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The Wrap: A way forward for Australian rugby – how hard can it be?

With the Bledisloe Cup returned to the Barrett family games room for yet another year, it’s been a few bad weeks for Australian rugby.

The buzz-phrase of the moment is ‘system failure’, meanwhile the usual media suspects have demanded the heads of the Wallabies’ coach, captain and the CEO and board of Rugby Australia.

This serves to both fuel and sate an angry, discontented fan-base, although it is fair to say that the main characteristic that links these ‘tear the house down’ rants is the paucity of viable alternatives offered.

Lest I be accused of the same failing, let us consider a path forward which – within the constraints of a single article – attempts to take account of the important factors at play across all aspects of rugby in Australia.

They key is to start with the big picture; to capture and understand any realities within which the sport must operate.

Rugby is a global, professional sport. This decision was made in 1995 and cannot be undone. To compete on the international stage Australia operates in a global marketplace for players and coaches.

To illustrate, French club Stade Francais has an operating budget for next year of A$54m. Their salary cap for the season is A$18m.

English Club Wasps recently announced an annual turnover of A$59m. Their player salary spend – cap, plus two additional marquee players and dispensations for allowances – comes to around A$16m.

By contrast, the NSW Waratahs operate under a salary cap of A$5m. Their annual turnover is A$19m – from which it not only has to run the Waratahs, but administer all aspects of the game, including community rugby, across the whole state.

Australia might be playing the same sport as England and France, but the underlying financial and market metrics are light years apart.

If it elects to, Australia can drop out of the rugby arms race and operate a domestic competition on a quasi-professional basis. The cost for doing so would be an exodus of all leading playing talent and IP overseas, going to where they can be paid market value.

The sport would remain healthy at junior and club level, but Australia – like any amateur nation – would become uncompetitive at elite international level. Forget arguing about whether Michael Cheika should be selecting David Pocock and Michael Hooper together. Just think Canada.

Assuming that this is not a desired outcome, there must be an acceptance from all stakeholders that Rugby Australia needs to maximise revenue wherever and however it can reasonably do so. Only then is there the possibility of an appropriate balance being found between the funding of the professional game and the community game.

To be healthy across all levels of the game, nations require money and power. On its own, Australia has little of both. The size of the rugby market (people who potentially engage with the game as participants or viewers) is very small compared to the markets in England and France.

Hence Australia’s reliance on SANZAAR – essentially a co-op of similarly isolated nations who, by combining together to construct and operate the Rugby Championships and Super Rugby, are able to extract a greater commercial return collectively, than each of them would be able to generate individually.

There are many issues around Super Rugby that are problematic and frustrating for fans – a whole topic in itself, for another day.

But those who advocate Australia exiting SANZAAR in favour of a solely domestic or a trans-Tasman solution fail to address key questions; ‘does NZ Rugby agree that a trans-Tasman solution works for them?’ And, ‘what would be the loss of income for the sport as a result?’ And, ‘how would this affect funding of the game at all levels?’

Over the next 12 months, negotiations will intensify with respect to the next round of SANZAAR’s broadcasting rights. There is complexity around the number of different markets involved, concern around the financial viability of some broadcasters and uncertainty around the emergence of new media into the sports broadcasting space.

But there is also a sense that the bleeding of 2017 has been staunched. The 2018 Super Rugby competition was an (albeit modest) improvement, both in general and in the performance of the Australian franchises.

There is risk around South Africa leaving SANZAAR, but a new broadcast agreement – which essentially funds rugby for all four nations – is close enough that South Africa cannot immediately obtain a better result by putting all of its eggs into the Pro 14 basket. Only admission into the Six Nations could provide enough cash to warrant such a tumultuous change, and there is no indication – at least in the short term – that this is being seriously contemplated.

It is likely that South Africa will toy with various models that allow them a ‘foot in both camps’, and this may necessitate further changes to the current Super Rugby structure. But don’t underestimate the strength of the relationship between South Africa and New Zealand as a binding agent to help keep SANZAAR intact.

