On 20th May 2007, after weeks of negative comments about the state of Australian rugby, The Roar ran an article titled: Let The Roar of the crowd fix up rugby. In this article, we asked our readers to tell us the three main problems facing rugby, and three solutions to the problems, for submission to the Australian Rugby Union (ARU).
We received 36 coherent and well informed comments. These comments were compiled and analysed by The Roar’s columnist, Garth Hamilton.
Yesterday I met with the new CEO and Managing Director of the ARU, John O’Neill, to present this document (see photo above of John receiving the report).
John O’Neill has reviewed the document and responded to The Roar readers with this message:
“I have received you responses, and am taken aback by the thought that has gone into this exercise. It’s noticeable that in all responses, there is a high level of passion and care for the game. Whilst clearly there is some criticism, the responses provide genuinely constructive suggestions. In that regard, we will take it in all seriousness in responding to the comments and suggestions.” – John O’Neill.
Thank you to those who put their effort into this exercise. We look forward to speaking to John more frequently, and ensuring that The Roar of the crowd is heard by the right people.
Read the compiled report, by Garth Hamilton:
The Roar – Your Sports Opinion
Suggestions For Fixing Up Australian Rugby
The participants’ responses are summarised below;
1. Administration and Accountability
Responses in this category were directed towards the ARU staff and their selection, performance, structure and direction.
A common theme amongst responses in this category was a genuine concern that the ARU was not working in the best interests of the wider body of Australian rugby. Respondents showed distrust in the ARU’s decision making process and the overall strategy behind it.
“There appears to be no plan or anyone who could drive a plan even if they had one.”
The apparent absence of a strategy by which the ARU made its decisions led respondents to believe that old inter-state rivalries continued to strongly influence the decision making process. The current structure of the ARU board was seen to be conducive to this partisanship rather than producing a unified and truly national governance.
A lack of strong leadership was identified as one of the major problems facing the growth of the game in Australia. Whilst generally supportive of the recruitment of Mr Peter Cosgrove, respondents called for further recruitment from outside of those without club or state allegiances.
“People who have a fresh vision for the future that will take bold and fearless steps for Australian Rugby rather than (follow) the politically correct whim of their home Union.”
Decision making by the ARU was seen to slow and reactionary. The decision to review the inclusion of foreign players into Australian Super 14 teams came a long time after it was widely commented in the press and amongst the rugby public that Australia lacked the player depth to expand from three to four Super 14 teams without a significant drop in the quality of play. In this and other matters, respondents complained that the game’s administrators appeared to be out of touch with the game’s supporters.
“since when have the game’s administrators ever listened to players or supporters?”
a) A move to return John O’Neil to the CEO position was strongly supported. However, it may be worth noting that the ARU’s decision to conduct a thorough search for Mr Flowers replacement was also supported.
b) Moves to reduce the partisan setup of the ARU were suggested and Australia’s shrewd corporate world suggested as a source of potential recruits.
Of all the responses received, the issue of accountability was the most widely and forthrightly commented upon.
“Lack of accountability on the part of the ARU certainly seems to be a problem”
“ARU board is not representative enough and not accountable enough”
The lack of accountability was seen to be a common theme across the governing body’s actions. The apparent lack of disciplinary action following the Michael O’Connor / Lote Tuqiri affair was widely criticised as a highly public example. Similarly, the ARU’s perceived lack of authority during the public disagreement between Eddie Jones and John Connolly drew negative comments.
The use of certain statistics by the ARU to justify its current direction came under criticism by respondents.
“My son plays, school, club and rep level. The ARU count him as 3 people participating in junior rugby”
There were several steps proposed to improve the ability of the rugby public to assess the performance of those charged with managing the game. Without knowing by what Key Performance Indicators the ARU’s office bearers are internally judged, the public is disabled of its ability to provide constructive criticism.
By opening for public knowledge the range of KPIs used to assess ARU staff the rugby public can determine a) if the KPIs are indeed the best ones to develop and strengthen the game and b) if the KPIs are indeed being met.
Dissatisfaction with the marketing of the game was the second most commented upon problem amongst respondents.
