The demise of Australian sporting prowess…or how they went from champs to chumps

france v australiaJust what has happened to Australia’s sporting prowess?

Over the weekend, the Soccerros lost 6-0 to France to accumulate a 12-0 scoreline when you tally the previous result against Brazil.

It’s been 11 years since the Wallabies last won the Bledisloe Cup and 14 years since they last won the World Cup.

The cricket team has lost three Ashes series in a row, it lost 4-0 to India earlier this year and before that lost a test series at home to South Africa.

The Olympic team won just 8 gold medals in London, its worst haul since 1988 and half the number of golds they won at Beijing.

Once a tennis powerhouse, Australia has only just returned to the David Cup world group after a six year hiatus.

Blimey, even the last two horses to win the Melbourne Cup were trained in France.

Compare this two twenty years ago.

As a once-mad South African cricket and rugby supporter, a sense of dread would come over me every time our national team played the Wallabies or the Baggy Greens throughout the 1990s and 2000s. Let’s play anyone but the Australians was my motto.

Because Australia was so damn good at cricket and rugby and just about any other sport you could think of.

It was not just they’re sporting skill and dexterity, it was a mental toughness they possessed (typified none more so than by the likes of Steve Waugh or John Eales), a do-or-die attitude that left one of the most painful of sporting moments indelibly tattooed on my brain: tieing the 1999 Cricket World Cup semi-final, a game we could not, it seemed, lose, yet somehow managed to do so (I recall celebrating victory only for it to be snatched away so cruelly by lunacy).

Tough as nails, the fiercest of competitors: Steve waugh

Tough as nails, the fiercest of competitors: Steve waugh

Beating Australia meant you had to play at your very best and when you did beat them, it almost always felt like a remarkable achievement, one where you matched both their physical abilities and were stronger mentally.

Now you can do it hardly even trying it seems.

What exactly has happened to this once proud sporting nation? Is it just going through a very bad downward patch or has their being a seismic shift in the world order?

Certainly the Socceroos were not expected to win their games against football powerhouses like France and Brazil, but they were expected to at least put up a good fight.What happened to the team that eight years ago pushed Italy all the way for a quarter-final spot at the 2006 World Cup?

The slide in rugby and cricket has been even worse, these being sports where Australia dominated on the world stage. Yes, teams go up and down, but the fall from grace has been spectacular to the say the least.

But it goes beyond results.

Just how many major sporting scandals have made the front pages of newspapers recently? I’ve lost count. It seems there’s hardly a national sport that has not been tainted lately by something or other.

There’s been the AFL and NRL doping scandals, the numerous punch-ups and bust ups in the cricket team, the bad behaviour among rugby players (James O’Connor, Kurtley Beale). Christ, even sports you’d never associate with anything remotely scurrilous have had their share of public image failures most notably the men’s swimming team, and the sleeping pill scandal. (Not to mention their complete failure to win a gold medal at the Olympics) and the recent admissions by cycling great, Stuart O’Grady that he was a drug’s cheat.

Of course I should mention there have been some exceptions: Australian golf is very strong led by Master’s champion Adam Scott and regular major challenger Jason Day plus a string of other players capable of winning big tournaments. Sam Stosur won the US Open a few years back and Australia continues to dominate at surfing and ahem…netball.

Apart from netball though, these are all individual sports and, they seem to be more the exception then the rule.

It appears that Australian sports teams have been out-psyched or perhaps they’ve out-psyched themselves, believing they’re better at losing than winning. Perhaps the endless succession of scandals can be read as a desperate attempt for them to get back to winning ways.

This is also typified in the apparent necessity to spend millions of dollars appointing overseas coaches to national teams. We’ve had a New Zealander (Robbie Deans) coach the Wallabies, a succession of foreign nationals coach the Socceroos, and a South African (Mickey Arthur) coach the cricket team with varying degrees of success. This speaks volumes about confidence and a lack of belief in the talent of local coaches and managers.