There is much SANZAAR can do to help itself. Finding a way to work more closely with Japan and to leverage off the likely success of the 2019 World Cup must be at the top of the list.

Because it is a badly wounded partner, Australia should be taking a more urgent and assertive role in freeing up the constraints of governance that currently restrict SANZAAR’s executive management team from – to borrow a rugby coaching term – ‘occupying the space’. It is essential that a more strongly branded organisation consistently engages with fans and media to shape a more positive environment for the sport.

For example, when Taniela Tupou bumps a would-be tackler into orbit and flashes a cheeky ‘what did I just do there?’ grin, a short video grab should be pushed to the phone of every rugby fan, pumping up the vibe around Super Rugby and its star players.

SANZAAR should be able to negotiate an arrangement that will deliver funding at or near current levels, up until 2026 or thereabouts. This would essentially buy some time for Australia – a status-quo outcome that, in the current negative climate, would represent a win.

Further, there is potential for other, non-financial gains around what will likely be increasing fragmentation – bundled offerings where the rights are shared between various parties depending on region and digital and traditional non-digital mediums.

Any trade-off would need to be carefully balanced, but if the final position did happen to include say a ‘home’ pay TV partner, the screening one domestic Super Rugby match on free-to-air television in a regular Saturday night slot, the availability of highlights or scoring packages via a digital partner, then this would potentially represent a massive step forward for the code in Australia in terms of visibility and accessibility.

Turning the focus inward, a critical element is the determination of the number and form of professional tiers of rugby in Australia.

A way to understand this is to consider what, in Australia’s other leading football codes, the pinnacle of each sport is. For AFL it is at the club level: Adelaide versus Port Adelaide, Collingwood versus Richmond and so on.

For rugby league it is at the state level; Queensland versus New South Wales for the State of Origin.

For rugby, there are no such domestic pinnacles. Rugby’s ultimate battleground is country versus country for the World Cup, a Lions tour and the Bledisloe Cup. And now, add the Olympic Games.

It is simply not possible to construct a domestic solution that mirrors that of the AFL or NRL because they are so far advanced in tradition and financial scope. So much of Australian rugby’s energy, attention and financial resources have to be applied to remaining competitive internationally.

Accordingly, there is limited potential for even one healthy domestic professional competition to be sustained, and certainly no hope at all for two, or even three.

Yet remarkably, this is the crossroads at which Australia finds itself today.

The Wallabies and Super Rugby programs are fully professional. Below that, the semi-professional NRC is now entering its fifth year. With some tweaks along the way, it is gradually finding its place as a bridge between club and professional rugby – most first-round teams were a nice blend of Super Rugby and international class players, and emerging talent.

Sydney’s Shute Shield and Queensland Premier Rugby are club competitions, viewed in a way that implies they represent the amateur, ‘grassroots’ rugby that fans and players are familiar with.

In practice, however, they are semi-professional competitions with, in the case of the Shute Shield, aspirations to being the apex of Australian domestic rugby.

Throw into the mix World Series Rugby (WSR) which, from its initial conception to provide rugby for the Western Force in an Indo-Pacific competition, has since determined that it would like to establish a foothold in Western Sydney.

This messy situation highlights issues of structure and governance that are at the heart of Australia’s rugby woes.

For all of Australian rugby to move forward, the NRC and Shute Shield (which enjoyed another vibrant final over the weekend), cannot continue to co-exist as domestic semi-professional competitions. Australia cannot afford the division of resources and fan focus.

There must be a single, domestic professional or semi-professional competition, which serves all Australian rugby fans. This doesn’t have to be the NRC, particularly if clubs and fans continue to fail to engage with it, and if Rugby Australia continues to under-promote it.

Nor can it be the Shute Shield in its existing format, because it is played at the wrong time of the year, and is too Sydney-centric. In fact, it doesn’t even represent all of Sydney.