The emergence of the wallaby brand as separate from Australian rugby was a concern. It was identified that recent marketing campaigns had moved away from enticing junior and club involvement to focusing almost solely on crowd figures at international fixtures.
“The only time you see an ad for Oz rugby now it is for a test or S14 to get people to go to the games. Back in the early 90s there was the “I want to be a Wallaby” campaign which was successful.”
It was widely commented that the ARU had failed to match the junior recruitment and marketing campaign of the AFL, Auskick. This successful program has sown the seeds of establishing Australian rules football in areas wherein it had no presence only a generation ago. On this front rugby union was seen to have lost ground.
“Even in Mt Isa the AFL has a full-time development officer who runs Aus Kick programs at all the schools throughout the week and also organises the weekend seniors. Union clubs don’t have any development officers and each club relies on it’s own initiative to create funds.”
Rugby league has also made advances into traditional rugby schools.
“Kids going to Ashgrove (Marist College, Brisbane), a bastion of Rugby goodness, now receive free tickets to the League and go watch the Broncos instead of the Reds”
Developmental regional squads receive almost no marketing support. Country rugby has provided not only many wallabies but hundreds more club players yet respondents from this area detail an appalling lack support.
“The Qld Country Blue Heelers played a curtain-raiser to a Red S14 game earlier this year at Suncorp and there was no advertising at all in Brisbane. Not even an article in the Courier-Mail. I avidly read the local rugby press and I had no idea the game was on”
Tours by northern hemisphere teams were heavily criticised due to the touring teams’ inability to send a full strength squad. Respondents urged the ARU to take a very strong stance on this issue. Low quality games played in front of half-filled stadiums were not seen to provide a positive image for rugby.
Participants believed that poor marketing was partly responsible for the low crowd numbers seen this year at Super 14 and International level.
The most commonly used word by respondents to describe rugby union in Australia was inaccessible. Without access to pay-television, rugby union is almost non-existent during prime time viewing. Outside of game coverage, rugby has nothing to compete with the two versions of ‘The Footy Show’ or SBS’s soccer program ‘The World Game’.
a) Regular free-to-air television coverage of both Super 14 and International level rugby was seen as essential to not only the growth but sustainability of the game. Interestingly rugby is perfectly fitted for inclusion under SBS’s charter.
b) The marketing of the game was seen to have moved away from encouraging new recruits (as per the old ‘I wanna be a wallaby’ campaign) to merely selling tickets for international games. The AFL’s Auskick campaign was seen to be a far more effective marketing and recruiting tool than any used across the Australian sporting spectrum and should be used as a model for rugby to build on.
c) The APC was not warmly received by participants, most of whom do not expect it to last or attract a significant following. Rather than continue with this competition, go back to investing heavily in the clubs where deep-seated allegiances already exist.
d) Tours by second-rate northern teams were widely criticised (backed up by low numbers at both recent Wales tests) and support of a global season seen as being a must to address this issue. Where low turnouts are expected, games should be scheduled in regional or new rugby areas.
e) Don’t take for granted that traditional rugby schools will continue to remain loyal to the game. Every school is being approached by marketing campaigns from league, AFL and soccer. Before rugby can grow it must secure its ‘assets’.
f) American football and basketball have very successful video and DVD campaigns that contain highlights of each season’s action. Official releases under the ARU’s banner are too few and irregular.
3. Player Development
Coaching standards were seen to have dropped in recent years. Basic skill levels of players are not at a level acceptable of a team representing a state or the nation.
“I went to watch the waratahs vs stormers match and was treated to the most pathetic hamfisted display – The waratahs were absolutley appalling – simple pass and catch – It’s U8s stuff”
Of particular concern to respondents was that a professional organisation like the ARU should have prejudices regarding the selection of coaches based upon their nationality. The benefits of importing experience and knowledge are accepted in the wider business world and there is no reason that this should be any different in rugby.
Respondents noted that young players coming into Super 14 football seem to be short on basic skill sets and it was suggested that this may be a result of a disproportionate focus on strength and fitness training.
“There are too many athletes and not enough ball players”
Whilst the establishment of the Force was seen as a necessary step in improving Australia’s player depth, it has exposed the gap between club and Super 14 level players. The recruitment of established league players was not seen as being a long term solution to filling this void nor was it seen as an incentive for young rugby players to continue in the code.
