An open letter to ARU CEO Bill Pulver part one: a lesson from Scotland

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The teams which wear green and gold are two of world rugby's top four. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)

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This is the first in a series of articles addressing the fundamental issues the new head of the ARU, Bill Pulver, must face with ideas on how to tackle them successfully.

The opening subject for treatment is how to expand the game internally on a limited, or rather minimal, budget.

Mr Pulver declared in his remarks on taking the position that, “whether in a corporate world or in a sporting world, the ultimate measure of your success is the financial performance.”

So any spread of the game has to be done economically, or in reality to use his predecessor John O’Neill’s words “on the smell of an oily rag”.

Much is said of the need to create elegant pathways for talent to progress to the professional level of the game, to nurture grassroots that may subsequently flourish and blossom.

The current system is rather vaguely criticised for not tending with sufficient care to the rites of passage through which young players must pass in order to ensure they arrive successfully and in pristine condition in Super Rugby and the Wallabies.

So there is the issue of refining what is produced, but what of the raw material that will undergo this journey?

Is it perhaps important to consider how many players take part in the game and whether this could be expanded?

Whatever the processes that refine the gold, good or bad, if its original quality is far higher then the resulting extent of final product should be too.

So even if structures are imperfect, if you have double the playing numbers at the outset you will have a lot more players in the end.

As mentioned, any move towards radically increasing playing numbers would need to be very modest in cost.

Ideas such as the expansion of Super Rugby within Australia and abroad, the creation of a third tier, and the funding of local clubs will of course lead to increased playing numbers but these all require some financial input.

Casting one’s eye across the globe, is there any example of a strategy to grow playing numbers that does not cost the earth?

Scotland have long been in the doldrums of international rugby but this process has accelerated in recent years, to the extent that dramatic action has been taken to reverse the decline in participation, national presence of the game, and effectiveness of the international team.

Such measures had to be effected with the most threadbare of resources.

So the idea was born to increase playing numbers by 50 percent through introducing the sport to schools where it is not traditionally played, mainly secondary ones.

It isn’t just habit forming that makes secondary schools the best to focus on, but that they are larger and more concentrated than primary schools, and the results in Scotland have been spectacular.

Schools playing rugby rose from 184 to 240 between 2008 and 2010, with the number of under-18 players taking part going from 15,000 to 25,000 far ahead of schedule.

A scheme offers rewards to successful staff taking part and 75 club development officers helping with extra-curricular activity.

The final goal is for rugby to be played at all 376 secondary schools in Scotland (why other small countries such as Wales and Ireland don’t undertake such a scheme is a mystery).

Of course, bringing rugby to schools need not cost much at all as it is largely a case of persuading governments, state authorities and the schools themselves that a large international sport is worth playing.

This was the major Scottish discovery: you don’t need to pay to expand this way.

This article will only address the issue of rugby in schools in the new territories of expansion, Victoria, Western Australia and South Australia.

The question of school rugby in New South Wales and Queensland is labyrinthine and draws in other issues such as the competition with a similar sport in rugby league.

Two of these territories have a Super Rugby team while the absence of one in the third large unrepresented market is a continuing outrage among some rugby fans.

The three in combination comprise a population not far off 10 million, almost half the country.

Rugby has attempted to present itself through the guise of Super Rugby, although with no success in the case of South Australia.

Indeed in the case of another new territory, John Eales was dispatched to Tasmania with the aim of drumming up interest in the code, only to be greeted with the question, ‘Is the state at a disadvantage because there is no top tier Super Rugby side?’

He might have replied that a population three times the size doesn’t yet have a Super Rugby team.

Schools would seem to be an ideal way to penetrate these areas.

That the areas they inhabit are AFL-dominated need not mean that schools don’t wish to expose their pupils to a range of sports, especially ones that lead onto a global stage.

The schools themselves, the state and national authorities decide which sports are played and they do not choose with a wish to boost the most locally popular code, but with the desire to broaden the experience of their charges as much as possible.

Nowhere should have been more opposed to an expansion of rugby in theory than Scotland.

Football utterly dominates and rugby is perceived not only as elitist but worse, English.

Yet the schools and authorities have adopted the game as they are not there to perpetuate social differences. The same would be true in Australia.

Any significant growth in rugby in schools not only produces a larger number of players, but a greater pool of fans.

More broadly, the result is a spread in awareness and general interest in the game within a city.

Players would be able to join the local Super Rugby team, new fans introduced to rugby in schools would be able to watch it (except in South Australia) and others connected to these ex-pupils would be slowly drawn into the circle.

So much of the groundwork for establishing the game in the new half of the country has been done that it would be a shame not to push forward to fill out the picture. Nor should rugby wait too long.

Scotland postponed this kind of initiative until their fortunes were at absolute rock bottom. Australia must not do the same.

It is currently whipped by the AFL and NRL which enjoy far greater profiles, while the biggest threat, soccer, mushrooms ominously in popularity.

John O’Neill identified AFL as ‘the gorilla in the room’ a few years ago. He was correct, but failed to mention the sabre-toothed tiger hidden behind it that is soccer.

So the ARU could engineer a scheme to spread the code through schools in Western Australia, Victoria and South Australia, and despite their limited numbers of schools, Tasmania and the Northern Territory should be included as well.

Approaching the government, state authorities, the schools themselves and club representatives is the means of action.

Expanding in the new territories would not only bring in a larger market, an increase in players and revenue, but also leverage the game against serious growth of the NRL, AFL and A-League in New South Wales and Queensland.

It is a case of success with a proven precedent and model plan to follow.

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