What the ARU needs from its new CEO
Australian rugby union player Ben Robinson, ARU chief executive John O'Neill and SANZAR CEO, Greg Peters. AAP Image/Paul Miller
Rugby needs to deepen and expand its cultural impact in Australia. For too long the Wallabies have been out in front while the rest of rugby labours in support.
The Australian Rugby Union is not only the custodian of the Wallabies but also of rugby in Australia.
Here I will outline the platform for my fictional tilt to be the next CEO of the ARU.
It’s impossible to know if the board will agree with my direction. If other areas of focus are identified, a CEO should be appointed to specifically carry out those plans. The ARU is a prominent not for profit organisation, not a corporation.
It is a cultural institution that exists to enrich and enhance the lives of its participants. That is the basis for the ideas I will outline here as a way forward for Australian rugby.
Rugby is a game of balance. Balance between attack and defence. Balance between values and results. Balance between pragmatism and taking your advantage.
In Australia, the game of rugby itself is in the balance. There are certainly positives, strengths and encouraging signs within the game, but there are certainly elements of weakness, possible wayward elements and definitely a threatening environment.
Rugby administration should achieve balance between growing the game at the top and at the bottom. In Australia the outward growth needs to happen faster than current rates so that the upward growth is sustainable. Think of the shape of a Christmas tree – that is the aim.
More people have been watching Super Rugby than ever. And that brings financial rewards. The Wallabies were closely watched by the public at the last World Cup. That helps build the top level brand of rugby.
To sustain this sort of support, rugby needs to pay close attention to its lower branches.
Another balance to consider, one that I think is vital, is between the need to make money and the need to build the game. Sometimes these two go hand in hand, but not always.
Decisions can be made for the sake of corporate involvement or the bottom line but this needs to swing back into balance. Bank what is required to grow the game outward.
What follows are my planks for building Australian rugby.
Establish an inclusive, officially run and/or sanctioned national schoolboys competition. This will underpin a focus on establishing a rugby playing base within public schools on a scale never before seen in this country.
A report by the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations says there were 1.5 million secondary students enrolled in Australia in 2009. Many long-time followers would know rugby is a sport best understood by those who have participated. The best answer to the grassroots of rugby is to give more people a taste.
Private schools would be free to join this initiative. If they don’t, then they will be the minority of schools not a part of the national competition. I’m not going to make distinctions between what schools can or can’t play – this is a truly national competition.
The ideal system begins with smaller localised tournaments and progresses through knock-out levels quickly thereafter. This is ensures the season is truncated enough to be agreeable to parents, schools and legislature.
Ideally the vision for this competition would culminate in a grand final between, say, Turramurra High School (at the home field of their choice) and Brisbane Grammar. Prize money for the winning school and a trip for the winning team to Dream World on the Gold Coast are on the line.
Quality, locally established schools playing rugby is an excellent framework from which to grow the grassroots of rugby. There is ample opportunity for after school coaching clinics, off-season 7′s gala days and club rugby is only going to be stronger due to more graduates in the local area being interested in the sport.
If I were the ARU chief and an independent viable business option was presented, I would do my best to accommodate the model and endorse it officially. Rugby isn’t about the ARU; it is about the players and the spectators. The ARU shouldn’t stand in the way expansion.
A third tier of rugby in this country fills a number of key points for growth. It provides places for elite level players and coaches to be developed above club rugby; more regular, high level rugby during Wallabies Test season; and another chance to package rugby attractively for television.
The key would be to establish some sort of charter to guarantee a few common areas of interest are met. A few things that need to be considered, before sanctioning the competition include minimum payments for players, schedule requirements that work to allow a full club rugby season and the release of players to the Wallabies squad if required.
The ideal world would be to include a business/private equity ownership model in the third tier. Short of that, money earned during the British and Irish Lions tour next year needs to be set aside to fund the early years of this competition.
Broadcasting and Media
Australian rugby must put itself in a good broadcasting position to expand its fan-base. For those people who think just being the best it can be is worthwhile, this is still for you – I believe there are a lot of rugby fans that have lost interest because the game hasn’t been interested enough in seeking them out.
The Wallabies must be seen live on free television every single time they play. Repeat: absolutely, no doubt about it, in no uncertain terms, the Wallabies need to be live on free to air TV.
More rugby should be placed on free to air by negotiating a minimum of one live game per week during Super Rugby season into future contracts.
A key negotiation point for rugby is the online content. Rugby can’t pretend that television sets are the only way the game can be viewed by fans anymore. Super Rugby and the third tier competition must be available to specific online subscribers.
We need to embrace this era in which people who want more, can have more. That is the world we live in now.
Rugby should be viewed on smartphones on the train during the Monday morning commute; on computers across the weekend when people are home from their night shifts and at wedding receptions when the guys sneak a look at the iPad in the gents.
I do not have a preference whether Fox Sports, Telstra or some other host should be retained for this role. The main thing is that people should be able to purchase a package to view the games live and on replay.
