The ARC five years on: What might have been
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Wallaby Chris Latham (left) of the East Coast Aces (Gold Coast) and Melbourne Rebels captain and former Wallaby David Croft share a joke at Olympic Park in Melbourne, Friday, Aug. 17, 2007. The pair will face off when their respective sides meet in round two of the Australia Rugby Championship at Olympic Park tomorrow night. (AAP Image/Julian Smith)
Hard to believe but this weekend marks five years to the day since the inaugural and ultimate – as it turned out – Australian Rugby Championship kicked off back in 2007.
The tournament kicked off with two Friday night games on August 10, at North Sydney Oval and Perth’s then Member’s Equity Stadium (now nib Stadium), followed on the Saturday and Sunday afternoons by ABC-telecast matches at Canberra’s Manuka Oval and Carrara Stadium on the Gold Coast, respectively.
I know all this for two reasons.
Firstly, I was at the Canberra Vikings game at Manuka, but secondly, I found a copy of the Round 1 ARC program in my Sports Lounge back a few months ago. It seemed like too much of a museum piece to add to the growing rubbish pile on that day.
He wasn’t, but Charles Dickens could easily have been summarising the ARC when he started that timeless paragraph in A Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…”
And it was the best of times, too. It was an age of wisdom. It made sense at the time that Australian rugby used some of its 2003 Rugby World Cup riches to invest in the future development of the game at the next level.
It was time to start growing the pool, too, because the Larkhams and the Gregans were about to head off to the Rising Sun, and the Eales and the Horans were long gone. The Wallabies chances at the 2007 RWC were more about hope than actual confidence.
At the time, the ARC was hailed as Australian rugby’s long overdue equivalent to New Zealand’s National Provincial Championship (the Air New Zealand Cup, as it was at the time) and South Africa’s Currie Cup. Finally, the gaping chasm between club and Super rugby levels in Australia would be bridged.
Eight teams dotted the country, including the bringing together of some Sydney clubs who share a similar harmony to North and South Korea. It was the first introduction of professional-ish rugby in Melbourne, and indeed, the very birth of the Melbourne Rebels as we now know them.
If they thought about it, I’m sure members of the Rebel Army could trace their lineage back to the ARC too.
And eight was a good number. It gave a proper national presence with teams in Canberra, Melbourne and Perth, while two teams in Brisbane and three in Sydney was a correct reflection of their relative stronghold on the game in Australia.
But the names. Oh, but the names! ‘Tornadoes’ isn’t the worst sporting moniker going around the world, but when was the last time one hit Ballymore? When exactly did the Vikings have their way with the Canberra region? Aces? Spirit?!?
And some of the playing strips were equally horrendous. Had the kit designers for the Central Coast Rays not heard the rhyme about blue and green? Of all the colours to represent the former wool-growing pastoral areas of western Sydney, how many stud rams of colonial times were terracotta orange in colour?
Yet it was also the worst of times. It was the era of foolishness. How else do you rationalise a team on the Central Coast based on four clubs north of the Harbour Bridge? North Sydney, did you say? Yep, that’s where the team comprising players from the south and east will play.
All this was before a ball was kicked off, and the budgets blew out. This would be the only point in the fledgling comp’s short history where the concept and the execution were on the same page.
While the rugby was top-notch, thanks largely to the full adaptation of the freshly-minted Experimental Law Variations that the IRB went to great lengths to give life and subsequently ignore, the accountants were tearing their hair out and snapping pencils from day one. Never before had Australian rugby blown so much money in so little time.
And yet, despite all the largesse, the system did actually work. That one season of the ARC gave us a good glimpse of the future. Of the current 30-man Wallabies squad for the Rugby Championship, 13 players featured in that first round of the ARC, as well as another six who have been in Wallaby squads this year. Another 33 Super Rugby regulars could be found among the teams.
Berrick Barnes played the first couple of rounds before jetting off for the RWC. Perth had a fluffy-haired no.7 named Pocock, Ballymore had a little-known scrumhalf on the bench named Genia, and the Aces bench featured a skinny kid called Cooper.
Christian Lealiifano played his first top-level rugby at flyhalf for Canberra, and did pretty well. We got the first glimpses of Dave Dennis in Melbourne, of Andrew Smith on the Central Coast, and of the prodigious talent of Kurtley Beale, who won the Player of the Series Mazda playing fullback for Western Sydney. Higginbotham, Horwill, Mowen, the Fainga’as, Cummins, Ioane, Lucas all featured.
But its cancellation also showed everything that’s wrong with the pointy end of Australian rugby. Of the eight ARC captains, all of them aged between 22 and 28 in 2007, only four of them (Tim Davidson, Ben Hand, Al Campbell and Lloyd Johansson) played Super Rugby in 2012, and two of them – Campbell and Johansson – were fresh back from stints overseas. Hand will play in France from 2012/13, while Campbell has now retired.
Of the others, they’ve all been out of the Australian ‘system’ for some time now. Matt Henjak (self-inflicted, admittedly), Cam Treloar, and David Croft all left in their mid-late twenties. Does anyone know what happened to Tom McVerry?
Of the eight coaches, only Nick Scrivener – now an assistant to Robbie Deans – is currently coaching in Australia at a professional level, and he too went overseas for a few years before returning this year. John Mulvihill was involved with the Western Force for a time, and Brian Melrose gets tossed up whenever a vacancy arises, but that’s it.
All the opportunities that were created by the ARC in times of strong numbers have since disappeared, and the coaching and playing cupboard looks bare as a result.
While the argument is still strong that the cost of running the ARC over these past five years surely would’ve been an investment worth making, the fact remains that financially, we’re more likely to see a comeback of the Ella brothers.
The ARU is clearly putting all its eggs in the conference basket of Super Rugby, and with the current plight of the Force and the Waratahs, it’s hard to see if we’re better off or not.
And that’s a massive shame, because the product itself was very good, and the players on show were worth watching.
It’s just a shame the clubs didn’t think the budgets were worth watching too, because the game has suffered in Australia for its absence.
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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