The ARU is poised to announce the culling of one Australian franchise this week after SANZAR reportedly agreed to return Super Rugby to a 15-team format. Either the Melbourne Rebels or Western Force will be scrapped.
The 15-team formula was successful because of the intensity of fast, quality rugby. Super Rugby was then expanded significantly to cater for Japanese and Argentine franchises, which in my opinion resulted in a reduced intensity and quality of rugby.
On the one hand the Super 18s met the objective of growing rugby, but on the other hand it weakened the standard of that rugby. This coupled with an overkill of local derbies resulted in falling spectator numbers and television audiences.
The uncertainty and lack of professionalism in the decision–making process is not only impacting on the two clubs but on rugby around the country.
Senior management has belatedly identified that there is a lack of appropriate funding at the grass roots level, fundamental to the growth of the code.
Apparently, the need to channel more money into junior rugby has, in part, influenced the decision to cut one team from the conference. This action may improve the financial condition of the ARU, but the downside could be the irreversible loss of the rugby footprint in Western Australia or Victoria.
If financial circumstances dictate the culling of a team, one would hope that all refinancing and restructuring options have been considered before culling occurs.
Another consideration is that a four team Super Rugby conference will produce a more competitive conference and in turn improve Wallaby depth and quality. That remains to be seen, as there are other factors at play.
Australian Super Rugby teams have become the whipping boys of the New Zealand teams in particular, with an ever-widening gulf in skill levels and fitness.
In New Zealand much the same number of players as Australia has vie for a position in fewer teams. Hence the importance of having good skill levels and a very high standard of fitness.
Australian rugby’s unique problem is that it competes with three other codes of football and consequently will always struggle to attract numbers and quality. Skill levels need to be improved at the grass-roots level.
This inherently means increasing the competition for places in a team. To achieve this the number of junior clubs may need to be reduced.
Australian Under20s performance at the annual world championships since 2008 peaked at second in 2010 and has been on the crest of a slump ever since. Australia averages fifth over the nine years the tournament has been played.
New Zealand and England have dominated Under 20s tournaments since inception and it is not a coincidence that currently they are the top two senior teams in the world.
With daylight third it is very unlikely that hierarchy will change soon. We need to understand why Australia is not doing better at this level.
All avenues of finding a successful long-term strategy must be explored.
Consideration should be given to the following:
1 The ARU needs to channel more funds into junior rugby. Merging junior clubs within districts would have the result of driving funding further.
It would definitely lead to increased competition for team positions which will drive better skill levels and better quality rugby.
2 The international record of our Under 20s is not acceptable. Appoint appropriate people to review and develop a strategy to make our Under 20s more competitive on the world stage.
3 Super rugby academies should develop Under 18 and 19 teams to strengthen the depth of junior rugby at the elite level.
4 It is time for new thinking, direction and importantly leadership in the ARU.
All of the above strategies involve funding. The ARU must get the sponsorship base and funding priorities right.
Reducing the number of franchises is not necessarily a positive move.