John O’Neill predicts a positive future for rugby
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The chief executive of the ARU, John O’Neill, has responded to questions from The Roar, generated by dozens of contributions from readers, with a detailed and positive review of where rugby is at in Australia and around the world.
His predictions for where rugby will be in ten years time are bullish.
He is confident, for instance, that in October the IOC will vote rugby, by way of the Sevens, back into the Olympic Games, after a gap of over 80 years and that the code will be second only to football in its international presence, while being strong domestically in Australia.
A driver of this strength will be a ‘major integration’ with the Asia/Pacific region, with additional Super Rugby teams, including at least one side and possibly more from Japan.
This is the sort of vision that The Roar readers were looking to be expressed from the general tone of the questions that they put forward for O’Neill to answer.
There will be, or should be, a vigorous discussion from readers about O’Neill’s answer to the more local issues of what the ARU can do to stimulate rugby at the local level, with more corporate connections and more resources put into the western suburbs of Sydney.
The input on these issues will be read by the ARU, which should encourage a vigorous discussion on what has been done, so far.
We were taken with the interesting comment that the television commentators were invited to a briefing on the laws of rugby. The implication is that this invitation was not accepted.
Judging by the misinformation that often comes from the television commentary, there is a need for the invitation to be accepted next year when it is offered.
This small matter does illustrate, however, that all the members of the rugby community – the commentators, the journalists, the players, the coaches, the officials and the supporters – have a role to play in growing the game.
For readers of The Roar that role right now is to subject the O’Neill dossier to the searching and informed discussion it deserves.
EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH JOHN O’NEILL
These questions were posed by The Roar readers on this article.
How can rugby parlay its unique strengths on a global level so the Wallabies can benefit from greater support and greater access to superior young athletes?
“The Australian market is inherently different to those of our major Rugby-playing competitors around the world. There are four football codes in this country competing for spectators, broadcasting airtime, sponsorship and playing talent.
For the Wallabies, and Australian Rugby in general, to benefit from a great strength of our game – its genuine international appeal and our own place near the top of the world standings – we need to expand our domestic footprint.
By creating more mass presence for rugby at the upper levels of the game, we enhance its profile and popularity and therefore the ability to leverage those key components of support and revenue.
And it is not only about more teams in Super Rugby. It is about a greater presence for our season: an expanded Super Rugby competition that extends through to August, rather than ending in May.
It is about a more seamless approach to the season rather than a series of chunks carved out of the year as rugby moves in then out of the limelight.
If we have a greater presence, there will be more opportunities for players, and therefore a more enticing career path on offer to younger athletes when the time comes for them to decide on a sport of preference.
The Strategic Imperatives set down by ARU in early 2008 recognised the need for a greater domestic presence.
They also indicated the need for us to tap into bigger commercial markets and we have started along that path with a Bledisloe Cup match in Hong Kong last year and another in Tokyo later this year.”
What has been done to get corporate connections to be more involved at a local level?
Australian Rugby has always encouraged its partners to be connected with the game at various levels. ARU programs conducted through Community Rugby – EdRugby, Walla Rugby and various other development initiatives – provide opportunities for our partners to support.
The ARU also provides extensive grants to the NSW and Queensland Rugby Unions for Premier Rugby clubs, while also supporting other affiliated unions.
This financial assistance allows the clubs more scope when deciding how to expend their own sponsorship revenue. It is equally worthy of mention that Wallabies coach Robbie Deans has led a back-to-the-clubs approach with national squad players over the past two seasons.
This can only assist clubs in their own pursuit of on field success and off-field support via gate takings and sponsorship.”
What has been done to put more resources into the western suburbs of Sydney, the heartland for most of the major Australian sports? And what has been done to make rugby a more classless game in Australia?
“We have spoken to the Parramatta club in recent times about some of the challenges facing them and we will be attempting to help them find solutions into the future.
Make no mistake: ARU wants a strong presence in the western suburbs of Sydney. We were delighted to support the young men from Prairiewood High School when they campaigned earlier this year as the sole Australian representative at the World Youth Tournament in Japan.
Their coach Jarrod Hodges, who is also coaching at the Penrith club, is a wonderful resource for our game and deserves special mention for his contribution.
Significantly, ARU and NSW Rugby Union have this year combined forces on the Community Rugby front, and there is no doubt we will be looking to improve our presence and impact in the west. Parramatta, West Harbour and Eastwood, in Sydney’s north-west, have produced a galaxy of Wallabies in the past 20 years.
The interest in the west has also been underlined by the Expression of Interest lodged by western Sydney to be part of the 15th Super Rugby team selection process.
