NRC update part 3: All systems go for launch

Brett McKay Columnist

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Israel Folau is a strong contender for fullback. (Photo: Waratahs)

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Last week’s two-part update on the progress of the nine National Rugby Championship clubs fulfilled the whole purpose of undertaking the project in the first place: the dissemination of information.

(Read all about the NRC – part 1 dealt with Queensland, Perth, Melbourne and Canberra, and part 2 with NSW Country and the Sydney teams.)

Whether spreading NRC news was our responsibility is neither here nor there; the point is we all know more as a result.

Moreover, the dissemination of information has been useful on other fronts, too, as my ESPNscrum colleague, Greg Growden, wrote in his ‘Ruck and Maul’ column last Friday, “This issue was raised at a recent meeting of the Sydney [NRC] clubs, with officials saying they were now relying on reports on rugby internet websites to find out what was going on with the NRC.”

You’re welcome, Sydney clubs.

To complete the series, I spoke to General Manager, National Teams and Rugby Operations for the ARU, Andrew Fagan, again over the weekend to get the competition update on a number of fronts.

Through a combination of subjects I wanted to discuss, and other topics brought up in comments under the first two parts last week, I’ve covered the major areas of interest.

Fagan and I spoke on these topics for the best part of 40 minutes, so rest assured I’m not going to bombard you with detailed quotes and explanations. Instead, I’ll provide a concise summary of the main areas we covered, and provide more detail where possible in comments as they come up.

The draw
The big news here is that the full NRC draw has been confirmed, broadcast details and venues finalised, and all will be revealed tomorrow. We’ll have a full summary of the draw once released on the site tomorrow afternoon.

My extrapolated draw for the first round last week proved to be on the money. Iain Payten reported the same in his Daily Telegraph column on Friday. The interesting development is the news that NSW Country will play their first home game of the season at Coogee Oval in Sydney on Sunday 24 August.

Whether this is because of an inability to secure a regional venue, or reward for partner club Randwick’s involvement is still uncertain. Both are perfectly reasonable explanations.

Broadcast details
The working model of Fox Sports broadcasting one game live per week – on Thursday nights, following an ITM Cup game, and leading into their RugbyHQ program – remains the case. Fagan indicated that Fox Sports will monitor how the competition starts, and will have the option of increasing the number of games they cover each week.

Simply put, if the numbers are good enough, more live games each week are possible.

Fagan confirmed that Foxtel and Fox Sports were the first and only broadcast partner the ARU approached, and “they showed significant interest from the outset, and obviously invested a significant amount of money into the competition itself”.

Indeed, the reported figure of $1.5 Million in cash, plus production costs of live matches (the number of which is not limited, as mentioned above) is indeed a “significant investment”. Free-to-air television networks, including the ABC and SBS, were not approached.

The live streaming of other games is still very much on the agenda is being worked on in conjunction with Fox, as per the terms of their exclusivity arrangements. It’s unclear as yet whether these games would be streamed through the Fox Sports website, or through a dedicated NRC site, or both. All details, including production elements are currently being worked on.

Fagan confirmed that the digital rights sit with Fox as part of their NRC broadcast rights deal.

The big news on this front though, is that these streamed games will be available for free.

“Whichever [streaming] option we go with, it will be free access,” Fagan said. “The core objective of this competition is to provide high level rugby in a very accessible way, whether that’s the ticket prices for the matches themselves, or for streaming for those who don’t have Fox Sports.”

Other details, including geo-blocking issues that may or may not arise, and the ability to watch full game replays – which is a “good concept” that the ARU have discussed internally, and something they would like to make happen – is also part of the ongoing discussion currently in progress.

Competition launch
A launch date for the competition has been bedded down, but isn’t being publicised yet. However, it will almost certainly be in and around the various premier rugby finals series around the country, which could coincide with the Waratahs’ home Super Rugby finals.

The draw coming out tomorrow will mark something of a soft launch of the competition. Several corporate partners are likely to be announced, including the reported news Sydney-based construction company Buildcorp will be naming rights sponsor for the NRC’s next three years. As I mentioned last week, Sydney and Brisbane club rugby people will know the Buildcorp name from the front of the Sydney University and University of Queensland jerseys.