Rugby, under my watch, would fight for the front and back pages. It would provide meaningful access to its athletes and administration. The general public should know about the men that wear the jerseys they buy and what their story is.
The key here is that the ARU would be proactive in this pursuit. There is a healthy, meaningful way to engage with the public and tell a story. The fourth estate will not have to feed off scraps, as it often does now, nor will it receive unfettered access to stir up controversy.
Test rugby scarcity
I believe that Test rugby has been bled dry to an extent. A reduction in the amount of games played to preserve a heightened sense of excitement.
Reducing the Rugby Championship is problematic – the addition of Argentina has been fantastic – but I would trim other games.
The Bledisloe Cup would be a two match swing in the perfect world. This makes it harder to win, but a more traditional format and a greater level of tension would result.
The Spring/Northern hemisphere tour should be three games long. The exception to this rule would be an attempt at a ‘Grand Slam’ once in each four year cycle. Again, the cyclical but rare attempt will create a strong selling point and white-hot anticipation.
The inbound tour during the June Test needs to be re-jigged to include two Wallabies matches only. It could still include proper tour matches in regional areas against state, country and city teams. If a touring nation strongly prefers a three match competition for a trophy, the Spring tour could begin with the third leg of that series as a home game for the Northern hemisphere side.
If players were given a voice I have a hunch less Test matches would also be appealing to them. This would be especially true of touring sides between the hemispheres at the end of long seasons.
This action would trim the Wallabies schedule year to 11 against the 15 played in 2012. It would also leave the Rugby Championship calendar open to reduction by expansion in the future if Japan or the USA improves to a sufficient level. A six team tournament could be played on a one-leg basis, similar to the Six Nations.
I’ll put it out there right now – and this may well scuttle my imaginary campaign, but I’m sticking to my guns – radical, performance-based pay structures need to be implemented at the top of rugby.
I propose that a group of 30 players be put on a retainer as centrally contracted players, similar to the way Cricket Australia operates. These retainers would not be as large as their current ARU top up contracts and evaluated every two years.
From there, professionally contracted players in Australia are put into four grading tiers that determine a sliding level of pay if selected for the Wallabies. They receive more if they win than if they lose.
The top 10 or so players would earn a significant amount each time they pulled on the jersey and even more when they won. Compensation would decrease when graded in, because you are less likely to be selected as first choice and to create competition.
However, this structure also allows for players having a breakout year who aren’t centrally contracted to still earn more money immediately to reward the up-tick in performance.
The players’ union would do its best to prevent this type of pay structure, but overall it is fair and gives the most to those who produce the most.
It would be the job of the ARU high performance manager to produce the report of grading recommendations to be approved by the national selection panel and the ARU.
This position reflects my stance that the Wallabies are the pinnacle of representative rugby and not the main earning stream for players. Players should earn most of their money with Super Rugby and third tier team contracts.
Club rugby needs to less professional and more about young players and promoting rugby community. Any match payments should be respectful of club rugby’s place within the overall framework of rugby. No payments should be given to players who have contracts elsewhere.
Club rugby needs to be primarily about the love of the game and a recreational club activity.
Paying some players in the first and/or second tier match payments could be fair, but must be a viable framework. Every club should be asked to pass a centralised test to ensure financially stability and long term growth.
Sub-district and premier clubs should be encouraged to build strong ties with the schools in their region that compete in the school’s competition. They will be the source of playing talent and a community that will help fund the existence of rugby at club level.
Build relationships with Super Rugby teams
Too often words like division and politics have been used in decisions about rugby. The ARU is the custodian of rugby in this nation. In that role the ARU – more than St George, Rabobank, HSBC, University of Canberra or Emirates – should become the most important relationship Super Rugby teams have.
The ARU is in a position to provide support to the Super Rugby teams in terms of social media, online and professional experience.
The aim would be to build an atmosphere of ‘event’ for each match weekend in partnership with the teams. There would be a constant stream of information available to people who want to know more and invest more in their team.
Younger generations do not connect with a team that only enters their world on game-day. More accessibility is vital and the ARU should help foster that with Super Rugby.
Another level of support shown to the Super Rugby teams would be to send the academy players back to their squads. All players should be able to access Super Rugby training levels on a regular basis. This empowers each franchise to have its house in order, plan for the future and encourages home-grown success.
The ARU high performance coaches will visit each franchise on a regular basis to monitor progress and consult. Ideally the ARU could employ two high performance coaches – one forwards and one backs – to foster the development of these young players around the country.
This would be a tiring appointment, but allows the Super Rugby sides to invest fully and foster talent in conjunction with the ARU, not against it.
Russell Reynolds and Associates have been appointed to manage the ‘worldwide’ search for the new CEO.
On the not for profit page of their website they mention that leaders in that field “must leverage technologies, methodologies and partnership working models from the private sector and elsewhere to become more effective, efficient and transparent in the face of increasing demand and pressure on public funds.”
I believe my particular focus on community, lower tiers of rugby and prominent technology delivers the outcomes a strong not for profit such as the ARU should strive for.
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