
“Rugby is already growing. I was in Madagascar where they played a final against Namibia that attracted 40,000 supporters. They have 130 rugby clubs in Madagascar, the same as London and close to what Scotland have.
“The Olympics might help that further and it will be a great occasion for players to win Olympic medals. I remember winning silver in the Commonwealth Games in 1998, and it was a proud moment. But will it change rugby’s world order? No. Why? Because the teams that win the World Cups are still the teams that have the most money.
“We’re back to where we started with the Olympics. Only four countries have won the Rugby World Cup – the southern hemisphere countries and England, and England won it when Clive Woodward got the RFU to pump millions into their effort.”
Sad, even cynical but true. The driver for people with sport at their heart remains the potential to use the money and sporting success, however – to open more eyes to the benefits of sport, to encourage more people to be healthy and active, to aspire to greatness, and that is the hope upon which many have bought into the 30th Olympic Games.
As they draw to a close and the Paralympics fights for the same recognition for athletes, many of whom have worked harder through greater challenges to become sporting stars, how will the British and Scottish governments respond?
Long before the Games, organisers persuaded politicians to go vastly over budget for the competition, more swimming pools were closing in England due to increasing utility bills. In Scotland, sportscotland – the government funder and driver of sports funding and development – has suffered shocking cuts to its capital funding budget under the current Scottish Government and only the Cashback for Communities money, claimed from criminals, has saved them from humiliation in sports funding.
Money is tight, but sport is nowhere near high enough in British and Scottish government priorities outside of one-off events. While an Edinburgh tram system sucks up millions, a new education “Curriculum for Excellence” is forced into schools with the value of sport still absent from its core and, worse, in reality continues the trend of squeezing PE and basic sport instruction out of the daily timetable. One Scottish forest is still waiting to see a game of football on a pitch created at a cost of nearly £500,000, after which it will be allowed to grow over and “return to nature” as part of an arts project.
It was cancelled last month due to waterlogging! Campese reveals similar priorities in Australia, where the once great sporting land, the model outdoor lifestyle, has drifted off the sporting pace being set elsewhere.
Scotland has a Commonwealth Games to come in Glasgow in 2014, and hosts the Ryder Cup the same year, so there is hope that sport might remain high on the priorities of Alex Salmond and Holyrood. More medallists and gold winners than ever to work with, to inspire the next generation to leave TVs, computer games and daily plates of chips. More potential than ever surely?
“Now is definitely the time for Scotland to invest,” agreed Campese. “You have a good rugby team and after the tour wins the SRU needs to invest in the grassroots like never before, to increase the number of players, because that’s Scotland’s real problem.
“But it’s the same across the board in sport. Invest now and use that Olympics inspiration and you will feel the benefit in years to come.”
One other snapshot might provide a good conclusion to this discussion. Campese asked, at one point: “How many players from the past ten or 15 years would feature in a best Scotland rugby team of all-time? Not many. It’s the same in Australia. So for all the improvements in size, speed and power, with professionalism and full-time status, the players aren’t actually much better than when I played.”
It is true. The lesson there may be that while money creates winners and medals, paying the players vast sums is not the answer. Scottish football is pretty compelling proof of that.
Investment in the grassroots, the facilities, schools, the coaches and the programmes has provided GB athletes with the stage to shine. There should be a positive and exciting lesson for Scotland’s sporting future.
l To book tickets for “David Campese’s Long Lunch at the Prestonfield”, go to http://www.billmclarenfoundation.co.uk/shop/events/the-long-lunch-with-david-campese/
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