“Between [tomorrow] and the start of the competition, details will be released around squad lists, the allocation of Wallabies for marketing and promotional purposes to the teams, the law innovations that will be brought into the competition… will all launch itself,” Fagan told me. The ARU’s marketing campaign for the competition will also become apparent as the competition start date nears.

Web and social media channels
While careful to keep his powder dry for the actual competition launch, Fagan confirmed that there will be a concerted web and social media presence for the NRC in the lead-up, and particularly once the competition starts properly.

Twitter users may well have already found @NRC_Rugby, and the official competition Facebook page and other social media channels are said to be coming soon.

An NRC site – either as a standalone or more likely attached to www.rugby.com.au – will also launch in the coming weeks.

Ticketing and memberships
All ticketing structures and membership programs will be run by the clubs individually, but Fagan confirmed that all clubs are of a similar thinking in terms of ensuring the games are not outrageously priced.

The clubs have varying models for ticket pricing and memberships, and partnerships with universities and charity organisations exist throughout and will almost certainly be utilised for promotional activities.

Happily, ticket prices are going to be competitive. A number of you suggested in comments last week that somewhere in same ballpark as what you pay to watch premier rugby around the country would be appropriate, and it sounds like $15 to $20 is a common price point.

“That appears to be a consistent price that people are looking at at the moment, in and around that price for a Shute Shield game in Sydney,” Fagan said. He also suggested that the NRC clubs are working on various special pricing and discount programs for existing members and supporters of affiliated Super Rugby sides, and/or partner clubs.

Crowd expectations
ARU CEO Bill Pulver said on the day the NRC was announced that the budgeting and the financial model was already such that massive crowds were not paramount for the competition and the clubs to be financially viable. That certainly remains the case, with Fagan confirming that all clubs have been “relatively conservative” in their forecasts and financials to date.

Revenue streams related to the gate have also been set low, but obviously, they have greater expectations for actual attendance at their home games, and that’s fair. Everyone wants NRC crowds to be as healthy as possible.

The Australian Rugby Championship averaged around 3000-4000 per game in 2007, and Fagan said “I’d be rapt” if that was repeated in the first year of the NRC.

Venues
I asked whether Fox’s desire to minimise production costs dictated that only games in Brisbane, Sydney, and Melbourne would be broadcast, but it turns out that wasn’t the case. Fox are happy to broadcast from all around the country, but the choice of venues by some clubs won’t allow that.

That said, the country clubs, Canberra, and Perth were happy with the outcome, and as I suggested last week, all nine clubs will feature in Fox Sports games within the first five weeks of the competition.

Also, the Queensland Country home game as a curtain raiser to the September 13 Wallabies versus Argentina game on the Gold Coast will almost certainly go ahead, and a Brisbane City home game before the third Bledisloe on October 18 is also a strong chance.

In the release of the draw, we’ll also see Perth Spirit playing a home game in Adelaide. Fagan told me South Australia lodged a “solid tender” in the initial intake, and Adelaide remains an area of genuine interest if and when the NRC looks to add more teams.

Law innovations
You’ll recall in May and early June, the ARU called for and then shortlisted a number of law innovations to be taken to the IRB for approval for use in the NRC. A dozen suggestions were shortlisted, ranging from how bonus points were handed out, to time limits on forming scrums, to a ‘mark’ being claimed anywhere on the field for a kick caught on the full.

Fagan hinted that not all 12 on the shortlist were put forward to the IRB for approval, but he said that things were progressing well, and that all had been received positively. The expectation is all will be implemented, with the underlying theme “all about removing frustrations” from the game.

The ones they really want to introduce will be implemented anyway, regardless of formal sign-off from Dublin. For example, if the IRB won’t approve the suggestion where crooked lineout throws are not pulled up if uncontested, local competition refereeing interpretations can be tweaked to allow this. It’s probably even easier.

Brett McKay is a former non-tackling scrumhalf and not-quite-first-grade middle order stalwart. A rugby and cricket expert for The Roar since July 2009, Brett has written for Inside Rugby and Cricket Australia, and is also PLAY Canberra's rugby correspondent. He tweets from @BMcSport
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