As for rugby becoming a more classless game, I think the days of our code being seen as a leather patches brigade are long gone.
The number of players in our ranks these days who come from what would have once been described as “non-traditional” rugby backgrounds puts that myth to rest.”
What is being done to demystify rugby for television viewers and spectators alike?
“Understanding the game and a referee’s interpretations of the laws is a problem borne from the fact that Rugby is a complex sport. We have competitive scrums, we have breakdowns and lineouts, and a sense of the unexpected that the other codes do not possess. In one way it adds to the beauty of rugby, in another it causes confusion because of the number of laws that can come into play.
We did make attempts earlier this year to assist viewers by inviting commentators to take part in a thorough laws briefing. We will do the same next season because commentary teams have an important role to play in the education of television viewers.”
Are you happy with the proposed changes to the laws of Rugby, the modified ELVs, and are there law reforms that will come after the 2011 Rugby World Cup?
“ARU spent a great deal of time preparing submissions to the IRB on law changes earlier this year, and with our SANZAR partners we gave the IRB full support in terms of trialling ELVs.
Were we satisfied with where the ELVs debate ended?
Put it this way, we were enormously disappointed that Northern Hemisphere nations refused to trial certain Experimental Law Variations, despite previous guarantees they gave to the IRB. You cannot make valued judgments without trialling.
As for any reforms after the next Rugby World Cup, we will have to wait and see.”
What is the future of Super Rugby?
“There will be expansion in 2011 with an additional team being added to take the competition to 15 sides. It should not be overlooked, however, that Super Rugby will also be revamped from a format perspective. The 15 teams from 2011 will be split into three conferences – the Australian Conference, the New Zealand Conference and the South African Conference. Each conference will house five teams each.
Those five teams will play each other on a home and away basis, giving them eight “local derbies” per season. They will also play four of the five teams in the other two conferences, either home or away.
Those extra eight matches give each team 16 games a season. With two byes and then an extended six-team final series over three weeks, the 2011 Super Rugby season will run to 21 weeks in total. That is an additional five weeks compared to the 2009 Super Rugby season.
The number of matches overall also increases from 94 to 125. The number of games in Australia increases from 26 to 40.
These are significant numbers.
SANZAR, of course, is in the process of identifying contenders for and then selecting the 15th team to be added to Super Rugby in 2011.
However, expansion will not end there.
There is scope for further growth of the competition in the future. These are exciting times for our game. Super Rugby expansion is again in keeping with ARU’s Strategic Imperatives, which also touch on the need to bring private investment into the game.
People refer to our “sudden” desire to look for private equity in our teams as Super Rugby moves forward.
The need to encourage but also carefully control private equity in the game was recognized when our Strategic Imperatives were formulated 18 months ago.”
When will Rugby in Australia get a national domestic competition like the other football codes?
“What needs to be understood is that the NRL, the AFL and the A-League competitions effectively represent the first or second tiers of those codes.
Rugby league has State of Origin and an occasional Test match above the NRL competition. The A-League sits below the Socceroos’ calendar of games. The AFL has only its club competition. In Rugby, we have the Wallabies’ international program as tier one and then Super Rugby as tier two.
A national domestic competition therefore becomes the third tier of the game.
The challenge therefore, if a third tier competition is to be staged on a national basis, is how to make it financially viable and subsequently sustainable in the long term. The ARC lost more than $5 million in its first and only year. The ARU’s current reserves are $15 million.
Do the math.
Premier Rugby currently fills that third tier in our game and the competitions have been strengthened immeasurably by the infusion of Wallaby players over the last couple of years.”
When will nations like Canada, USA, Argentina, Japan and China be brought into an Asia-Pacific conference involving Australia and New Zealand?
“There has been dialogue with Argentina about their future involvement with SANZAR countries. They want to be part of a Four Nations Test championship.
There are still issues that require resolution, however, with Argentina’s leading players mostly contracted to Northern Hemisphere clubs.
We have a good relationship with Japan and have kept them abreast of developments on the Super Rugby front.
They were not ready on this occasion to seek entry as the additional team when Super Rugby expands in 2011. In terms of other developing nations, we are open to dialogue about the future.
SANZAR will expand further in the years ahead and anything is possible.”
Where do you see rugby in ten years time in Australia in comparison with the other football codes?
“Second only to football in terms of having a truly international presence and a strong domestic game; Rugby to be an Olympic sport via the Sevens program; Major integration with the Asia/Pacific region, with additional Super Rugby teams, including a side or sides in Japan; A continued upholding of the culture, ethos and traditions of the game; Rugby to be a positive influence on Australia’s youth.”
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