And once again, having sacked German coach Holger Osieck, the Socceroos have considered trying to literally turn back the clock and re-appoint Gus Hiddink, the Dutchman who guided them to the fourth round at the World Cup in 2006. It seems some sensibility has returned with Melbourne Victory coach Ange Postercoglou (Australian despite the exotic sounding name) set to take on the role.

All these teams will no doubt bounce back.

But the days of Australia as a sporting powerhouse, punching way above its weight and utterly dominating their rivals, appear to be over.

Mixed emotions surely for Mickey Arthur as Australia lose to South Africa

Mickey Arthur with JP Duminy

Mickey Arthur, photographed when coach of South Africa in 2009.

I cannot help but wonder how Australian coach Mickey Arthur felt after South Africa beat Australia in the final test match to lose the series and their shot at toppling the South Africans as the No. 1 ranked test side in world cricket.

Arthur of course is a South African and about as South African as they come. He’s a ‘Vaalie’ – born on the highlands of the old Transvaal – and played all his provincial cricket in South Africa for the Free State and Griqualand West.

He was appointed coach of the South African team in 2005 and the last time he visited Australia (in a professional sense) just four years ago he coached them to arguably their greatest ever test series win – and their first ever series victory against Australia – since being re-admitted into world cricket in 1991.

Having fallen out with the South African cricket authorities in 2010, he coached Western Australia for a season and was then appointed Australia’s first foreign-born coach in November last year.

Now I am not for one moment suggesting that Arthur is not a thorough professional and has not given it his all as Australian coach – and let’s be honest they  outplayed South Africa in the first two tests and could easily have been No.1 in the world at the end of this series had it not been for FaF Du Plessis’s heroics in the second test – but I find it hard to imagine that Mickey Arthur did not take some pleasure in watching his old team and the players he coached just a few season ago win against the odds against the country of his birth’s greatest sporting rivals.

I have lived in Australia for over eight years, my daughter is Australian and my wife holds and Australian passport and yet I cannot bring myself to support the Australian cricket team or the Wallabies.

In fact I am sure they will put on my grave one day – “He died a Bok fan.”

You see the thing is this, when you grow up in South Africa, beating Australia in any sport (even lawn bowls and darts) is considered the ultimate victory.

Rivalries run very deep between the two sporting nations, and not least because there is a great deal of respect for Australia’s sporting prowess.

South Africans consider Australia one of the great sporting nations – especially when it comes to cricket – and while we have managed to beat all the other teams on a regular basis, beating the Baggy Greens has been tough – this win is only our second ever Test series triumph since re-admission.11187061_24c0790592

I found these two comments on the Supersport website (the equivalent of Fox Sports in South Africa) at the bottom of a story about the latest series win:

“South Africa clobbered Australia. It was so easy, it was scary!”

“Amazing always good to thrash the ozzies.”

Personally, I remember waking up in the early hours of the morning or watching through the night games played against Australia through the 1990s – mostly on the losing side, occasionally a much-savoured win.

The truth is being a South African cricket fan is being the ultimate sporting tragic.

A lot of times it’s been an exercise in heartache – primarily when it comes to World Cups, when we have conjured up defeats from the jaws of victory, and must live with the scars of the 1999 World Cup semi-final tie that will go down as the greatest choke in our rich sporting history, plus the sad saga of Hansie Cronje.

There are many South African expats living in Perth, Sydney and Melbourne who say they support the Australian cricket team and the Wallabies, but I have yet to meet any that I believed with any conviction.

Equally there are South Africans who have lived here many decades who still support the Proteas and Springboks and that I suspect will be me too.

It’s not that I have some deep-seated animosity to the Baggy Greens or the Wallabies, it’s just in my blood.

And it’s also surely in the blood of Mickey Arthur – who is more South African than me.

And though he will surely deny it, I am sure he did take some pleasure out of watching the team he coached to their greatest win four years ago win again this week.

After all, he’s only human!

(And the same I am sure can be said for Robbie Deans, New Zealand-born and raised coach of the Wallabies).