'A steely resolve': Has Rugby Australia weathered the COVID storm?

When Andy Marinos flew north to London last Friday night, he did so at the head of a Rugby Australia organisation that has not only steadied the ship but also regained the respect of its World Rugby peers.

Just 18 months after the game was on the cusp of insolvency, Marinos, RA chairman Hamish McLennan and Wallabies coach Dave Rennie, have consolidated the brutal rebuild of 2020, laid the groundwork of what looks to be a successful bid for a second World Cup on Australian soil, and seen the national team reach No. 3 in the world on the back of five straight wins.

The work interim CEO Rob Clarke did last year must also be acknowledged.

While few organisations can ever truly believe in "rude health" given the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, Australian rugby has certainly solidified what had been incredibly shaky foundations, so much so that McLennan even once suggested the game might have to "turn amateur".

"It's been difficult from a lot of perspectives because it's just been all hands on deck and really operationally focused," Marinos told ESPN, when asked to reflect on his first year in charge. "And if anything, from what I've seen from the staff and the people involved, it's a really strong, steely resolve, which I know has been innate in Australian sport - that never-say-die attitude and the willingness to pick yourself up and be successful.

"So I've seen that through what has been a really tough environment to run a global competition or a global sport when we've had so many constraints."

And what about the Wallabies then?

"I'm just very proud of the players and the team, they're an amazing team in terms of their steely resolve because it was a tough environment," Marinos said of Rennie's team. "A lot of those guys left home in mid-June and then didn't get back until the end of the TRC, and through very trying and testing circumstances.

"We all forget very quickly they had to pack up their belongings and possessions and move to Sanctuary Cove [on the Gold Coast], and then pack up pretty quickly after that and move across to New Zealand with a huge amount of uncertainty as to what the next couple of weeks were going to show. And we can't step away from the fact that it's been a tough year for the guys from a mental and physical perspective.

"But again to see the transformation on the field, I think we've seen the benefit of them being in camp for a long period of time and Dave's way of wanting to play, the intensity of how he's wanting to play, the fitness levels he's wanted to achieve to be able to play that game plan, we're starting to see that come through and we have certainly reaped the benefits."

While the Wallabies have worked themselves back into the consciousness of the average Australian sporting fan, Marinos, too, has found himself among the headlines. As well as a very public disagreement with the way Samu Kerevi, Quade Cooper and Sean McMahon handled themselves amid the spring tour eligibility saga, the former SANZAAR-boss has been determined to show that Australia won't be bullied in rugby's often political powerplay.

Just when it looked like the trans-Tasman relationship had been repaired after a damaging period in 2020 - the future of Super Rugby at the root of the disagreement -- New Zealand Rugby decided to pull the All Blacks out of Bledisloe III in Perth.

Given the Wallabies had conceded home ground advantage for the second Test, and committed to back-to-back games at Eden Park, where the All Blacks haven't lost since 1994, NZR's decision was seen as an almighty slap in the face, particularly since Optus Stadium had seen the date shifted once already.

Part of that can be put down to the nature of the COVID-19 pandemic and the fact that the remainder of the Rugby Championship was still to be signed off, but there was no denying that Australia had been completely inconvenienced by the situation having earlier done right by NZR.

And Marinos let his New Zealand counterparts know.

He also moved swiftly to support referee Nic Berry, after the Australian whistleblower had been publicly slammed in an hour-long YouTube presentation by South Africa director of rugby and former Springboks coach Rassie Erasmus.

While World Rugby will rule on Erasmus imminently, Marinos says the trans-Tasman relationship will always have an element of a family squabble to it but the two parties retain a professional relationship that must be workable as they embark on Super Rugby Pacific.

"Everyone's relationships have been tested through COVID, because we're all dealing with dynamics that we've never been faced with before," he told ESPN. "So everyone is trying to do their best for their own backyard and then you pick your head up and see what will work best across other territories that you need to engage with.

"So we'll continue to maintain a professional working relationship with New Zealand. The progress has been really good on the Super Rugby Pacific competition structure, we're getting towards the finalization of that draw and the rotation of the games. So we understand that we have got to work with New Zealand, and New Zealand understand that they have got to work with us.

"And from a relationship point-of-view, it's like two brothers, you're going to have your dust-ups, you're going to have difference of opinions, but at the end of the day we are both committed to what's good for the game and growing the game in our region, and so we'll continue to work in that vein."

After hosting the closing four rounds of the Rugby Championship this year, and the Tri Nations in 2020, Marinos says he's more than happy to see the southern hemisphere's Test showpiece return to its home-and-away framework, which moves to a "mini-tours" format in 2022.

That means the Wallabies will host the Springboks for two Tests and then face the Pumas twice on Argentina soil themselves, while there are also three matches with the All Blacks, two of which will be played in Australia.

The exact timing of the Tests with New Zealand is still to be determined but there will be a push to not have back-to-back Tests against the All Blacks to start the season. Preferably, RA would like all three to be played at the backend of the Rugby Championship, or at least the last two.

England will also visit for three Tests in July in what will be a huge series against Eddie Jones' men, who swept Australia 3-0 on their last tour in 2016.

