Private School comps could be Aussie rugby’s third tier
Grade rugby is touted as the breeding ground for Australian talent, but it’s not. It’s the graveyard.
It’s been well documented that top-flight rugby in this country has no backside. Crowd numbers for first grade games dwell in the hundreds and sponsorship is limited to local RSLs on the players’ jerseys.
The obvious culprit for the lack of interest in first grade is the talent pool, or lack of it. In his recent article on The Roar, Clyde Rathbone wrote the gap between Bledisloe Cup and first grade was so great they may as well be playing different sports.
And let’s face it, Daniel Halangahu was the biggest drawcard in a competition that’s about as interesting as the Toyota Cup; and that is to say that it’s not interesting.
Yet it’s worth noting the Toyota Cup managed a viewership of 94,000 people for the Tigers vs Panthers U20s. Go figure.
Of course in meeting this problem head on, the collective genius of the ARU contrived the Australian Rugby Championship; an experiment that was doomed to fail and did so in year one.
If you put a frock on a cat it’s still a cat, and the ARC was merely first grade rugby with a bigger marketing department. They didn’t have enough good players to compete with our expectations of viewable rugby. Super Rugby and international rugby are both spectacles which (generally) meet our expectations, and we pay to watch it. No one will pay to see 30 guys play a little better than you’d be able to.
The first thing a builder is taught is to make sure there’s a good foundation before the slab is poured, and the ARU’s attempt at slapping a third tier into place like papier-mâché was an exercise in ignoring this rule.
Of greater concern, in 2008 the AIS and ARU abandoned the AIS Rugby Program and replaced it with the Australian National Sevens Program. The reasoning was Sevens Rugby presented a supposed opportunity to expand the talent pool, as if getting Fijians to play for your sevens team is going to strengthen the 15 man code. According to the AIS: “Head Coach Michael O’Connor is excited by the new direction for talent identification and development in rugby”.
And there goes the arse, again.
There is, of course, a solution to all of this. And it’s not in convincing people that 7’s rugby is great.
Firstly the ARU needs to stop trying to build off something that doesn’t exist; grade rugby is a distraction. You can’t copy what’s worked in NZ and SA because the Australian market is very different.
The silver bullet staring the ARU in the face is to get young league players absorbed into the private school system.
The heart and soul of rugby in this country is the school system, and more specifically the private school system, where the real business of rugby development is made and broken.
There’s more than enough talent in Australia to compete with NZ and SA, and they’re all playing league.
To get league players into union is a fairly straight-forward leveraging of the private education’s lure.
There needs to be a structured partnership between private schools, with the ARU as the managing body in aggressively pursuing young league prodigies. You can’t invent talent but you can steal it, and once you have it you can build on it.
The schools want this as success drives student registrations (rugby success = range rovers through the door). The ARU wants it as it provides them with access to contracting young talent – by far the best time to secure them – and develops the playing stock at the true grassroots level.
Of course the biggest competitive advantage that rugby has over league is generally considered as the international game, but that’s a mile off for a 13 year old Kurtley Beale. The true core advantage rugby has over league is the lure of a private education, and this is territory league can never move into.
The ARU could provide top-ups to private schools for scholarships. There’s plenty of scope for it. The failed ARC cost the ARU $4.7m in year one – that’s 235 league scholarships at $20,000 each, every year. And these grant could come with contra-deals that require the schools provide ARU-approved state of the art training, playing and medical facilities (most injuries in an adult rugby player’s career are an exacerbation of an unmanaged injury from their school years).
The ARU could own the contracts with the upstarts, trading them with the Super rugby franchises when they’re ready for the big time; the return of these investments can be poured back into their elite programmes.
Of course, an expanded player base demands a better intra-school competition, and the current CAS, GPS comps in Sydney and equivalents around the country are severely lacking. Only 7 competition games in a season is remarkably insufficient, and you don’t get better without playing the best; that’s the whole point of a third tier.
The best of the private schools in Sydney should be playing each other regularly, not just their historical opponents, and also playing the best from QLD, the ACT, and VIC (it’s said there’s a solid school comp in Melbourne, although you wouldn’t know it).
Do this right, and ten years from now you’ll have a school system to rival the US college system. Any American will tell you their college system is the pinnacle for both Basketball and Football.
And for every Kurtley Beale at Joeys there’s six Robbie Farrahs at Patrician Brothers’ College in Blacktown.
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