Response to players' five team retention statement
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By Pete Fairbairn, 23.02.17

Last week, RUPA released a statement on behalf of Australia’s professional Rugby players detailing an unwavering commitment to the retention of five Australian Super Rugby teams as part of SANZAAR’s review into the competition.

“Australia’s professional Rugby players are staunch in their opposition to any mooted alternative models which would reduce Australia’s representation in the Super Rugby competition for 2018 and beyond,” the statement said.

Further to that, RUPA CEO Ross Xenos stated that “we need more local content, not less” and that “the ARU has a vision to ‘inspire all Australians’ but there is nothing inspirational for any of the game’s stakeholders in voluntarily going backwards.”

RUPA President Dean Mumm echoed those sentiments when he said “The players are engaged in ensuring that any new competition model genuinely remedies the current competition’s strategic failings and delivers more relevant, local derbies for Australian Rugby fans to enjoy.

“Other codes in this country are growing their domestic competitions and fixtures at significant pace, and we simply can’t do the opposite in an attempt to shrink our way to success.”

In the days since the release of the RUPA statement, a number of prominent Rugby journalists have addressed the issue in varying ways, while Super Rugby players and Coaches have also spoken at length; here’s a selection of the reaction.

Wednesday February 15:

Waratahs star Bernard Foley implored the ARU not to sacrifice a franchise, saying that “to cut a team would be not only hampering the competition (for Wallabies spots), it would be restricting the pathway for juniors to play Super Rugby, too. That is Australia’s elite level of Rugby and the more players you have playing at the elite level the better.”

Thursday February 16:

The reaction to RUPA’s statement was strong, with Fairfax Media, the Daily Telegraph, Rugby.com.au and The West Australian all carrying coverage of the players’ opinion and assessing how long it might be until the Australian Rugby Union (ARU) and SANZAAR might be able to make a decision on the topic.

Brumbies boss Stephen Larkham told the Canberra Times’ Chris Dutton that “For Australia, I'm comfortable that five teams is the way to go forward. I think we've seen real improvement in the national side in the last period of time… and that comes on the back of the depth we're creating by having five teams in Super Rugby.”

Friday February 17:

The issue continued to bubble away, with the Sydney Morning Herald’s Georgina Robinson interviewing RUPA CEO Ross Xenos about the possibility of breaking away from SANZAAR in order to look after Australian Rugby’s best interests first and foremost.

"The history and the legacy of SANZAAR, along with the international flavour of rugby, is one of [rugby's] great points of difference domestically, but we need to ensure that we aren't blinded by that uniqueness and over-expose the international component of our game at the cost of local rivalries and tribalism,” Xenos said. "We need to make sure the Waratahs and the Brumbies and the Reds and the Waratahs play each other more than once in a season."

Saturday February 18 & Sunday February 19:

Hot on the heels of Brumbies Coach Larkham, Western Force Head Coach David Wessels spoke about what his side had to do in order to ensure that they weren’t cut by the ARU.

“We have got to earn the right for people to take us seriously, to convince people we deserve a future in Super Rugby,” he said. “We can’t stand there cap in hand. We’ve just got to perform better and I think we’ve got the building blocks in place to do that.”

Wallabies Captain Stephen Moore, just days out from making his return to the Reds in Super Rugby, told the Australian Financial Review that "we need to make it easier for the fans to understand, but five teams is a definite and I think we have the player talent pool for that. I think I leaders have the best interests of the sport at heart and hopefully they come up with a good model."

SANZAAR Head Andy Marinos, meanwhile, provided an update on when the future competition structure might be decided, while Wallabies legend Simon Poidevin aired his view that either the Melbourne Rebels or Western Force should be cut and ARU Chief Operating Officer Rob Clarke spoke to the Herald Sun’s Matt Windley about what the Rebels need to do to ensure their survival.

Monday February 20:

On Monday afternoon, the Australian Rugby Union (ARU) Board met to discuss their preferred competition model for Super Rugby, from 2018 onwards.

This was in preparation for the SANZAAR Executive Committee meeting which will take place next month, with ARU CEO Bill Pulver and Deputy Chairman Brett Robinson to represent Australia alongside the other Rugby bodies; Argentina, New Zealand and South Africa.

