A fearless anatomy of the ARU’s slow-motion Super Rugby car crash

Spiro Zavos Columnist

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    The ARU’s incompetent attempt to decide which one of its five Super Rugby teams will be eliminated from next year’s tournament is creating a slow-motion car crash for Australian rugby.

    On Monday 10 April 2017, at 9.38am, the ARU issued a long media release titled: ‘ARU to consult Force and Rebels as Super Rugby moves to 15 teams in 2018’.

    The media release confirmed that an Australian team will be removed from Super Rugby next season when the format reverts to a 15-team, three-conference format. But rather than nominating that team, the ARU announced that three teams were safe, the Waratahs, the Reds and (surprisingly) the Brumbies.

    I say “surprisingly” because expectation from the rugby community was that the Waratahs and Reds were safe, that the teams at some slight risk were the Brumbies and Melbourne Rebels, and the really unsafe side was the Western Force.

    By confirming the Brumbies as safe, without any details why this decision had been made, and at the same time setting up a hunger games contest between the Rebels and the Force, the ARU took its hands off the steering wheel.

    This stupid set of decisions has set up a slow-motion Super Rugby car crash for the ARU.

    No one can predict with certainty the damage that this car crash will have on rugby in Australia.

    Scott Fardy Brumbies Rugby Union Super Rugby 2017

    But already we can see, even before the final smash-up that a burgeoning rugby culture in either Melbourne or Perth will be threatened. We can see that there will be a series of court cases that will drain the already stretched expenditures from the ARU.

    We can see that the growing bitterness from the grassroots of the game will be enhanced. And we can see that the ‘closed shop’ mentality of the ARU will come under further (and deserved) attack.

    The ARU chairman Cameron Clyne made the point in the media release that the decision had been made by his board: “It is important for me to clarify firstly that the decision to remove a Super Rugby team from Australia was a decision made by the ARU, not by SANZAAR.”

    This is an extremely important admission from Clyne. It confirms that the ARU took full responsibility for the decision to eliminate a Super Rugby team. It also confirms that the ARU did not take any soundings from all the stakeholders in Australian rugby.

    This admission, moreover, raises several important questions: When did the ARU know that they were going to cut a team? Presumably, following the SANZAAR conference at London some weeks ago.

    Why, with this prior knowledge that they were going to drop a team from Super Rugby, has the ARU been making up its responses seemingly on a day-to-day basis?

    Bill Pulver ARU CEO

    The point here is that SANZAAR had agreed in London to the 15-team format and, presumably, the ARU and the SARU had agreed to cut their franchises, respectively, by one and two teams.

    The ARU had some weeks, therefore, before last Monday to decide which team was going to be cut and what provisions needed to be put in place to help that franchise maintain a rugby presence in their city.

    The media release, in fact, made it clear that due diligence had been done on all the teams:

    “At the request of the Board, ARU management completed an exhaustive analysis on three of our teams – the Brumbies, Western Force and Melbourne Rebels.

    “The purpose of the analysis was to assess each of those teams on their financial sustainability, high performance and commercial factors, examining a range of metrics, with a view to identifying which of those three teams to remove from the competition.

    “After reviewing management findings, the Board made the decision to eliminate the Brumbies from the process and identified that consultation is required with both the Western Force and Melbourne Rebels to further understand their financial position.

    “We don’t anticipate this final consultation period being a long drawn out process and expect to be able to deliver an outcome in the very near future.”

    When pressed on the this time-table at a media conference, Clyne suggested that “the very near future” probably a time before the Easter weekend.

    Why was the troubled Brumbies franchise, with its court cases and its dismal crowds, given a free pass when several of its “metrics” are worse than those of the Rebels or the Force?

    And if the ARU could decide so quickly on the Brumbies, why couldn’t the same sort of decisiveness be applied to the Rebels and the Force?

    The day after the ARU’s Monday media release it was clear that a series of pot-holes had been created by the organisation’s lack of decisiveness about which team was to be booted out of Super Rugby.

    So on Tuesday, at 11.04, a second ARU media release about the consultation process hit the email baskets of the rugby world: ‘ARU statement on consultation with the Western Force and the Melbourne Rebels’.

    “The ARU will undertake due process to ensure that both the Melbourne Rebels and Western Force are given adequate opportunity to present their business case before the Board makes a final decision on which team to be removed.

