Eight months on from captains' letter, Stephen Moore looks upon Aussie rugby with optimism

Australian rugby has endured some bumpy waters over the years, though nothing quite like it navigated in 2020.

But on the eve of the final Test of the year, when the Wallabies will chase a second victory from Dave Rennie's first six matches in charge, the game can look to 2021 with a degree of optimism, confident it has weathered one helluva storm.

It will certainly retain a few lasting wounds, not least of which was the unceremonious exit of Raelene Castle, and the controversial "captains letter" that was delivered to Rugby Australia and ultimately led to the former chief executive's departure.

The most immediate former Wallabies captain of that bunch, Stephen Moore, for one, has no regrets. Having spoken with ESPN just before Castle departed, the decision to put his name to the letter wasn't one the former Brumbies and Reds hooker took lightly but is one he stands by today.

"I don't know what the catalyst [for change] was, but I certainly felt compelled at the time to do something meaningful, or something that would have an impact, and hopefully that was beneficial," Moore told ESPN.

"I felt it was important to say, that in my view, we needed to do something pretty major to correct the way things were going. I said at the time that it's not something you take lightly, being involved in something like that, but we're obviously very proud to have had the opportunity to play for Australia, we owe a lot to the game and the people who were involved throughout our careers, and we want to see the team do really well.

"I think that's really important to note, the outcome of everything here is for the Wallabies to be really successful."

With just one win and two further draws from five Tests under Rennie, the Wallabies becoming a genuine force in world rugby remains a work in progress.

But RA does have a bold new broadcast deal with Nine Entertainment Co. which will see Super Rugby screened on free-to-air television live for the first time and also blaze a new trail with the business' streaming arm Stan.

The deal was the work of interim chief executive Rob Clarke and new RA chairman Hamish McLennan, the duo prepared to make the tough decisions that have been credited with saving the game from the brink of collapse.

Moore certainly likes what he has seen from both McLennan and Clarke.

"Off the field, structurally, there has been a lot of progress, that's pretty clear," Moore told ESPN. "I think back then there was a big need for some change off the field and how the game was run, I suppose, and governed, and I think there has been a lot of positive stuff happening there.

"I've had a little bit to do with Hamish and he's certainly a very impressive operator and he's made a really good start in the role. There's certainly no shortage of things for him to do or to get stuck into, but he's been there before in his career; so I think he's a good operator and very determined to get good outcomes.

"If you look at the way he put the World Cup bid group together and various other things that he's done, that side of things is very positive. Rob Clarke is another very experienced sports administrator; if you look at six months ago the broadcast deal was looking pretty grim, to be frank, so I think the fact that now here we are, we have a deal, a pretty good deal without knowing the intimate details of it, it seems like a good deal for the game with some streaming content but also free-to-air."

Moore is confident Nine will do a good job of broadcasting rugby, putting a new spin on the game as it tries to reach a greater audience.

That, combined with the Wallabies producing a few more wins, Moore says will drive a more positive narrative around the sport where some of Australia's leading players again become household names on the national sporting scene - a situation that just isn't the case right now.

"I think when I started that wasn't an issue at all; the Wallabies were well recognized and we had household names in the team, and I think that continued for most of my career," Moore said. "Now you'd argue that over the last five years or so, that might have changed a little bit, that our top players aren't recognized as household names as maybe they once were. And I think part of that Channel 9 appeal and the print media [Fairfax] that comes with that is it presents the opportunity to tell some of the backstories that people want to see and are interested in.

"And if you look at the rugby league and the AFL, they do that really well. And some of our players have got really interesting stories to tell, and they're characters off the field and we should be trying to tell that to our fanbase and to our stakeholders.

"So there's no doubt that the team at the moment probably isn't as recognizable as they have been in the past, but they're also young, some of the players haven't played much footy full-stop, let alone Test rugby."

Speaking with ESPN back in April, Moore called for "blank canvas" approach for Australian rugby.

Part of that was a complete rethink of Super Rugby and whether it was in the best interests of the Australian game moving forward.

Ironically, the chaos that the COVID-19 pandemic brought to Australian rugby, and all sport for that matter, also afforded RA the opportunity to critically evaluate its place in the SANZAAR partnership, and while there were certainly some frosty periods with New Zealand Rugby - McLennan even at one stage describing the trans-Tasman relationship at its lowest ebb yet - a crossover series that will run after Super Rugby AU has been arranged for next year and all signs point to a fully integrated competition being created for 2022.

"I certainly think it's worth having a crack at," Moore said of the full trans-Tasman plan. "There's no doubt Super Rugby, the way it existed previously, was pretty broken and it wasn't resonating with fans etcetera.

"And there's no doubt that people enjoyed the local derbies that existed on both sides of the Tasman and now, as they've outlined, there's a way for that to crossover after that, and that's really something worth pursuing, so I'm glad to see that.

"But will that be the final product? I think there's a bit of wait and see to gauge how that product is received without South Africa and Argentina, time will tell whether that's a success, but on the face of it that feels like something people will be really interested in."

Moore also credited the selfless attitude from all but a handful of Australia's professional playing cohort, who agreed to sweeping paycuts in the game's hour of need.

But it's also up to those same players to now drive the Wallabies back up the world rankings from their current position of sixth.

The success of Australian rugby is infinitely tied to the success of the Wallabies, something there has been sparing little of since the team made the 2015 Rugby World Cup final.

There have been glimpses of what might lie ahead - not least of which was an excellent victory over the All Blacks in Brisbane - and Rennie certainly appears to have brought the Wallabies together after a turbulent 2019.

"I was really pleased to see Scott Wisemantel say [last week] that the Wallabies want to be the best in the world and I haven't heard that often enough from people in the team or around the team," Moore said. "I just feel that's really important to have that kind of aspiration because we have been there before and I'm sure we can get there again.

"We have to aim for that, that's got to be our goal, because if we get to that then the game will go really well; people will want to follow the Wallabies because the players will be household names. There's enormous latent support for the Wallabies, people want the team to do really well, they want to be proud of the way the team plays, and I think we've seen really good examples of that over the last few months, particularly the Test matches in New Zealand.

"But then on the flipside of it, we've probably seen the other side of it and that's something we've probably seen too often over the last 20 years, if you're honest, that's been the inconsistency that has cost us being the best team in the world and that's something we're clearly still trying to get to. That comes from having a really solid group of players who play at or near their best every time they take the field for the Wallabies; that's where we need to be aiming and the people involved know that."