Rugby’s a business, right? So don’t blame Cox if he takes his elsewhere

Will Knight Columnist

By , Will Knight is a Roar Expert

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    Let’s call the company Turinui-English Nuclear Science Enterprises (TENSE).

    It was a financially-distressed firm when it was bought two years ago and rebranded by Morgan Turinui and Tom English, two Melbourne-based businessmen who mapped out a vision to turn TENSE around.

    The company had bled money for five years, but Turinui and English would make TENSE a leader in the field of nuclear medicine technologies.

    There was much potential in a fertile marketplace. They would grow the company, bring on investors and be lauded for their work.

    But despite a robust business plan, some personnel changes, much anticipation and plenty of passion and energy, TENSE’s results didn’t change.

    They couldn’t attract enough true believers. Overseas competitors were hammering them and they sat on the bottom of the pile domestically. The company’s value stagnated, at best. Might have even fallen. People in the so-called lucrative Melbourne market were sticking with traditional medicines that had been around for over 100 years.

    Turinui and English wanted to keep the faith, but the writing was on the wall. TENSE had already burnt through loads of cash. How long could they keep it going? The strong, viable, sustainable company they envisaged wasn’t coming to fruition and there weren’t any signs of a turnaround.

    But then the bombshell.

    Some surprising regulatory changes meant an industry body – Australian Nuclear Research United (ANRU) – became an interested suitor.

    They made it clear from the start that if they bought TENSE they’d close it down soon after. There were too many players in the market, TENSE had been underperforming for too long and it was hard to see how TENSE could start making money.

    Turinui and English were reportedly set to be offered between $6 million and $10 million.

    What were they to do?

    It was hard to tell whether they would come out winners or losers if the sale went ahead, but given the risk and stress of pouring money into a business venture, perhaps they would pocket a nice little earner after all.

    And who could begrudge them?

    Maybe that analogy was cumbersome, but why is rugby union any different? We’re constantly told that professional sport is a business, right?

    Put yourself in the shoes of Melbourne Rebels owner Andrew Cox.

    No matter which way you dice it, the Super Rugby club hasn’t made substantial inroads in Australia’s second-biggest city.

    Their on-field results over six-and-a-half years have been poor and they’ve won one game of 10 this season.

    Fans aren’t flocking to AAMI Park. There’s no buzz for the Rebels around the city. The outlook is pretty gloomy.

    Tony McGahan Melbourne Rebels Super Rugby Union 2017

    (AAP Image/Joe Castro)

    What would you do if the ARU wanted to hand you $6-10 million to walk away from a fragile business? Would you, as a business person, take the exit?

    We can assume Cox is a savvy businessman with 25 years of experience. His investment company, Imperium Capital Group, has stakes in hotels and restaurants.

    Surely he didn’t buy the Melbourne Rebels in the middle of 2015 as a philanthropic plaything.

    That’s why we shouldn’t be shocked if Cox approaches the potential sale of the Rebels to the Australian Rugby Union like any other of his business transactions. And isn’t he entitled to that?

    After all, Cox bought the Rebels after they had lost $3.3 million in 2014. The ARU were understandably keen to get that liability off their balance sheet.

    It was a deal praised at the time by Rebels chairman Jonathan Ling, who said the sale was “very good news for the club, our business partners, our fans and members”.

    Perhaps being privately owned will come back to bite the Rebels. The ARU can focus on paying out Cox, arguably an easier option than the possibility of drawn-out legal action that the Western Force – backed by the West Australian government – might pursue if cut from the competition.

    Cox could also choose to fight tooth and nail with the ARU in a bid to be retained in a 16-team Super Rugby competition or even survive in place of the Force.

    He’d no doubt win himself a whole lot of fans if he stands up for rugby in Victoria and commits to forging on to build a competitive and sustainable club.

    I’m sure Cox saw opportunity and a bright future two years ago; perhaps even now he can picture himself at Rebels reunions in 20 years’ time with adoring former players back-slapping him for his foresight and determination as rugby union was rammed headlong into the AFL-obsessed Melbourne market. He could be up for the battle.


    (AAP Image/Tracey Nearmy)

    I worked at Saracens in the late 1990s and was lucky enough to get to know the chairman and owner Nigel Wray. He had built a substantial fortune in the London property market but nonetheless was prepared to absorb financial losses over a number of seasons as he pursued his ambition of building a European rugby powerhouse.

    He got there in emphatic fashion. That’s one shining rugby example of how private ownership can work after an early battering.

    The pulse is weak and the circumstances very different but there’s always hope that an emboldened Cox could resuscitate the Rebels in the same vein if given a few more years.

    But there was Turinui earlier in the week lobbying like a rusted-on trade union official, effectively demanding Cox guarantee his workers their jobs.

    The Rebels assistant coach slammed the ARU’s handling of the Super Rugby team cull as an “absolute disgrace”; the players’ association had gone missing; the mental health of the Rebels players was called into question.

    It was heartfelt, forthright and at times emotive. Turinui wanted to vent and he didn’t waste his chance. Respect to Turinui for standing up for his players.

    As good a spray as it was, it’s fanciful to think that the Rebels and Force, Australia’s elite players – via the players association RUPA – and the Victorian Rugby Union can win the PR war.

    Without looking at dismal TV ratings and below-par crowds, what about this season’s results? Are the Rebels, RUPA and the VRU got blindfolds on? Are they in denial? Australia can’t support five Super Rugby teams.

    Can I suggest that every time a Rebels player, RUPA boss Ross Xenos or a VRU official plead the case for the five-team status quo in Australia, their testimony is interspersed with video clips from Melbourne’s 56-18 loss to the Blues, their 71-6 capitulation to the Hurricanes or the 44-3 mauling they copped from the Southern Kings?

    At least the Kings – one of the South African teams on the cull list – have galvanised and stepped up in adversity. The Force have been gritty. The 17th-placed Rebels would’ve gained more fans if desperation for survival had translated into sorely needed wins.

    The Rebels need to stand behind their results and be judged accordingly. They’ve hardly earned the right for retention. Do they believe inclusion is their right? That’s the great thing about sport – results are the currency and they paint a vivid picture over time about competitiveness.

    Professional sport is a business, and people are there to make money and make competitions and clubs viable. Tough calls need to be made.

    Turinui brought mental health into the picture. It seems to me that if the ARU made a quick decision they would be accused of lack of consultation, belligerence, a knee-jerk reaction; drag it out and they’re indecisive, lacking leadership and affecting mental health.

    I’m sympathetic to those wanting clarity and job security, but as a comparison, how many NRL players are there as yet unsigned for next season? About 150.

    The ARU have guaranteed that Super Rugby players from the axed club with contracts for next season and beyond will be paid.

    And as Michael Cheika said on Fox Sports early in the week, players have options if the indecision is unbearable.

    Why wait if that contract offer from Northampton, Narbonne or the NEC Green Rockets is ready to go? End the uncertainty.

    Rebels winger English demanded a few weeks ago that it’s time for the ARU to “rip the band-aid off”. Perhaps the Rebels owner will be the one that does it before the ARU are forced to.

    Will Knight
    Will Knight

    An AAP writer for more than a decade, Will Knight does his best to make sense of all things cricket, rugby union and rugby league, all while trying to have a laugh along the way. You can find him on Twitter @WKnightrider.