    “We maintain our commitment to reaching resolution on this matter as soon as possible, however the timeline that we initially anticipated of 48 – 72 hours will not apply.”

    From a problem that was going to be resolved in a matter of days, the ARU had negotiated itself into a situation that was going to take weeks, if not months, to resolve.

    A clue to how long this process might take can be gauged from South Africa where the Franchise Committee of the SARU will consider the metrics involving all their Super Rugby franchises in about three weeks, with a decision to then go its Executive Council before its presentation to the General Council for ratification.

    The thought in South Africa is that this process will take months rather than weeks.

    Will the same sort of delay take place in Australia?

    The short answer is that no one knows, especially the ARU. It would be surprising, though, if a final resolution is achieved by ARU within weeks. The likelihood is that the court actions will take some months to resolve.

    On Tuesday, well before the second media release and probably prompting it in part, Georgina Robinson published a critical and informed analysis in The Sydney Morning Herald of the ARU’s handling of the crisis. Her opening two sentences were devastating:

    “The Melbourne Rebels were never in the Super Rugby firing line so it is a tribute to the ARU’s capacity to bring a fight upon itself that within 24 hours of the board vote to cut a Super Rugby team the governing body was facing the threat of legal action from club owner Andrew Cox.

    “Fairfax Media has been told a senior ARU official assured Cox a month ago that the youngest Australian team would be spared the guillotine in the protracted process to determine which licence the national union would revoke as part of the Super Rugby’s return to a 15-team format.”

    If this is right, and there is no reason to doubt Robinson’s assertion (she has very good contacts inside the ARU), then the ARU made an elementary mistake of tactics in including the Rebels with the Force for a possible elimination from the Super Rugby tournament.

    Robinson also revealed that the ARU board vote last Sunday on eliminating a team from the Super Rugby tournament was 8 – 1. And that the long-time chairman of WA Rugby Geoffrey Stooke, who is on the board as independent director, voted against the motion.

    Robinson also revealed that on the Monday of the first media release, the day after the 8–1 vote, the ARU’s chief operating officer Rob Clarke and chief financial officer Todd Day had a three-and-a-half hour meeting with Force officials in Perth.

    “RugbyWA representatives described being presented with a fait accompli at the meeting … with a detailed breakdown of why the Force – their alliance partner – should be axed ahead of the Rebels,” Robinson reported.

    If this is right, and I would trust Robinson’s reporting on this, then the question has to be asked: Why didn’t the ARU axe the Force on Monday?

    Cameron Clyne and Bill Pulver have ear-bashed the rugby media for years about how wonderful in terms of business acumen the current ARU board is.

    It is clear from the mishandling of the four Super Rugby teams matter that this notion put forward by Clyne and Pulver is nonsense. Business 101 is that you close a deal as soon and as completely as you can. You do not leave the victim of the deal, in this case the Force, with even a remote chance of escaping its fate by setting up an alternative victim.

    You don’t have to be a giant of business skills to know that when the ARU identified the Force as the team that had to go, the axe should have come down on it then.

    This immediate execution strategy is all the more obvious because the Force expected to be axed, hence the Stooke dissenting vote.

    Bill Pulver

    Moreover, the ARU actually owns the Force. Owners, you would think, can exercise some power over the institution they own. Certainly, the ARU has more leverage over the Force than it has over the Rebels which are privately owned.

    There are other very good reasons, too, to support the decision to axe the Force, if the ARU is convinced that one of the Australian teams has to go.

    The travel cost of involved with basing a team in Perth, one of the most isolated major cities in the world, are enormous compared with those of the teams on the eastern seaboard of Australian.

    Melbourne is a much bigger television and population market than Perth.

    Then there is the problem of the Force’s time zone. I say “problem” because the line (which I accepted at the time) sold to the media and supporters when the Force came into the Super Rugby tournament was that it would bridge the gap between Australian and South African time.

    But this week the CEO of Sky Television in New Zealand punctured this proposition.

    He said that the New Zealand broadcaster was happy to pay the same amount of money for fewer teams because the games in South Africa don’t attract large numbers due to the time zone, a problem that involves the Force as well because “by the time they play an evening match there it’s after midnight in New Zealand.”

    The advantage for the broadcasters of the South African teams, though, is that they are in the UK time zone making Super Rugby an attractive product in the UK and for the broadcaster BSKYB, which pays a lot of money for the product.

