Uncertainty preventing the creation of rugby’s third tier

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It would seem that Australian rugby shares more than a few things in common with debate surrounding whether Australia should become a republic.

Back on 6 November 1999, on the same day that the Wallabies would win the Rugby World Cup, a referendum was held to see if Australians were willing to accept a particular model of a republic.

Ironically and despite a majority of Australians wanting a republic, the referendum was defeated by nearly 55% to 45%.

Had the referendum merely asked Australians if they wished to become a republic, the referendum would have most likely been in the affirmative. The finer details could have been thrashed out later.

But the referendum only offered one option of a republic, which was not liked and was unsurprisingly rejected.

A majority of Australians were unwilling to accept a republic in which the president was appointed by two-thirds of parliament. How the president should be elected, or whether executive power should lie with the prime minister or president, are other issues that remains unresolved.

And so it is with rugby supporters.

While a majority of Australian rugby supporters believe in principle that we should have a third tier comp, or my preferred choice of words, a national domestic comp, deep philosophical divisions continue to stymie the debate as to which type of comp, let’s call it the Australian Rugby Championship (ARC), is preferred.

Just in the past few weeks, two options have been presented to the public for debate. The first was initiated by the Rugby Union Players Association (RUPA) and was intended to mimic the celebrated U.S. College sporting system, providing an U/23 competition based around nine major universities.

The RUPA proposal was quickly followed by a Heineken Cup style format which is the joint-brainchild of former Wallabies flankers Simon Poidevin and Chris Roche. Poidevin and Roche believe that the premier rugby clubs are the lifeblood and future of Australian rugby and should be supported.

Consequently, their idea is for the best performed clubs each year from each of Sydney’s Shute Shield, Brisbane’s Hospitals Cup and Canberra’s John Dent Cup to compete in an end of season tournament.

Over at sister blogsite Green And Gold Rugby, two proposals were put forward last year. Both proposals put commendable detail into their models, one of which envisioned multi division playoffs in both Sydney and Brisbane.

These proposals, along with the one from Poidevin and Roche, are similar in structure in that they mostly involve a Heineken Cup-style playoff series.

Another throwing his hat into the ring with a third tier comp proposal is wealthy businessman Warren Livingstone, the owner of Sydney suburban club Balmain. Livingstone suggested an eight-team Sydney based comp, with clubs throwing money in to join.

The disappointing thing common to each of these proposals is a certain sense of vested interest. Modelling a comp to develop and fine tune future Wallabies ought to be the purpose of a national domestic comp.

Yet most of these proposals are aimed at preserving premier rugby clubs in Sydney and Brisbane, which doesn’t necessarily provide prospective Wallabies with a tough, finishing school, type of experience.

The kind of comp that we see with South Africa’s Currie Cup or New Zealand’s NPC.

Former ARU chief executive Gary Flowers had it right when he insisted on the ARC model of 2007. The concept was sound but unfortunately the ARC was eventually compromised by a number of structural flaws.

You don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Learn from the mistakes of the 2007 ARC and make sure its successor is better.

Flowers drew his inspiration from the fledging A-League. Unlike the AFL, which grew out of the Melbourne-centric VFL, or the NRL which grew out of the Sydney-centric NSWRL, Australian rugby union domination is more or less evenly divided between Sydney and Brisbane.

Thus adopting either an AFL or NRL model is obviously impractical. But the A-League provides the path ahead for the ARC.

Those opponents who disparagingly refer to the “artificial franchise” clubs of the ARC have conveniently forgotten several things.

Melbourne Rebels began life as a 2007 ARC club and has quickly become an accepted member of the Australian rugby landscape.

Another 2007 ARC club, Tuggeranong Vikings, continue to dominate Canberra rugby. Sydney Fleet drew its colours from the Sydney rep team that existed from 1965 until recently.

Also, when AFL club GWS Giants was created in 2011, it adopted orange as one of its principal colours. Orange had also been one of the colours of 2007 ARC club Western Sydney Rams.

Finally, the Sydney Fleet, Western Sydney Rams, Melbourne Rebels and Perth Spirit all drew their nicknames from either or both of past Australian history and tradition.

There is no better example of a start-up club drawing on history and tradition than the A-League club Western Sydney Wanderers. The new club named themselves after one of the first two clubs to play soccer in Australia.

Since then, the Wanderers have taken the A-League by storm, creating immediately one of the most visible, fanatical and passionate fan-bases in Australian sport.

So much for “artificial franchises” lacking a connection with their fan-base. That argument is now unsustainable.

George Lucas is much smarter and more imaginative than most of us humans. This is how he saw things in his Star Wars saga:

“Every generation has a legend. Every journey has a first step. Every saga has a beginning.”

Yet another to suggest a third tier comp is South African born ex-Wallaby Clyde Rathbone. His article on The Roar on why Australia needs a third tier competition is incredibly insightful and well worth the read.

Rathbone tells of his childhood in South Africa following the Currie Cup.

Then later when he played club rugby with Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs, he noted the huge gulf between Test and club rugby, and between strong clubs and weak clubs.

Rathbone argues the gulf from Wallabies to Super Rugby to premier rugby is so severe in this country, a third tier comp is essential.

This then is the crux of any future national domestic comp. The number of teams must be relatively small and consistent, funnelling talent into 8-10 more or less evenly matched clubs, providing tough, quality rugby every weekend.

This is something that the premier rugby clubs of Sydney and Brisbane, and even Canberra, are unable to provide, despite all the best intentions. Premier rugby still has a role to play, but not as the so called the third tier comp.

It is clear to me Australia won’t become a republic until we have the collective maturity to determine exactly the right type of structure we wish our republic to comprise.

By an extension of the same argument, Australian rugby won’t have a national domestic comp until we have the collective maturity to determine the right type of structure we wish our national comp to comprise.

In both situations, vested interest groups have no role, nor should they have any role, to play.

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! 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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