How I would fix Australian rugby: improve the pathways
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Wallaby glory against Wales came with an All Black twist (AAP Image/Joe Castro)
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It’s been an interesting exercise, The Roar’s rugby ‘Solutions Series’, and the points and arguments made by Lordy and Campo this week have all been valid and worthy. Spiro’s next week will be equally so.
If you or I were in charge of Australian rugby, the simple thing would be to just adopt all the recommendations as made, but then you would face the double-edged sword of trying to prioritise legitimate plans for change and coming up with the funding to implement these required changes.
But then, no one said solutions are supposed to be easy.
Recently, I chatted with Brumbies CEO, Andrew Fagan, on an unrelated topic, and he again made the point about the motivation for changes made their rugby program and facilities, as driven by Jake White on arrival.
Fagan’s point was and is that the Brumbies simply had to make the changes at HQ that they did – new Athletic Director, a full time chef and set meals, among many others – in order to develop the best rugby program in Australia. They made the changes they did because they simply couldn’t compete with the obvious climate and financial advantages the four other Super Rugby franchises enjoy.
So their rugby program has to be their point of difference; it has to be the reason for players to want to move to Canberra and play for the Brumbies. On current evidence, it’s certainly made a difference on the scoreboard.
Australian rugby in general faces a similar situation. The need for change is evident in numerous directions, particularly in terms of governance and especially the grassroots, as has been outlined by my esteemed colleagues this week.
Another big problem we face currently is that the pathways in Australian rugby aren’t nearly clear enough anymore, and arguably don’t seem to be serving the purpose for their existence: to improve Australia’s playing depth.
It’s now almost five years since the ARU took the bold move to implement that missing step between club and Super Rugby, and though the Australian Rugby Championship produced some fantastic rugby – and indeed, a good number of current Wallaby stars – in its only season of 2007, there’s still been nothing developed in its place since.
And it’s not just the ARC pathway that was erased from the map. In the same cost-cutting measures that claimed Australia’s first attempt at creating an equivalent of South Africa’s Currie Cup and New Zealand’s National Provincial Championship, Australia A was also removed from the Pacific Nations Cup and the entire ‘A’ program scrapped.
In recent years professional squad sizes have been slashed while other countries look to expand theirs; a salary cap has been introduced in isolation from the SANZAR partners, and state-run academies have been abolished in preference to a supposedly centralised structure run by the national body.
Certainly, there’s a common theme in these moves: money. Or more specifically, a lack thereof. It’s very simple to just come out and say, “All of those things should be reinstated NOW” but the fact remains that someone has to pay for them.
So while I’d love to see back it on the agenda, it’s clear the ARC is as far away from a reintroduction as ever. But that’s not to say something can’t be done in its place. Clearly, something is still required to bridge the gap that’s long been recognised.
And this particular solution might address both the ‘next step’ and the academy issues in one go, simply by returning the academies to the states, and have them play accompanying fixtures on any local derby undercard. Proper second XV fixtures.
This would give the states the opportunity to develop their extended squads further – using their own methods and programs – while also providing game time for fringe, rookie, and injury-returning players at a meaningful level above club ranks.
The recent fortunes of the Australia Under-20s should be proof enough that we can’t just develop these young kids in age groups. The state of first class cricket in Australia currently is another perfect example of what happens when you restrict development teams to a certain age (the old second XI comp was revamped several years ago and restricted to Under-23 – with three over-age players – up until the start of last season).
With each second XV playing eight derby games per year, there is ample opportunity to build match fitness, combinations, and experience on the paddock, rather than in the gym or within their age groups.
Make it a proper competition, too, played for points, with a trophy of some sort to the winning state. It could even be a corporate thing if it helps get the program up and running. I’d have no problem with a QANTAS Cup being minted, if that’s what it took.
In the June international window, I’d be talking long and hard to the IRB about the virtues and benefits to be had by extending the Pacific Nations Cup funding to include Australia A again. If the Junior All Blacks want in again, that’s fine too.
It’s long been said that Japan and the Pacific Island teams need more exposure to the likes of Australia and New Zealand, and this move would achieve that. Plus, it would’ve been the ideal intro to Wallaby methods for the likes of Jesse Mogg, Bernard Foley, Caderyn Neville and others named in the initial training squad but saw no game time.
And surely Australia A is a better pathway to the Wallabies than a month of training and a free tracksuit?
It’s important that our talented youngsters emerge from the schoolboys and age representative programs with a clear directional view of what is required to make it. It should be simple: club rugby into a state academy into a second XV into Super Rugby into Australia A into a Wallabies jersey.
Instead, what they currently see is a mixture of club level and supposedly high performance programs which could see them sent off to plug a Super Rugby hole at late notice with almost no introduction. If they’re lucky (or unlucky, depending on your perspective) they may be involved in the Under-20s along the way, but essentially we expect them to develop on a Super Rugby training paddock.
And then if they do get a game and play better than expected, we rush them into Australian calculations quicker than we can utter the words “next Wallaby great”.
We owe it to these talented kids – and even the late-bloomers – to have the right structures in place and the pathways clear and defined, so that they can take their rugby gifts as far as they can, and not just as far as they might.
It’s true that the longest journey begins with the first step, but Australian rugby doesn’t need to make that journey overly complicated for our kids with illogical detours and no signage.
Making logical change requires courage. But the benefits could last for generations. Australian rugby needs that courage.
Clear the pathways. Let the talent flow through. Reap the rewards.
Brett McKay is a former non-tackling scrumhalf and not-quite-1st Grade middle order stalwart. A rugby and cricket expert for The Roar since July 2009 (having joined in Sept 2008), Brett has written for Inside Rugby and Cricket Australia, and is also PLAY Canberra's rugby correspondent. He tweets from @BMcSport
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