NRC sponsorship loss must convince the ARU to return to its grassroots

Spiro Zavos Columnist

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    The loss of Buildcorp’s naming rights sponsorship of the NRC, along with BMW and Lion Nathan walking away from their rugby deals, should be a wake-up call to the ARU that the experiment of using the rugby game as an ‘agent of social change’ must stop.

    In its pursuit of this experiment, the ARU has essentially abandoned the traditional heartland of rugby in pursuit of an agenda that is worthy but does not represent the real mission of the ARU, which is to promote the interests and growth of rugby as a priority concern.

    Buildcorp is withdrawing its NRC sponsorship because its requests for a women’s XV version of the competition has been rejected.

    The principal and co-founder of Buildcorp, Josephine Sukkar (whose name will come up later in this article in a different but crucial capacity) has been quoted by the Daily Telegraph, which broke the story, as saying that Buildcorp “could not continue to align their business with an NRC competition that didn’t offer the same opportunities to women as it did for men.”

    Buildcorp has been and remains a valuable sponsor for rugby, despite its withdrawal of support for the NRC.

    NRC rugby - Australia's rugby future

    In June 2016, for example, the ARU announced a “historic partnership” with Buildcorp to become naming-rights partners of the Wallaroos and the Women’s National XVs Championship.

    In the ARU media release announcing this sponsorship, it was noted Buildcorp had a sponsorship presence at “grassroots, state, national and international levels of rugby … ranging from women’s and men’s university rugby teams in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, to the Buildcorp National Rugby Championship, and now the Buildcorp Women’s National XV Championship and the Buildcorp Wallaroos.”

    Also in this media release was the following statement by the ARU’s chief executive, Bill Pulver:

    “Women’s rugby is a core strategic focus for our organisation, as we strive to make Australian rugby a game for all, and inspire all Australians to enjoy our great global game. By 2020, we want 15 per cent of all Australian rugby players to be female.”

    Now, a year after the announcement of the Wallaroo’s sponsorship, Buildcorp has pulled out of its most significant sponsorship.

    Buildcorp are a success story in an industry littered with financial collapses. In an interview with the Australian’s Glenda Korporaal a year or so ago, Josephine Sukkar explained why her company sponsored the NRC.

    “There’s a gap between club rugby, like Sydney Uni, Randwick and Warringah, and the Waratahs. It’s a huge jump for the players. The NRC pulls up the stronger players from the clubs into the middle tier, which is faster and a bit stronger and it gives them exposure to go to the next level.”

    Well, perhaps. But clearly with Buildcorp’s sponsorship withdrawal from the NRC, Ms Sukkar’s commitment to closing the gap for club players – male players, that is – is no longer a major concern for her.

    Given the vitality and interest generated by club rugby, especially in the last couple of years, it is time for the ARU to revisit the NRC concept.

    A ‘Super Club’ tournament involving the leading Sydney and Brisbane clubs, with championship-winning sides from Melbourne, Canberra and Perth, would seem to be the ideal replacement for the NRC. The tournament would take place when the NRC does and teams would be allowed to bolster their ranks by taking, say, a couple of players from clubs that have not qualified for the tournament.

    I noted earlier that the name of Ms Sukkar would come up later in this article in a different capacity. Now is the time for noting that Ms Sukkar is a member of the Nominations Committee, which identifies and recommends prospective directors to the ARU board.

    I have some problems with a major sponsor for the ARU holding such an influential position concerning the ARU.

    Bill Pulver Cameron Clyne press conference

    (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)

    There are clearly conflict of interest problems created by having a sponsor with such determined policies concerning the ARU as she does. Imagine the outcry if, say, the chief executive of Lion Nathan had a position on the nominating committee of the ARU board.

    It is immaterial that these policies are generally good for rugby. The appointees made on her recommendation are essentially expected to endorse her agendas for rugby. And when they did not, Ms Sukkar’s company has withdrawn an important sponsorship.

    Clearly, the ARU, which includes a number of members who have been nominated by Ms Sukkar, did not agree with her views on how the ARU should distribute its financial resources in the best interests of the game.

    But there is a deeper issue than a dispute over the most responsible allocation of the ARU’s financial resources. That issue is what the proper role of the ARU is.

    On last year, an official ARU site, Beth Newman wrote an article entitled ‘Rugby’s agents of change‘.

    The first paragraph set the tone: “ARU board member Liz Broderick believes Rugby can change Australia and she, Ann Sherry and Pip Marlow (fellow board members), are three women who want to help it along.”

    Broderick, the article noted, served as Australia’s sex discrimination commissioner for eight years.

    The article quoted Broderick: “The men’s game is very strong and needs to continue to be strong but what we have now (with women’s Sevens) is the opportunity to be a game for all to really build the women’s game…

    “I think Rugby has the power to speak to men and women equally and when we do that, we do change the nation.”

    Marlowe, the general manager of Microsoft Australia, endorsed this ‘agent of change’ approach: “Role modelling is an important part of creating a culture and creating change. That’s why it’s amazing to have three women on a national sports board setting a new tone for the code.”

    We need to be very clear about all this. The point I am making is not an argument about having women on the board of the ARU. It is not about opening up rugby to girls and women.

    As a game that prides itself (with some justification, although there are notable historical exceptions) on being an inclusive game, rugby has rightly pushed hard for and invested heavily in women’s rugby.

    Charlotte Caslick Rugby Sevens Australia Rio 2016 Olympic Games

    (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)

    But that push, driven by ideological concerns, has come at a cost to nurturing the heartland of rugby. And it is the heartland, even more than the sponsors, that generates the passion and the income to grow rugby for the benefit of female and male players.

    One of the features of the ARU board, whose composition has been influenced by Ms Sukkar, is that it has disregarded the concerns of the heartland of rugby.

    I received an email in on March 1, 2016, from a headmaster of a leading rugby school not long after I wrote scathingly about the ARU’s Strategic Plan that endorses this point:

    “I, like a number of GPS Headmasters, have been totally disillusioned with the approach to grassroots rugby, especially as we rightly consider ourselves to be ‘grassroots’ … Some years ago the GPS Headmasters did have a major attempt at communicating our frustrations and ideas for the future of schoolboy rugby to the ARU in a meeting with Bill Pulver and many of his staff, with the promise that there would be a follow up with us … we have not heard a word about the promised annual follow-up from the ARU since that time. In fact, our frustrations are now even more intense.”

    The point about all this is that the ARU should be more concerned about its heartland, for female and male players, than with social agendas.

    This means the board should reflect this heartland priority.

    In turn, it means that the selection process for the board should reflect also the heartland priority; right now, we have a board and a selection process that is totally unrepresentative of the real interests of Australian rugby.

    The loss of the NRC sponsorship and, even more damagingly, the sponsorships from BMW and Lion Nathan should make it obvious to the ARU that it needs a new direction and new and more appropriate board members.

    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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