A professional code built on an amateur foundation
I have been a grassroots rugby man for the past 55 years, and I am concerned about how long the game can sustain itself with the current grass roots set up.
With an uncle who was a Waratah in the 50s, I began playing rugby at the age of ten, became a referee at the age of 16 and played U18s colts with Eastern Suburbs.
I then moved to Melbourne and played with Monash University in the 60s, to Brisbane and played with Redcliffe in the 70s, completed the ARU coaching programme in the first year it was offered and did a refresher course in the 80s.
I started the first mini-rugby comp in Australia at Redcliffe and was on the management committee that began the first major 7s tournament (flying the Ella brothers up to participate).
I retired to coach at Barra Brui juniors in Sydney, was President of the Hornsby Kuring-gai J.R.U. and coached and managed several state carnivals. I coached both grade and juniors for St Ives Rugby Club, second Grade Gordon Colts for two years and for the last 15 years have coached and managed in the Sydney University Colts programme.
That’s 55 continuous years in grass roots rugby and I hope for another 15 or so. That’s provided the code survives that long.
I’m concerned for the future of the game in New South Wales because of the disconnect between an elite professional code at Super Rugby level and Club Rugby. I am writing this article in the hope that enough people will apply some serious thought to the future development of the code in Sydney and actually do something about it.
Now I don’t claim to know exactly what has been happening in the administration of the game at state or even the wider Sydney club level over the last ten years, so what I am about to write is no more that my observations and hopefully a starting point for a constructive discussion about the future direction the code might take.
It seems to me that with the advent of professionalism in rugby, the ARU focused its attention and finances on securing players and ensuring that we retained players that might have otherwise gone to league or Europe.
It meant that the starting point was setting player payments at the highest level and the money could only go so far in supplementing Super 12 teams and now Super Rugby teams. Revenue probably hasn’t increased that much over the last ten years however there are now two additional Super teams and therefore another 60 players to pay.
At no point has the administration at national or state levels addressed building a solid foundation at club level to develop players to progress into the fully professional ranks.
My observation has been that the administrators have focused on identifying talent at the junior or schoolboy level and believed that if they provided these players with occasional training programmes and selected them in the representative teams, they would progress through to the elite level and bypass club rugby on the way.
The problem with this is that those who identify and select these players have a vested interest in ensuring that they do progress. They fail to consider the players with less natural ability but greater motivation and commitment who develop later.
My experience is that there have been more schoolboy stars who have fallen by the wayside and failed to progress even into first grade at club level. When natural talent isn’t enough to carry them into the Super ranks immediately, they don’t have the drive to work on their game and take the two or three years to earn a spot.
I have seen more players with little profile work on their game at colts and grade level and earn a contract than I have those who made the step up from schoolboy star to Super Rugby.
This time last year, a very proud father wrote an article on The Roar about the perfect season achieved by the Sydney University second Grade Colts team. The vast majority of people responded with all sorts of wild accusations and claims that the success was due to S.U. attracting all the schoolboy stars and having an unfair advantage over other clubs.
If anyone cares to respond to this article, would you please either make statements of fact that you have proof positive are fact, or at least acknowledge that they are assumptions.
I have been a part of the Sydney University colts programme for the last 15 years. Yes, in the early years, we did recruit numerous schoolboy stars and they were offered both university sports scholarships as well as college scholarships.
This didn’t produce immediate success. In fact, for five years we only had moderate success with a few teams (In those days there were three grades and under 19′s in the colts competitions).
During those five years however, we were building a player development programme. It wasn’t a case of throwing all the resources at the colts. It was a case of being consistent year in and year out in building the player development programme at colts and grade level. It was as much about building a culture as it was about coaching.
Players had to buy into the culture, commit to their team mates, coaches, trainers and themselves and to work hard at developing their game.
For the last ten years, we have been consistent. Our programmes have continued to evolve, but we have never changed direction. We offer a culture and programme that young players want to buy into. At least, if the players in question are self-motivated and high achieving.
By doing so, we have graduated more players to Super Rugby and European rugby than any other club in Australia, and most of them have been players that were never identified by State or National talent scouts.
They are players who worked hard through the colts programme, earned a first grade spot and were then identified. Actually, some were even identified while still in the colts teams.
If you doubt my claim, and want to perpetuate the nonsense trotted out last year such as “I would like to see the number of Australian/State Schoolboys representative in those three teams, my educated guess would be that there is upward of 20. While other clubs settle for 3, 2 or none”.
But let’s look at the actual numbers. The S.R.U. introduced a points system some years ago in the erroneous belief that we had recruited large numbers of schoolboys and that the points would spread the talent among all clubs.
First colts are allowed 40 points and second colts 35 points. Australian schoolboys are worth six points, NSW schoolboys four points. This year, the Sydney University first colts rarely fielded more than 32 points and seconds 28.
In the grand finals won by both firsts and seconds again this year, our firsts fielded 32 points. We had two NSW schoolboys (four points) and four players on three points (last year’s returning players).
We had another four point player who had approached the club from Auckland because he wanted to join our development programme. In second grade, we had one six point player, playing only half the season due to injury, and two four point players.
The Under 19s who lost the grand final had just one four point player and he was a convert from Aussie Rules.
So, in answer to John Connolly, whose “guess” last year wasn’t anywhere near “educated”, we had four NSW schoolboys last year and four this year and just one Australian schoolboy. On the other hand, Randwick first colts were penalised in the first round for exceeding 40 points and struggled all year to keep under the numbers.
I’d suggest some other clubs also played at close to the 40 points all season.
I’ve only raked over these old coals from last year to once and for all put to rest the myth that Sydney University buys its players. Yes we have sports and college scholarships, but not as many as you would think and they don’t boost our numbers of Australian and NSW schoolboys.
We have a significant number of players who have come through the Canterbury juniors programme and we have been providing coaches for the local representative teams and therefore attracting players from the inner west of Sydney.
Our third Colts team (U19s) which lost the grand final was largely made up of 17-year-olds from this programme.
Then there was “bozo” who wrote “Uni would say they are helping the Parramatta and Penrith juniors … by snaring them to play at Uni and all their resources. (Sic)”
At the beginning of the 2010 season, I arranged for the then outgoing S.U. Colts Coaching Director (Nick Ryan) and first Colts Forwards Coach (Al Kanar), to conduct training sessions for the Penrith colts.
At the end of the 2010 season, Nick spent many days providing a Penrith coach with advice on how to establish a player development programme over the off season.
To return to the main point of this discussion starter, Sydney club rugby is lacking development programmes at each club.
Instead of trying to drag S.U. down to everyone else’s level, we need all clubs to provide professional player development programmes. There are many talented and motivated juniors joining the other clubs however there isn’t the development programme in place to allow them to reach their full potential.
Several clubs introduced their own player development programmes this year and the performance of all their teams in grade and colts reflected this. They need to maintain these programmes for a number of years before they will reap all the benefits.
It’s the long term consistency of these programmes that instil a culture that becomes self perpetuating and successful.
I believe that unless the ARU and NSW rugby union can find the money to support a Grade and Colts Coaching Director for each club, provide them with a development programme model and manage the process, then the supply of players for the elite level of the game is going to suffer.
Football, rugby league and AFL devote considerable resources to developing their codes at grass roots level. The ARU and NSWRU cannot maintain an elite level of the code without a professional grade competition in both Brisbane and Sydney.
A major business wouldn’t establish 12 subsidiary companies, allow them to sell their product but provide them with no funding or direction. Nor would they ignore product development and innovation to maintain their market position.
Why then aren’t the ARU and NSWRU conducting themselves in a professional business like manner?