Friday 19 October 2018

Wallabies turn cultural clash into a strength

Foley says Cheika harnessing mixed backgrounds

Bernard Foley. Photo: Getty Images
Bernard Foley. Photo: Getty Images
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

When Australia won the Rugby World Cup in 1991, it was easy to draw a line from 14 of the starting XV back to Europe.

Blindside flanker Viliami Ofahengaue was born in Tonga, but his team-mates were Australian-born children of white European immigrants with names like Campese, Horan, Daly and Kearns coached by a man named Bob Dwyer.

Fast-forward 27 years and there is a very different profile in the Wallaby squad set to face Ireland over the next three Saturdays.

This is very much a panel that reflects a modern Australia, with a heavy Polynesian influence in a dressing-room that was once a very European domain.

Extraction

Seventeen of the 33-man squad for this series are of South Sea Island extraction, the rest represent the majority European population.

The coach, Michael Cheika, is of Lebanese extraction, Kurtley Beale is the only Aborigine in a team that donned an indigenous jersey for their win over the All Blacks in Brisbane last season.

With names like Bernard Foley and Ned Hannigan, the Irish contingent is clearly evident.

The cultural blend could be a challenge, but it is something Cheika has embraced, rather than ignored.

Before the World Cup in 2015, he charged his team with composing a family tree to illustrate their background and enhance one another's understanding of their team-mates' heritage. Race has long been a tricky issue in this neck of the woods and the clash of cultures has not always run smoothly in the dressing-room.

Witness the recent meeting of minds between socially liberal David Pocock, born in Gweru, Zimbabwe, and evangelical Christian Israel Folau, born to Tongan parents in Minto, New South Wales.

The duo disagree fundamentally on the issues of homosexuality and gay rights, but they were insistent that their cultures must be respected.

Some would dismiss it all as a PR exercise in political correctness, but there are many examples of squads divided along racial grounds falling apart.

As he builds towards the 2019 World Cup, Cheika is clearly trying to make a strength out of the differences.

"We would pride ourselves on that," Foley said.

"Regardless of everyone's background, number one, we want them to feel included, number two, we want them to acknowledge and express their backgrounds, where they have come from and the choices they have made to come to Australia.

"That binds us stronger together and have a great understanding of each other."

As Leinster will attest, building a team culture has always been one of Cheika's strengths and, having worked with him at the Waratahs before he ascended to the Wallabies hot seat, Foley has plenty of experience of his methods.

"What he is able to do is to get everyone in the squad to buy into one purpose, one direction," he said.

"He is very smart, tactically and technically as a coach, but he is also very good at gelling his squad together, just allowing guys to be themselves but also to be part of a greater purpose.

"I have had a lot to do with Cheika with the Waratahs and now the Wallabies.

Perception

"His ability to change firstly the Waratahs' perception - we were underachievers at times, maybe a bit like Leinster - was impressive, and he has followed that up with his success here.

"That comes from ensuring guys work hard, getting the fundamentals right where you believe in each other, work for each other, and bond from individuals into a team."

It is a source of pride in a team battling for hearts and minds in a competitive market.

This week, the media focus has been firmly on yesterday morning's State of Origin game, with 12-page pull-outs in the local Queensland newspapers and wall-to-wall television coverage.

The first Test has been lucky to get a page in the papers.

"It is the world we live in, in Australia, because there are so many quality sports," Foley shrugged.

"The sporting public are spoiled for choice, but our objective is to make sure that every time we are playing, it is the top of everyone's agenda, and we can't just come out and say that, we have to prove it through our actions and how we perform.

"If we are consistently winning and playing a good brand of rugby then we know there is a big support following us. So, you know, it is swings and roundabouts, something that is spoken about and that we want to achieve, where rugby is the No 1 sport in everyone's hearts."

Ireland has always been a presence in Bernard Foley's life. With a name like his, it's inescapable. His father Michael has charted the family history back to Cork and, when the call came to make the family tree up, he simply had to pick up the phone and call dad.

"My ancestry goes a long way back, I think, before my grandparents," he said. "They were probably my great-grandparents. My father loves history, he has a passion for that sort of thing, so when I played in Ireland before (in 2016), I went down to Cork to meet up with some of my distant, distant relatives as well as some friends I know down there."

Playing against the land of his forefathers is, he says, just another game.

He has faced them twice in Dublin, losing twice and he is intent on getting a first victory this weekend.

"Every Test match is the same, although I've never beaten the Irish, albeit I have only played them twice," he said.

"It would be special to get a win over them, I suppose and to start the series off well.

"Ireland have always been a force in my mind. Growing up, watching them, especially when they had the likes of Ronan (O'Gara), Brian O'Driscoll, Keith Wood, those guys, especially in 2002 when you beat us, and 2003, when the World Cup was on and there was that great game... they have always been considered a dominant team for us, always viewed as an inventive, creative side, which is a real credit to them.

"I have always considered them dangerous and you know, their hard work has paid off in the last couple of years with what they have achieved, that win over the All Blacks, the Grand Slam, and also with Leinster being European champions, it all reaffirms how good a rugby country Ireland is."

Any lingering sentiment will go out the window in the coming weeks as this very modern Wallaby team look to kick-start their season while embracing who they are and where they come from.

Irish Independent

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