“stop throwing money at unproven rugby league players… instead direct that money at club and junior rugby. we’ve got a great crop of young rugby players coming through, focus on them”
It was believed that union’s recruiters of junior talent are behind those of league even in established union schools/clubs. Losing too many players to Japan or the Home unions on large contracts was seen to be further draining Australia’s playing pool.
a) Contracting ‘big name’ coaches with proven records, such as Rod MacQueen and Robbie Deans, to not only assist with the national team but also to train developing coaches across all levels was suggested. A more robust training programme for coaches is essential.
b) Opening up to successful ‘foreign’ coaches was seen as a way to import rugby knowledge and experience.
c) Chasing players from a league background was seen to be a disincentive to talent developed through junior rugby and the vast majority of respondents called for the practice to be stopped.
d) A high profile national sevens competition was suggested as a way of developing interest in rugby in non-rugby cities – the sevens game is inherently attractive and promotes the best and most easily appreciable aspects of the game.
e) Rather than chasing big name league players, the introduction of big-name foreign players into the Super 14 was backed on the proviso that it be only a short term solution, to be removed after a period of 2 – 5 years.
f) Another option suggested as a better way of spending the money currently spent on league players is to retain certain high-quality Australian players who are looking at heading overseas.
g) Establish a competition to develop forwards in much the same way as sevens develops backs. A ‘heavies sevens’ if you will. This is a step further than the ‘scrum school’ often proposed in that teams of forwards from around the country can compete in set piece and general play games to establish the best forward pack in Australia across each division/class. Such a concentrated pooling of our national scrimmaging knowledge and experience would improve our scrimmaging across the board and has the potential to make the position of tight-head prop a more attractive one to young players.
A noticeable separation in the direction of clubs and the ARU was seen to have occurred. The ARU was seen to be more focussed on the success of the final product (the wallabies) rather than the interests of the primary inputs (the clubs).
This attitude was seen to be mirrored in the administration of the state unions. The result is that clubs are being neglected by both their state and national representatives.
The hesitance shown by state and national unions to assist with the funding of developing rugby in new regions contrasts sharply with the relative eagerness with which the games administrators direct money towards rugby league recruits. The following submission sums up the frustration in clubland on this issue.
“The NSWRU had committed to funding the Illawariors in last year’s Shute Shield, which was then the prelim to the Toohey’s New Cup. They professed their desire to continue this funding and commitment to the team for a number of years. They also said we could be part of the full season this year, which is now the Tooheys New Shute Shield. However, come November last year they indicated they would not provide any funding to us for the year as they had originally promised. At that stage, we were trying to actively recruit and retain promising players, some of whom were getting courted by the likes of Randwick and Gordon with guaranteed pay checks. This made it tough for us to keep some of our core guys from last year because we couldn’t give them that guarantee, while the NSWRU weren’t living up to their financial commitment. It took a lot of argie bargie and threats from us to pull out all together, for the NSWRU to come back to the table for us. In short, they tried everything to get out of their commitment, but when they realised they would look silly if we pulled out after the draw was already finalised, and knowing that we would be vocal about our reasons they finally came good.”
Whilst the above case specifically involves the NSWRU, it was pointed out that surely the development of rugby in Australia falls under the ARU’s scope.
Perhaps the saddest story told by respondents was that of the neglected efforts of those tying to establish rugby in Sydney’s West, particularly Penrith. In an area with such a strong sporting tradition and with such strong links to the rugby loving Pacific Islands, the ARU’s lack of action is negligent.
An integrated system with stronger ties between clubs and Super 14 teams was suggested. Most widely commented upon was the apparent lack of a unified and inclusive strategy that oversees the running of the game through schools, juniors and club level into the representative arena. If this strategy currently exists it is felt that it is not being successful.
The formation of the APC was not seen to be helping the cause of clubs and threatened to spread under-funded resources even further.
The ARU was encouraged to continue its commitment to developing the laws of the game with a focus on favouring the attacking team whilst maintaining rugby’s continual contest for possession.
[Report compiled by Garth Hamilton]