In the aftermath of the meeting, ARU Chairman Cameron Clyne spoke to media and declined to detail the ARU’s preferred competition structure or number of teams. Instead, the ARU will wait until the other SANZAAR partners declare their intentions at that meeting before reverting to an appropriate contingency plan, suggesting that they have multiple stances on the topic.

Western Force CEO Mark Sinderberry immediately addressed what that meant for his team, in speaking with The West Australian, while earlier in the day Rob Clarke put the kibosh on talk of a Melbourne Rebels-Brumbies merger.

Tuesday February 21:

Writing in national broadsheet The Australian, veteran Rugby journalist Wayne Smith reviewed the ARU’s tight-lipped press conference from the day before, while in big news out west local talent Dane Haylett-Petty re-signed with the Force and declared that the ARU would be crazy to cut his side from the competition.

“I think when the Force came in, it was all about growing Wallabies and I think throughout the years they've definitely done that,” Haylett-Petty said. “They've produced plenty of great Wallabies and added to Australian rugby so I think it'd be crazy to let go of a team like that.”

Wednesday February 22:

On the back of Haylett-Petty’s contract renewal, the Daily Telegraph’s Iain Payten addressed the potential legal minefield of relocating players in the instance of a team being cut, particularly in the case of players who aren’t particularly interested in shifting states.

Meanwhile, Smith again wrote an opinion piece in The Australian, suggesting that “it is becoming increasingly obvious that SANZAAR has outlived its usefulness, at least at Super Rugby level”.

Over at Fox Sports, commentators and columnists Greg Clark, Christy Doran, Stephen Hoiles, Sean Maloney, Greg Martin, Nick McArdle addressed the burning questions for the 2017 season, including what stance the should ARU adopt regarding the Super Rugby format and their five franchises.

Of the six respondents, five advocated keeping all Australian franchises with both Clark and McArdle mentioning that they favoured the advent of a Trans-Tasman competition in the coming years. The one dissuading voice was former Wallaby Greg Martin, who suggested dropping whichever Australian team comes last this year.

Thursday 23rd February:

Ahead of naming their side for the opening Super Rugby fixture of the season, Force Coach Wessels again talked about the progress Western Australia has made towards becoming a Rugby state amid a greater number of local players being picked.

“Our club now is 12 years old, so if you take a kid who is 22/23 now and is starting to play regular Super Rugby, he was 10 years old when the club was formed,” Wessels said. “We are now getting the first wave of players who started to play because there is Super Rugby in Perth. We now have more locally produced players than ever in the team and a huge number of those starting on the weekend.

“It would be really silly to stop that, just as we are starting to see the fruits of that labour come through the system and benefit Australian rugby more widely. Dane (Haylett-Petty) is a perfect example of that, and his younger brother Ross has the potential to be a Wallaby too. These are local boys who would probably never play for the Wallabies if there was no Super Rugby team in Perth.”

Finally, RUPA CEO Ross Xenos spoke with Fairfax Media about the contract ambiguity for players making decisions on where to sign for 2018 and beyond, and how concerned many players were about the choices that they were being forced to make.

"The players are concerned about the ambiguity over the future and that's one of the drivers of our public position in terms of why we believe five teams is so much more important," Xenos said. “In an ideal world we wouldn't have the uncertainly that we have at the moment as we're about to kick-off the 2017 season for 2018. At the same time, they're professionals. They'll go out and give their best efforts for their teams this weekend and have faith in RUPA representing their interests."

Xenos discussed the players’ legal rights if a team that they’ve signed for was cut.

"Depending on those outcomes there are different uncertainties regarding the legal position of players that are contracted," Xenos said. "We've got a unique situation where the ARU is already the employer of players in Perth and we just need to allow the ARU to follow the SANZAAR process and deal with the outcomes from there.

"Up until the SANZAAR executive committee meeting we'll continue to remain in dialogue but we're not expecting to learn a lot more publicly than what we already know. It's always difficult boxing at shadows and we'll wait until any decision is made before we make those decisions."

23.02.17
Pete Fairbairn
Communications Manager
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