Disputing O’Neill’s vision of bridging tier
Easts vs Randwick. Photo via http://www.eastsrugby.com.au/
There are two books in my library that I especially treasure among many loved ones. They are, in fact, two editions of the same book, Jack Pollard’s magnificent ‘Australian Rugby; The Game and the Players.’
I have both the 1984 and 1994 editions. Apparently Pollard was working on a third edition to be published in 2004 when he tragically passed away in 2002.
These two books are vividly rich in the stories of the many fine individual players who have proudly worn the Wallaby jersey over 100 years, in its many variations.
There are the Wallabies herein who made the ultimate sacrifice in two world wars; those who won gallantry awards through their extreme bravery and those who became leaders in society after their playing days were over.
As you read player bio after player bio, it makes you deeply proud to be Australian and grateful that these magnificent human beings were associated with rugby union.
But here is the salient point of Pollard’s two magnificent books: it’s patently clear that while Australian rugby has been blessed by a continuous stream of magnificent individuals, our rugby history has been less successful at producing great Wallaby teams.
I have frequently described the high points of Australian rugby as isolated island peaks in the vast Pacific ocean. And in reality, that’s the truth of it. What are our high points? 1907-09, 1927-30, 1933-34, 1947-49, 1963-65, 1979-81, 1984-86, 1991-94, 1998-2002.
Even when you look at these peaks more closely, it’s not all that spectacular. In 1907-09 for example, which includes the first Wallabies tour of England and Wales, the Wallabies played eight Tests for just two wins, a draw and five defeats. Admittedly six of those Tests were against the All Blacks.
Then there’s 1947-49. The Wallabies played 12 Tests for barely a pass mark – six wins, a draw and five defeats. Our record in Europe was 3-2 and we beat the ABs for the Bledisloe Cup 2-0 (admittedly their best 30 players were in South Africa).
The Wallabies didn’t win the Bledisloe again until 1979. With many of these other cherished eras, it’s much the same story – some glorious victories mixed with inexplicable defeats.
John O’Neill has suggested that Australian rugby doesn’t need an ARC: “You have got the infrastructure there in Premier Rugby clubs in Sydney and Brisbane that’s been neglected. You look at the pathway – Wallabies, Super Rugby, under-20s, schoolboys, sevens, Premier Rugby.”
There is much to commend in what O’Neill has said, but he is basically offering the same domestic structure that has served Australian rugby for over 100 years. For a long time there was Sydney Shute Shield, Brisbane Hospital’s Cup, several interstate clashes, City versus Country and matches against touring teams.
But as I suggested at the top, while the historical structures have produced many fine individual Wallabies, they have failed to produce consistently great Wallaby teams. This is a huge difference.
O’Neill is suggesting a cheap option, which is fair enough. But all of us have experienced at one time or another the wisdom of the saying, “If cheap is what you pay, then cheap is what you get.”
The problem with both the Shute Shield and Hospitial Cup is that the talent is concentrated in too few clubs and therefore spread too thin. This subsequently means there are too many soft games during the season. Consequently, not enough players are given the necessary match-hardening rugby that eventually produces great teams.
This is a historical truth; Premier Rugby is not the answer by itself.
In all the 20-odd years I have been promoting my various Australian Provincial Championship (APC) and Australian Rugby Championship (ARC) models, I have followed three other great competitions around the world and recently introduced a fourth.
1. Australian cricket; underpinned by Sheffield Shield since 1892/93.
2. New Zealand; underpinned by Ranfurley Shield challenge since 1904 and NPC since 1976.
3. South African rugby; underpinned by Currie Cup since 1892, which became annual in 1968.
4. European Heineken Cup rugby; underpinned by qualification from English premiership, French T14, Celtic league and Italy T10 since 1995/96.
I am not asking fellow Australian rugby lovers to do “something out of this world” like fly to Mars and establish a remote colony on a possibly hostile planet. It’s not that difficult.
I’ve looked at the comps from other sports and countries that have worked and dove-tailed them into an Australian rugby framework.
I agree with many of the incidental points made by O’Neill. Yes, an under-20s comp is commendable. In fact, I like that idea. I also agree that Premier Rugby must remain amateur. Or at worst/best, win/loss match payments only. Premier Rugby has never been financial.
What needs to be done is to expand the professional player base at the top by introducing several more provinces, or clubs, from five to about eight. Australian rugby needs to do this to provide more incentive for youth to take up rugby. And to have a domestic comp we can put to the public alongside AFL, NRL and A-League.
Furthermore, the practical imperative of a national domestic comp is to funnel the prospective Wallaby talent into a tight, competitive eight-team structure, with all teams more or less even on ability.
Super Rugby is still required and my vision is for it to be truncated into a Heineken Cup-style format, with the top domestic teams from Australia, NZ, SA and eventually Argentina qualifying on an annual basis.
In any case, it is imperative Australian rugby develops a bridging tier between Premier Rugby and Super Rugby because PR by itself is not the answer. And historically it never was!
> Sheek’s writing: Sheekabout.com.au
I used to think I was a pretty good rugby lock, but now realise I was deluded. My nickname is a truncation of my surname, so I'm not Arabic - phew! However, sometimes I imagine myself as a Beau Geste in the French Foreign Legion, fighting evil, righting wrongs, promoting good and rescuing damsels in distress.
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