But think about the possibilities for a blend of the two – a competition that draws on the strengths/brands of existing, famous clubs, while recognising and accommodating teams from all rugby regions in Australia.

In England and France, the professional tier below international is club rugby. In New Zealand, South Africa and Australia, it is provincial or regional rugby. The Shute Shield is caught in the middle, and as long as it remains there, Australia’s domestic rugby structure is compromised.

Yes, it would mean significant change and upheaval, but either the Shute Shield should revert to being a truly amateur, grassroots club competition, drawing only from within its own geographic confines, or else it really needs to be at the table, as part of a bigger, national solution.

In a similar vein, any notion that WSR can take root in Sydney and soak up players, coaches and fans from existing competitions without there being due consideration of what impact this might have on the whole game in Australia is preposterous. No matter how much money Andrew Forrest might have.

By all means, bring Forrest to the table too. If his motives are genuine, and he is prepared to contribute to a total solution, then this would be a great outcome.

If it is instead about handing the keys over, or cherry picking locations to suit his own purposes, then perhaps his money was never more than illusionary.

Important decisions need to be made about schools rugby and junior development. Not everyone in New Zealand is happy with the level of intensity applied to elite schools rugby, but the counter argument is that this focus not only helps keep the rugby league scouts at bay, but delivers far more ‘professional-ready’ rugby athletes in the 18-20 age group, compared to Australia.

Due to Australian rugby’s traditional New South Wales and Queensland state dominated structure, and the nature by which schools rugby is conducted, Rugby Australia does not have the same degree of autonomy that NZ Rugby, for example, had when they (successfully) centralised their operations.

But it has much to gain from drawing all stakeholders together to put a stop to the ‘I’m alright Jack’ mentality that has dogged Australian rugby, and in the process of doing so, facilitate a cohesive understanding and direction that serves the greater good of the game.

Currently, Australian rugby comprises two silos – one for the professional aspects of the game, under Rugby Australia’s administration, and another comprising a loose assembly of club rugby, schools rugby, West Australian rugby and anyone with a grievance.

Only when these silos are broken down will there be a stronger identity and sense of purpose throughout the whole game.

The existing impediments are as much attitudinal as they are structural. More than anything, all participants – from Rugby Australia and the state unions down to canteen volunteers – just need to understand where they each fit.

This understanding will allow Rugby Australia and the state bodies to more precisely direct funds to the base of the pyramid, where targeted coaching development programs, talent identification etc… will be more likely to deliver tangible improvements to grassroots rugby and deliver improved outcomes further up the line.

Rugby Australia has already shown willingness to invest in programs in women’s rugby and sevens rugby that are delivering higher rates of participation and inclusiveness.

But no matter these promising advances, they need to keep hearing hard truths about how to bridge the divide to traditional, fifteen-a-side rugby, and to make sure the state unions keep hearing these as well and stop deflecting blame for their shortcomings.

In return, there must be acceptance from all stakeholders that there is a single, fully accountable entity, which ultimately administers all of Australian rugby, for the benefit of all Australian participants and fans.

Divisive media mouthpieces should be ignored or exposed for the attention-seeking wreckers that they are.

Trust, respect, co-operation and consensus are words that have become increasingly undervalued in contemporary Australian lexicon. In our politics they are practically redundant.

All are required for Australian rugby to find the best path forward. Melbourne Rebels coach Dave Wessels – who rested Will Genia from an important Super Rugby match to assist Wallabies coach Michael Cheika – got it exactly right when he said, “we need to start living by each other’s happiness and not by each other’s misery, and that’s what’s going to change the outcomes for all of us.”

If others aren’t yet ready to follow that lead, to work without complaint for the common good, then there is a chance that Australian rugby has yet to hit rock bottom.

In that case, it might take something like the embarrassment and shame that would come with the Wallabies not making it out of their pool at next years’ World Cup, to finally hit the message home.

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