This weekend sees the Melbourne Rebels and Western Force play in front of their home fans for the last time in 2017. For the last few months RUPA has been just one of the voices consistently imploring the ARU to ensure that this isn’t the last time they play, full stop.
It’s easy to disregard RUPA’s views; that we’re just out to protect jobs for the boys. The reality, however, is far less self-interested and much more complex. The players share in the wealth of the game and it is today’s players’ highest priority to leave Rugby in Australia better for the next generation, at all levels.
Whether there’s five teams, four teams, six teams or ten teams, what matters most is that Rugby in Australia is given the best chance to prosper and to grow. To be a success on and off the field. For kids – boys and girls - all over the country to aspire to earn a gold jersey and to incessantly nag mum and dad to take them to every Test match, provincial fixture and Premier Rugby game in the interim.
We believe in retaining our current five teams because based on all of the modelling we’ve seen, paid for and done ourselves, five teams best sets up the game for success beyond the immediate term. As Stirling Mortlock articulated today, the strategic challenges the game faces aren’t solved by shrinking our way to success and raising the white flag just shouldn’t be an option.
Being National Matters
In their respective match-day squads this week the Force and Rebels will feature Richard Hardwick, Ross Haylett-Petty, Anaru Rangi, Curtis Rona, Michael Ruru, Fereti Sa’aga, Sione Tuipulotu, Jordan Uelese, James Verrity-Amm. These talented young players are just some of the professional products of the development pathways in Victoria and Western Australia.
Further to that, Test players Adam Coleman, Pek Cowan, Tetera Faulkner, Dane Haylett-Petty, Reece Hodge, Matt Hodgson, Sean McMahon and Toby Smith are Wallabies having only represented either the Force or Rebels in Super Rugby. Add to the above list of locals the two teams’ up and coming stars in their first seasons of Super Rugby aiming to get to Wallaby gold; Esei Haangana, Jack Maddocks, Bill Meakes, Isi Naisarani, Alex Newsome, Semisi Tupou and Shambeckler Vui among them.
Following this weekend it is incredibly likely that between the five Australian teams, more than 50 players will have debuted this season . An average of more than ten players per team who have stepped up to Super Rugby to fill the void left largely from Australian players being lured overseas. With the uncertainty that has hung over 2017, the international leakage at season’s end for 2018 is on track to be a carbon copy. And a four team model would result in Australia having more professional players based overseas than at home.
Let’s Align not Malign
In 2011, the first year that Australia featured five teams and the Reds won the Super Rugby title, Australia lost to New Zealand in a Rugby World Cup semi-final. We finished third, they finished first.
Earlier in that year at the Under 20s World Cup, it was an identical story: Australia third, New Zealand first.
At that tournament, Australia’s side featured the names Hooper, Kuridrani and Sio. For New Zealand? Barrett, Sopoaga, Retallick, Cane, Naholo and Perenara. There are twelve Australians from that tournament still playing in Australian Super Rugby teams, and fifteen likewise across the ditch. Of those squads four became Wallabies. THIRTEEN became All Blacks and most of them won a Rugby World Cup in 2015.
Naturally, any one year may not be a perfect sample for drawing long-term conclusions; however, the point stands that Australian Rugby is not getting the most out of our talent. Improving our performances at a Super Rugby and international will be directly related to aligning high-performance programs and player contracting, and better supporting our players.
Plan B for Five Australian Teams
Last week, the South African Rugby Union (SARU) announced that the Kings and Cheetahs were moving from Super Rugby to a yet-to-be-named European competition, thought to be an expanded version of the Pro12.
That means we have sixteen teams who want to be involved in Super Rugby next year, unless you take recent reports into account that the Sharks are looking to follow the lead of their counterparts in Bloemfontein and Port Elizabeth.
It is becoming increasingly clear that SARU are planning on spending the next three years determining where they will be best suited long term. They are establishing ‘proof of concept’, as they have put it, to either continue in partnership with SANZAAR or instead play in competitions which are far more suited to their time zone.
Keeping all five teams alive through to the end of the current broadcast agreement in 2020 gives Australian Rugby the chance to build towards a Trans-Tasman competition as an equal partner with New Zealand. That is the competition that can deliver the seismic commercial and competitive shift that the game requires to sustain Wallaby success and drive revenue growth to implement bottom-up engagement strategies.
So as South Africa puts a foot in both camps and opens up its strategic options, that Australia would reduce our representation seems to be excruciating limiting to ours ; and that is if it is even legally possible to do so. Next Tuesday will be 100 days since the ARU’s announcement that our Super Rugby future would be resolved in 48-72 hours.How much longer does the current process run until achieving a reduction is deemed impossible?
Despite the ARU’s advances, the private owners of the Rebels remain resolute and retain Victorian Rugby as their respected priority. Whilst an arbitration against Rugby WA will determine the legalities in the west. Has a sixteen-team competition model for the remaining three years of the broadcast deal been tabled as a compromise?
Every team plays one another once, with no conference system required and a simple top eight system, while every team is also able to play one extra ‘rivalry round’ to generate substantial commercial windfall. A 15 team competition means 82% of teams play each other; a 16 team competition makes that 100%.
It makes every game matter, rewards the best teams with finals qualification (that’s correct, one table only), it puts fans first, breeding tribalism and a sense of ownership that currently simply isn’t there. And it’s easy to understand.
Furthermore, this model sees more matches in Australia (40) than either the current model or SANZAAR’s proposed 15-team model (32), which we must remember is only being considered due to the ARU offering to cull a team.
Retiring Western Force legend Matt Hodgson sums it up nice and simply:
“All players remain united in our belief that the best interests of Rugby in Australia are best served by the retention of five teams and maintaining our national footprint with both Western Australia and Victoria.”
So on the eve of the final round of the 2017 Super Rugby season, a competition which for Australian players and fans has largely sat in the shadows due to the off-field speculation, RUPA re-affirms once more that we are Stronger As Five and there are competition options to support it.