After missing out on any Test rugby this year because of the COVID-19 outbreak in Greater Sydney, the NSW rugby community will be desperate to see some international action in 2022. Sydney's shiny new stadium at Moore Park won't quite be ready for England, but Marinos says he's hopeful one of the Tests against South Africa will prove to be rugby's debut at the Moore Park venue.

"That's very much a work-in-progress for next year," Marinos explained of the schedule. "If I was a betting man I think the disruption has put all those timeframes a little bit back. I've been engaging with Steve Cox at Destination NSW to get a sense to get a sense as to when he thinks it could be open.

"We're hoping that by the time we have the Rugby Championship here in mid-late September that could be an available date. It might not be, which would obviously rule out 2022, and then 2023 is the women's soccer championships here which will obviously take precedence in that year. I hasten to add that if we don't get in in 2022 for the first time in the stadium, I think getting into the stadium for the first time from a rugby perspective would then be in 2024.

"But from a Waratahs perspective in Super Rugby, we're expecting the stadium to be ready by the end of 2022 so at least the 2023 season for them could be a really good season."

2022 is also a huge year for women's rugby.

With the World Cup having been delayed a year because of the pandemic, the Wallaroos will head across the ditch with hopefully far more rugby under their belts than the zero they have played at Test level over 2020 and 2021.

The fact that the team aren't in Europe this month alongside the likes of New Zealand and Japan has aggrieved many across the Australian community, raising questions as to just how committed to the women's game RA actually is.

"It has been really tough for our women's team," Marinos said. "We just managed to get the Super W competition underway this year in Coffs Harbour, with a few disruptions. So for us it's about making sure that they get a good domestic competition under their belt.

"I know there has been a continuation with them operating in their [Players of National Interest] squads. We've got a new coaching team coming in, and we're really just putting those resources and competition structure in the early part [of 2022] around them leading into a [Pacific Nations Four Series] going into the Rugby World Cup at the later end of the season.

"There's another international, I think it's against the Fijians early in the piece, so we certainly are going to see the Wallaroos, hopefully without any COVID interruptions, playing some meaningful Tests leading in, and then obviously gracing the world stage at the World Cup later in the year."

But the focus of Marinos and McLennan's trip north is to attempt to move World Rugby officials to a "targeted dialogue" phase for the 2027 World Cup.

"We've had nearly two years of not being able to sit down face to face with World Rugby, and the other Unions, so just relishing the opportunity to catch up and compare notes and understand where we are," Marinos said.

"We've got a very deliberate task at hand, to go over there around the Rugby World Cup, to work with World Rugby around what does that structure look like and we've expressed our very deep interest and desire to move toward a more targeted dialogue phase. And so we want to go and interrogate that and have those conversations with World Rugby as best we can, so we can hopefully come back with a much clearer direction for both '27 and '31.

"But there's a lot of things that are on the table. The Nations Championship, well those conversations haven't stopped, we've had a continuation of what we've now reframed under the global season, but it does remain important that we get some sort of alignment across the two hemispheres."

Having watched the Wallabies' five-match winning streak come to an end in Edinburgh on Sunday alongside McLennan, Marinos will also take in Australia's closing two Tests of the year, against England and Wales.

Having hit a speed bump against the Scots, the Wallabies will need to improve dramatically if they're to worry England at Twickenham. An upset win in London this week would, however, really set up next year's three-Test series against the same opposition come July.

Rennie's predecessor, Michael Cheika, was able to secure a contract extension through to the 2019 World Cup right before England's last visit in 2016. The Wallabies then promptly lost the series 3-0 and the rest, as they say, is history.

But if the Wallabies can build on their progress from this year, and they continue to present the same united and happy front they have embraced since the Kiwi took over, extending Rennie's contract through to the British & Irish Lions series, at least, may start to become an enticing proposition.

"Firstly, from Dave's perspective, I think we're starting to see the way and the style in which he wants to play. In speaking to the management team and the players who are involved at the moment, he certainly has created a really good environment. Whether the guys are from a multicultural background or not, they all feel very welcome and are embracing it.

"But more importantly, the thing he has been telling me in what he wants to deliver on the field, in terms of the way they play and attacking in certain areas, we're starting to see that coming through. I think for a coach it's always wonderful when you see the work that you've done on the blackboard is being replicated out on the field, so there's been great progress and we've also been able to develop some great players and expose some new players to international rugby which will all bode well for us going forward.

"When we talk about what's beyond [the next two years], it is obviously very much a focus for us, not only from a succession point-of-view but also that we get as much continuity. We've got a fantastic calendar ahead of us; we always tend to look at 23 as a deciding factor, yes it is a World Cup and a tent pole moment, but we've also got the British & Irish Lions Tour [in 2025].

"So for me that's all part of my thinking in terms of the long-term play, and we'll start reviewing and having a look at that in the middle or towards the end of next year as we hopefully get through an uninterrupted season and start building from there."

Re-establishing some sort of a third-tier competition for Australian rugby, the introduction of private equity investment, and achieving further alignment of the state Unions and Super clubs, will then be at the forefront of planning when 2022 rolls around.

"The member Unions and the Super clubs are starting to work a lot more coherently and closely together, and getting an alignment of thought in terms of what we're trying to achieve both on the domestic and the international front, is something that has stood out to me," Marinos said what he was proud of in his tenure to date.

"And I think as the season rolls out, we're going to see a greater sense of alignment for us as a game."