Australian Rugby finds itself in a deep hole right now, undeniably of its own making. Rugby is being damaged every day that the ARU stays silent, but conversely the damage only seems to increase when they do speak up. So how do we sort this mess out?
The ARU board needs to have a long hard look at their agreement to cut an Australian Super Rugby team. The situation right now is this: if the ARU cut either the Force or the Rebels, then they will face a legal challenge to that decision that will eat away at any profit that they expected to make through this move in the first place.
The estimates are that the legal cost to the ARU could be up to $6 million. When this is deducted from the projected savings from cutting a team we are left with $9 million. These numbers are not definitive, but for the sake of argument let us assume they are accurate.
What does this $9 million do for Australian rugby in real terms? The ARU claim they will invest this money in “grassroots”, but what does “grassroots” actually means. Is it school programs? Local Clubs? Shute Shield? All of the above?
The truth is that the ARU either doesn’t have a plan or has been very secretive about it – why? Surely showing the rugby public exactly how the base level of the game will benefit from the reduction to four teams would be a key strategy to get people onto your side?
The money may yet fail to get to the grassroots at all, the state unions are already asking for the money to go to themselves and Andrew Cox has claimed the money should be fed back into the four remaining Super teams. Perhaps he has a point.
All of the Super clubs are struggling financially at the moment and cutting one does nothing to change that fact. So what have we actually solved if this goes ahead?
Removing the Rebels or the Force will have a devastating effect on rugby in those regions, not only will players and coaches be lost to the game, but pathways will be damaged and supporters will be disenfranchised and likely lost to the game, potentially for good.
Will $9 million of grassroots development be enough to counteract this negative impact on the game? Will this action put the four remaining Super clubs into a more stable financial position while improving performance? Will this action put Australian rugby into a stronger position than it is now?
I say the answer to all of these questions is no.
I believe the only way forward from here is for the ARU to tell SANZAAR that in light of current circumstances we will no longer agree to cut any Australian team from Super Rugby.
This action would of course require significant eating of humble pie and most likely a sigificant change of the ARU board.
But frankly, that was on the cards the moment cutting an Australian super team became their “plan A” without the slightest hint of other options having been explored.
Deliberately hurting Australian rugby by reducing the opportunities should always be the absolute last resort. But this board made it their first choice solution, which for me is unforgivable.
It is time for the ARU to stand up for all of Australian rugby and find a way to make all five Australian teams viable.
Get creative, find private owners, explore the Public ownership model floated by the Force, find ways to reduce costs, such as a centralised contracting model for coaches and players.
The board is made up of supposedly astute professionals from various fields so surely they can find a better way.
The prospect of losing a team has brought out both the best and worst of Australian rugby.
The passion of supporters, players and support staff for their team of choice is a joy to behold and shows just what these teams and this game means to so many of us.
But when you are fighting for survival the gloves come off, which has seen the various factions tearing each other down in an attempt to bolster their own chances of survival.
This is our darkest hour and is precisely when we need to stand together.
Out of this crisis is born a great opportunity to have an honest look at where the game is, where we want it to be and what has to be done in order to get us there.
Let us all find that path together.