    The Sunwolves, for instance, fit into the Australian/New Zealand time zones and this makes their inclusion in Super Rugby an attractive product for sports broadcasters in Japan.

    The Force doesn’t really fit any of the time zones and this is actually a disadvantage to the franchise as a commercial product.

    I am sure that these considerations came into play when the ARU, initially at least, decided that the Force was the team that had to be culled.

    Matt Hodgson Western Force Super Rugby Union 2017 tallNSW deserves to benefit from Super cull: chairman‘.

    Davis agreed on the cull. “I don’t think we can support five sides in this country and be competitive,” he told Decent.

    On the matter of how the ARU was going to distribute the money it saved by the cull, Davis was blunt. It had to go to grassroots rugby in NSW and Queensland:

    “I’m unequivocally selfish in this. Focusing on NSW and my colleagues to the north in Queensland, we’ve got 80 per cent of the players, 80 per cent of the Super players: they all come from NSW and Queensland and that’s where we believe any community funding should be directed.”

    On Friday, around 7.38 pm, in time for the Saturday newspapers to highlight, the Melbourne Rebels issued a lengthy statement with the angry headline: ‘Not on our Watch’.

    “The Melbourne Rebels rugby union deny the right of the Australian rugby union to ‘cut or chop’ the Melbourne Rebels from the Super Rugby Competition …

    “The advice from ARU chairman, Cameron Clyne, that the Brumbies are “safe” and either the Rebels or the Force would be “cut” is “contrary to advice that the MRRU had previously perceived from ARU management … We unequivocally reject that the ARU has any ability to ‘chop’ or ‘cut’ the Melbourne Rebels Super Rugby licence. Any representation by the ARU, including its chairman, to that effect is legally incorrect and in complete conflict with the constitution of the ARU. The ARU’s continued use of these terms and perpetuation of this myth continues to cause significant damage to the MRRU and its players and staff.”

    These last two sentences raise the probability of legal action in search of compensation for damage done to the Rebels franchise, even if they become the team that survives the hunger games contest with the Force. This point was emphasised at the end of the statement: “Given these actions (by the ARU) MRRU has notified the ARU of its intention to seek compensation and at this time has reserved all right.”

    Can the car crash be averted?

    Certainly not with the current passive-aggressive way the ARU board, its chairman and chief executive are handling the crisis they have inflicted on the Rebels, the Force and the Australian rugby community.

    There needs to be a plan that creates some order and potential for growth to divert and stop the present slide into chaos.

    Tony McGahan Melbourne Rebels Super Rugby Union 2017

    Right now the Force and the Rebels are like two opponents pulling at different ends of a rope that has a knot in the middle. The harder they pull, the tighter the knot becomes for the ARU to unravel.

    Somehow the knot has to be cut. But how?

    Wayne Smith in The Australian on Saturday has put forward a way of cutting the knot in an article with a self-explanatory headline: ‘My solution for fixing Super Rugby: shifting the Brumbies to Melbourne’.

    This was a solution that some of us (myself included) put forward before Sunday’s statement by the ARU that the Brumbies were safe from the chop.

    No matter how sensible this solution is it suffers from the handicap that it cannot happen, unless the ARU decides some time in the future (but hopefully never) to reduce its Super Rugby teams to three.

    But there is some merit in the gist of the Smith solution. Instead of shifting the Brumbies to Melbourne, the intellectual property of the Force (which the ARU owns) and its talent, present and being developed, should be shifted to the Rebels.

    Perth should be the development sector, along with Melbourne, for the Rebels.

    In return, the Rebels should play South African opponents at Perth and provide players, if necessary, for the West Australian team in the NRC.

    Hopefully, with this sort of trade-off, the rugby community in Perth can be maintained. And in time, a decade or so perhaps, when Australia is in a position to set up a fifth side in a well-considered expansion of Super Rugby, the Force can be re-born as a franchise that is competitive on and off the field.

    Without some sort of plan along these lines, we should the mother of all car crashes for rugby in Australia and the burning destruction of one of Super Rugby franchises, either the Rebels or (more likely) the Force. Oh the horror!

    Spiro Zavos
    Spiro Zavos

    Spiro Zavos, a founding writer on The Roar, was long time editorial writer on the Sydney Morning Herald, where he started a rugby column that has run for nearly 30 years. Spiro has written 12 books: fiction, biography, politics and histories of Australian, New Zealand, British and South African rugby. He is regarded as one of the foremost writers on rugby throughout the world.

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