RATHBONE: Why Australian rugby needs a third tier competition
Reds' Digby Ioane tries to bust through Waratahs defence (Steve Bell / White Devil Images)
When I was a teenager, I remember attending a Currie Cup final between Western Province and the Natal Sharks. The build up to the final was huge and the match itself was played with Test match intensity to a capacity crowd at Kings Park.
Despite an extended Super Rugby season and full Test match window, the Currie Cup in South Africa is serious business. Players get to compete for Springbok jerseys and crowds get to see additional local derbies.
The Currie Cup dates back to 1889 and since then has played a significant role in establishing South African rugby as an international powerhouse.
New Zealand has ensured that the National Provincial Championship fills the gap between Test rugby and club rugby once the Super season concludes.
Australian rugby introduced the Australian Rugby Championship back in 2007, only to scrap the competition that same year due to the financial loses the competition incurred.
In New Zealand and South Africa, rugby is a dominant sport. This means they’re able to generate enough interest in a third tier competition to make the format work for sponsors.
This is not to say that a local provincial competition is not viable in Australia, but it does mean that an introduction of such a competition poses more challenges in this country.
The ARC cost the ARU $4.7 million and was clearly unsustainable. It highlighted what does not work, and in that sense, it will inform decisions about future provincial competitions in Australia.
If you were hoping I was going to outline my thoughts on a viable solution to the third tier question, I’m going to disappoint. I don’t have those answers, but I can tell you why a solution must be found.
In 2008, I played a season of club rugby for Eastern Suburbs in Sydney. The matches tended to vary greatly in quality with the finals being a big step up from the regular season matches.
That said, even the toughest matches were a world away from Super Rugby in terms of quality and a bigger jump again from Test match rugby.
This leaves Australian players very thin on top-level competition for nearly six months of the year and does little to improve the standard of players filtering into our Super Rugby squads.
It also means that rugby fans are left to get their Saturday fix from other sports; sports that compete directly with rugby in an already convoluted bun fight for sponsorship dollars.
All Black and Springbok players returning from injury get to do so at a level of rugby that properly prepares them to return to the Test arena.
I recall playing a Sydney club rugby match in 2005, a week before the Bledisloe. The difference was so stark I may as well have been playing a different sport.
The future success of Australian rugby requires a third tier competition.
At the very least, the game’s stakeholders must begin a conversation that leads us down that path.
Former Wallaby Clyde Rathbone has returned to Super Rugby with the ACT Brumbies, following an injury-forced retirement from all forms in 2009. He writes guest columns for The Roar, and will blog his journey back to professional rugby in 2013.
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