Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Gregor Paul: England will light a fire under Aussie game - giving it a much-needed boost

Wallabies coach Michael Cheika. Photo / Greg Bowker
Wallabies coach Michael Cheika. Photo / Greg Bowker

There's such a confusing picture coming out of Australia that it's equally valid to ponder whether rugby is about to go boom or bust.

On the boom side are their respective sevens teams and the growth of participation in the abbreviated game.

Australia are as good a bet as any other nation to win two sevens gold medals at the Rio Olympics - with their women's side particularly well-placed.

Playing numbers in Australia continue to grow - with a 27 per cent increase in 2014 - and sevens has been the main driver.

And then there is the obvious, sustained profile the game is going to enjoy over these next few weeks with England, led by former Wallabies coach Eddie Jones, in town.

Jones makes things fun and interesting and will provide daily utterances that will drift into Australian homes provoking equal amounts of laughter and outrage.

Rugby, for the three weeks England are there, will for once be heard in the clamouring Australian sports market.

So far, so rosy. But the good news stops there.

The rest of the picture in Australian rugby is alarming.

The quality of rugby produced by Australia's Super Rugby teams has been mostly poor.

Skill levels have dropped, fitness levels don't appear to be keeping pace with where they need to be and there is little sense that Australian teams are innovating tactically or technically.

This doesn't mean that the Wallabies will be poor as a result, but coach Michael Cheika is going to have to work small miracles if his team are to claim a series victory against England.

Maybe Cheika can take the various best bits from around the country and meld them into something like the team they were last year. Maybe he can put some fire into Will Skelton; persuade Michael Hooper to play people less off the ball and maybe Cheika can get Brendan Foley's head clear.

He's a clever coach and one whom the players obviously respect but at the moment, it feels like it will be Israel Folau versus England. He stands as the one beacon of hope and the only card Cheika knows will work for sure.

The flip side of the increased popularity rugby will enjoy this month is being taken to the cleaners by an emerging England side. Lose the series and the impact could be sharp in Australia.

What largely escaped notice last week is that the Western Force effectively ceased to exist. They hit the financial wall and had no choice but to sign an agreement that will see them work in alliance with the Australian Rugby Union high performance unit.

"Our balance sheet has reported losses over the past seven years," the club revealed. "Our financial position has been brought to a head over the past two years through a combination of the economic downturn in Western Australia, seeing businesses and individuals spend less, and our team performance not improving in very trying circumstances."

What this means is that the ARU will bankroll the club and will act as a glorified agent - trying to encourage players not getting game time at other clubs to shift to Perth while also encouraging overseas-based Australians to sign with the Force.

In reality, the Force are going to become a magnet for ambitious youngsters who have been rejected elsewhere. A tragically bad Force are likely to remain a tragically bad Force and maybe it will soon be time to shelve the Western Australia experiment.

In a final deluge of bad news, the Australian Under-20 side lost it's opening game at the Junior World Championship to Scotland and of all the things to worry about, that would possibly be the one of most concern.

- NZ Herald

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Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer. He has written several books on rugby including the Reign of King Henry, Black Obsession and For the Love of the Game.

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