Heads must roll in Wallaby crisis

Kurtley Beale prepares for the rainy first Test against the All Blacks on August 16, 2014. Photo: ProLook

Kurtley Beale prepares for the rainy first Test against the All Blacks on August 16, 2014. Photo: LookPro

The resignation of Di Patston as the business manager of the Wallabies has escalated a in-house difficulty facing the Wallabies into the most serious crisis confronting the ARU since the introduction of professional rugby.

The alleged text message Kurtley Beale sent to teammates (and inadvertently to Patston) in June denigrated Patston in a way that absolutely requires a full inquiry, which the ARU has instigated.

But what has emerged from the Beale-Patston saga over the last week or so has thrown a searchlight on the behaviour and decisions of the Wallaby coach Ewen McKenzie and ARU chief executive Bill Pulver. The silence of ARU chairman Michael Hawker and the public comments by the ARU board member John Eales are also damning.

The story has moved on from a necessary investigation of Beale into “new and more serious allegations” regarding his interactions with Patston (Pulver’s statement to the media on Thursday).

Now it’s moved to what should be a thorough investigation into a sorry saga of inept governance within the Wallabies and in the ARU since the appointment of McKenzie as the Wallabies coach a year ago.

There is every possibility that if such an investigation is held (and it should be a sacking matter for the powers that be if it is not) that it will end up with heads rolling among the ARU’s hierarchy.

My mentor in journalism was the great Evan Whitton, the finest Australian reporter of his generation and a brilliant writer on rugby matters. Whitton’s reporting doctrine is get the narrative right and you will get the story right.

So let us look at the narrative over the last few days.

Last Thursday Pulver called a media conference to announce that Kurtley Beale would be required to face a code of conduct hearing into “new and serious allegations” regarding interactions with a staff member. When he made this statement, Pulver did not say who the staff member was. Persistent questioning by reporters forced him to admit that the staff member was Di Patston.

The context of this admission was that Beale was already facing an inquiry over a slanging spat he had with Patston on a flight from South Africa to South America before the Wallabies Test against the Pumas.

The Australian‘s Wayne Smith led his story on the media conference with the following intro.

“Kurtley Beale’s future with the Wallabies is in grave peril after the Australian rugby union yesterday referred new and more serious allegations against him to an independent code of conduct tribunal.”

Smith reported Pulver’s admission that he could not explain how Beale’s alleged behaviour in sending the text message went unreported from the Wallaby camp to the ARU headquarters from June until November.

Georgina Robinson in the Sydney Morning Herald led her story slightly differently.

“The latest developments in the Kurtley Beale saga raise yet more questions for the ARU… Fairfax Media has learned troubling new details about the extent of dysfunction within the Wallabies.”

Robinson reported that McKenzie was aware of the texting incident “at the time” and that Beale “made a subsequent emotional apology, which Patston accepted”. She noted, however, that Pulver claimed that McKenzie only became aware of the June incident that week.

Robinson also reported that before the Wallabies Test against the Springboks at Perth, McKenzie missed a compulsory team dinner to accompany Patston to the airport so she could fly home to fix up a family emergency. She ended up staying in Perth.

The point was also made that with Wallabies and staff expressing their concerns about what was happening inside the camp, why weren’t huge alarm bells ringing for Pulver, Hawker and the board.

On Friday, after a media conference announcing the Wallabies squad to play the All Blacks at Brisbane on Saturday, McKenzie denied knowing about the June incident.

Someone is right and someone is wrong on this matter. If McKenzie is right then he can’t be held accountable for not informing the ARU of the June incident. But if he did know, then we are in dangerous territory for him.

On Fox Sports‘ excellent Rugby HQ program on Thursday night there was a discussion about the Pulver media conference. John Eales, a frequent contributor to the program, was introduced as a member of the ARU board. Eales told the panel that this was “a day of no joy for rugby”.

He conceded that senior players knew of the June incident but the ARU was not aware of the issue. It now had to be dealt with “specifically” by the ARU.

When asked what needs to change in the Wallabies team management, Eales replied. “Look, everything. The passing…”

Rod Kafer insisted that the Wallabies have “massively improved” under the McKenzie regime. Not long after this program ended, I received an email from someone I have never met, which raised two important matters.

First: “If as the coach says Ms Patston is a good HR manager then why did she not de-escalate things and why did the coach apparently miss two team events to deal with Ms Patston?”

Second: “I was stunned to find an ARU board member (John Eales) discussing this matter on Thursday TV with Nick McArdle et al… I am chair of a public company (unlisted) and would be very unhappy if our governance had potentially been disrupted by a director appearing on a TV show discussing the matter, however cautiously it was done.”

The next day, Friday October 10 at 10:29 am, media outlets published an important story written by Rebecca Wilson.

This story gave actual details of the June text message by Beale (a photograph of an overweight, naked woman (not Patston) with ‘Di’ printed under the picture), confirmed the Beale/Patston reconciliation (“she gave Beale a hug and never mentioned the photograph again”). The piece also claimed that McKenzie “knew of it”.

There were further details about the later flight incident. Patston, according to Wilson, sent at least four emails to Beale and three other team members. And “she has indicated she will leave the job but not before she is compensated”.

The article asked this telling question, “Why did the ARU allow McKenzie to pluck someone out of an office environment to become an integral part of the touring party?”

