Creative destruction: How rugby’s existential crisis could rebuild the game

PapanuiPirate Roar Pro

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    Cast your mind back some nine months to January 2017. Australian Rugby is at a low ebb, the Wallabies have had a poor 2016 season with only six wins from 15 games including four losses to England and three to the All Blacks.

    Australian Super Rugby teams have performed poorly with a single team in the play offs, one team facing an uncertain future following an emergency ARU takeover and another appearing unsustainable despite its private ownership.

    Television viewers are down, crowds are lower, a rift is opening between the management of the game and rugby’s cohort of player-supporters from the semipros to juniors. A palpable malaise is falling over the rugby community as a sad resignation has set in.

    Maybe this is the beginning of the end of our game in this country. Maybe this is rock bottom.

    Oh how wrong we were. At least about the rock bottom part.

    Things are somehow worse. Much worse. The worst performance by Australian teams in Super Rugby ever. A whole season without a single victory over a New Zealand side and again only one side in the play-offs, this time purely by the largesse of the system.

    The Brumbies qualified on 34 points ahead of the Blues on 37. The Wallabies are defeated by Scotland at home and have conceded a record first half score to New Zealand in Bledisloe 1.

    A brave effort in Bledisloe 2 confirms a frightening fact: Australia have the players to compete with the best in the world, but they are held back by something inherent in how the game is being approached.

    At the grassroots level things are dire. While the semi-professional game is managing to survive, and in some cases thrive, the junior and amateur competitions are crumbling. Suburban and country rugby is on the ropes as fresh blood becomes harder and harder to find.

    The ARU participation fee threatened one of rugby’s strangest community advantages, it’s one of the cheapest games to play, especially for adults. Numbers are dwindling in the boy’s juniors, hidden behind the figures of significant increases in the girl’s game especially in sevens.

    As an aside the tiny bright light that is the growing participation in the women’s game is threatened by the dark cloud hanging over the men’s game. While all forward steps in women’s rugby are to be applauded it is not at the point where it will be able to stand on its own without the money and supporters from the game’s traditional male strongholds.

    I am hopeful this will change in the future and that the ill winds currently battering the sport don’t snuff out these long overdue developments.

    Worst of all the Western Force, a shining beacon of community engagement in a game so divorced from the bottom of its pyramid, has been cut from the competition. I am on the record here with my support rugby in the west, where it felt like there was a genuine connection between the Super Rugby side and their supporters.

    The removal of that team is, without question, nothing short of a travesty. This is leading to a possible schism at the professional level with Twiggy Forrest doing his best Kerry Packer impersonation and threatening to set up a rival Indo-Pacific competition.

    Andrew Forrest (AAP Image/Richard Wainwright)

    Things are grim, but something rather remarkable is happening through all this doom and gloom. People are talking about rugby!

    Never in my time playing, coaching and generally being involved in rugby in Australia have I ever heard so many people discussing the state of the game.

    Never have I seen so many front-page articles, opinion pieces and raging comments sections focused on the game.

    I believe that the issues that are plaguing the game at the moment don’t necessarily stem from mismanagement but something much deeper.

    Since the 2003 world cup final something happened to Australian rugby supporters. It happened slowly and quietly, almost imperceptibly.

    People just stopped caring so much. Even before the crowds dropped they started going quiet.

    Suddenly, with the game in dire straits, voices are once again getting louder and speculating on the future of rugby union is becoming a national pastime.

    Green shoots are appearing in the club competitions of Sydney and Brisbane, with crowds growing to the point where some games are better attended than professional games! How could this be when the game is in such decline elsewhere?

    Because a few years ago the club game was going through what the rest of the game is going through now. A crises of existence. With ARU funding pulled, significant challenges in getting games televised and crowd numbers down, the club competitions faced extinction and they fought back.

    They went back to their base, reconnected with their communities and rebuilt their approach to management.

    Super Rugby Fans Reds Highlanders 2016

    Reds fans. (AAP Image/Glenn Hunt)

    Creative destruction, loosely, is the necessary elimination of a previous state of being in order for a new state to emerge.

    Sports in Australia have a history of creative destruction, driven by a crisis of stagnation and sparked by an internal conflict. Think the Super League War or World Series Cricket.

    Both of these events had pundits heralding the death of rugby league and cricket respectively and yet their aftermath resulted in stronger leagues, more attractive products for supporters and ongoing success.

    Similar events in the United States have led to the strength of major sports there with competing leagues forming and then merging to develop a stronger product.

    Rugby has had a number of these events over its long history, though we have a more complicated and politically fraught history than most. Rugby survived and prospered following the Great Schism of 1895. The game flourished despite the suspensions of two world wars.

    While reverberations are still felt in the Republic, rugby found its way after the Apartheid boycotts and the rebel tours. Finally professionalism dragged rugby kicking and screaming into the modern age, beginning the march to becoming a major world sport.

    All these prior happenings had a similar feeling to what we have now. It feels a bit like the world may be ending.

    Forces internal and external challenge the viability of the game at every level. But the response is fantastic. People are starting to care again and boy do they care.

    The fall of the Western Force may be the catalyst that shakes the apathy from rugby supporters across the country. Rallies are being organised and boycotts discussed. The resignation of a number officials at the ARU presents an opportunity to rebuild the national organisation with a new vision, one that embraces the community the same way the club game has. The elite pathway has never been so close to making sense, with a third tier competition of reasonable quality now entering its fourth year.

    Bill Meakes Western Force Rugby Union Super 2017

    The Western Force are out of Super Rugby (Photo by Will Russell/Getty Images)

    The NRC isn’t perfect but it’s nearly got the structure right. It just needs to refocus the connection between the club teams and their local NRC counterparts, own that identity and bring those club fans with them.

    Twiggy’s break away competition looks doomed to fail to me, but it opens up new ideas and opportunities for how Australia manages the second tier game. Even if all a breakaway comp succeeds in doing is keeping the Force alive long enough to be brought back into the fold then that’s a win in my books.

    Things are dark right now fellow rugby fans but maybe, just maybe, all that means is that there is light coming soon.