On Saturday morning, the Sydney Morning Herald published a story by Rupert Guinness from the McKenzie media conference on Friday, making the point that McKenzie “continues his support for business manager Di Patston”. McKenzie was quoted as saying his relationship with Patston was a “professional relationship… simple as that”.

McKenzie was also quoted as rejecting the notion that there is “unrest” in the Wallabies camp. He defended Patston’s qualifications and suitability for employment with the Wallabies and the Reds. He also defended her role in the disciplinary process when 15 players on last year’s spring tour were reprimanded for staying out late four days before the Test against Ireland in Dublin. “She is HR trained, OK?”

The SMH also ran my Saturday column where I argued that there is too much “me-first” in the culture of Australian rugby.

I was critical of James Horwill’s comment after the loss to the Pumas that “I’ve got all confidence in Ewen and the coaching staff to take this team forward to where we can be”. The point here is that Horwill made this comment knowing that Beale had stayed with the team in Argentina, after Patston had left, because Michael Hooper, James Slipper and Adam Ashley-Cooper had insisted on him remaining.

There was nothing in The Australian from Wayne Smith or the usual columnists, Mark Ella and John Eales. The Saturday before, Smith wrote quite a savage column suggesting good riddance to Beale from the Wallabies. The rugby coverage for The Australian‘s print version was an AAP story of McKenzie’s media conference on the Friday.

The lead to this story was, “Wallabies coach Ewen McKenzie has denied having an intimate relationship with the team business manager Di Patston, adamant his position in charge of the Australian side hasn’t been compromised”.

When I noticed this strange absence of The Australian‘s rugby experts, I thought of the Sherlock Holmes story about the dog that did not bark in the night. Two stories on SMH online around 11am on Saturday morning perhaps explain the lack of McKenzie-supportive barking from The Australian in its Saturday print edition.

Georgina Robinson’s story had the self-explanatory headline, “Ewen McKenzie knew about text messages months ago, says Kurtley Beale’s manager”.

Beale’s manager, Isaac Moses, said McKenzie had had a conversation with Beale “addressing the incident in June”.

Robinson raised the issue of fairness and double jeopardy, if Moses was correct and the ARU proceeded with the hearing by a District Court judge, Mark Williams, into Beale’s June text message. Is it natural justice to be tried twice for the same offence, after there has been a resolution?

Shortly after this, SMH ran a second story online with no by-line and a self-explanatory headline: Di Patston quits as Wallabies team business manager.

This story contained two interesting statements.

First: “Team business manager resigned late on Friday, around the time Fairfax asked the ARU further questions about her employment history”.

Second: “On Saturday, an ARU spokeswoman said Ms Patston is no longer an employee of the Australian rugby union, after resigning late Friday 10 October 2014, due to stress relating to recent events”.

The official ARU statement of Patston’s resignation, curiously, was not sent out until Saturday 11 October 3.20 pm. It further noted that the date for the Code of Conduct Tribunal hearing is likely to be held after the Bledisloe Cup Test at Brisbane.

There was also a mention of the review into the support structure of the Wallabies. But nothing about the circumstances of Patston’s appointment, her qualifications and the impact her presence had on the Wallabies squad.

These are very important matters that go to the heart of the Beale-Patston dispute and the turmoil that has been going on in the Wallabies camp from the time her brief with the team was expanded from business matters to other issues, especially those involving human resources.

For an insight into this bizarre development, we go to an article using information from the SMH and The Guardian, which was run on Rugby365 on Friday, October 3 at 8:17 am.

The article claimed that some of the players believed that Patston was the team’s psychologist. There was also a claim that her LinkedIn page listed a number of university degrees whose awarding universities had no record of, and that they had been subsequently deleted.

An ARU spokesperson was quoted as saying that the LinkedIn profile was created by a third party and had been taken down. She confirmed, “At the time of employing Ms Patston in September 2013, we undertook a rigorous reference checking a verification process … We are satisfied with this process and the information provided to us”.

The Guardian Australia was quoted by Rugby365 as noting that Patston offering psychological support to players created confusion. This work was not in her job remit: “It is understood this confusion over Patston’s role, and a squad of emotionally drained players following a heavy loss to the Springboks, gave rise to the incident with Beale”.

We return now to Sunday, October 11 and a story written by Rory Callinan and Phil Lutton.

“Patston resigned late on Friday around the time Fairfax Media asked the ARU further questions about her employment history,” the article read.

It is obvious, or it is to me, that the ARU’s narrow investigation in the June texting incident does not go anywhere near being a satisfactory resolution of this crisis facing the ARU.

There needs to be a further wider inquiry that involves investigating the behaviour and decisions of the chief executive Bill Pulver, the Wallabies coach Ewen McKenzie, the chairman of the ARU board Michael Hawker and board members involved with the decision to appoint McKenzie as the Wallaby coach.

What was known and when was this known are the foundation queries for such an investigation. Why have governance issues gone awry? Why is the me-first culture so entrenched right now in the ARU?

Why has the triumph and euphoria that followed the Waratahs success in winning the 2014 Super Rugby tournament not been followed by a similar popularity for the Wallabies?

  • Spiro Zavos, Roar

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Filed under Australia, Discipline, Opinion, Wallabies

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