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Forget the ARU. Let's have a national competition

Roar Pro
1st September, 2009
17

Given the competitive state of Australian rugby, it seems pointless to expect the suits at the ARU to come up with a badly needed national competition anytime soon – if ever.

Objectively, John O’Neil’s canning the national competition experiment was probably the right thing to do. It was useful, but riddled with so many flaws as to make it unsustainable where it really counts – at the local level.

Distance kills, and in the context of the world’s top ten rugby nations, Australia’s geography presents unique challenges to any prolonged national competition. If ill-conceived, a true national competition may require inordinate amounts of travel. Another critical issue is that of identity.

One of the singularly successful Australian events, rugby league’s State of Origin, provides a clue – no, a requirement – for making a successful competition: give the locals something with which to identify.

That simple truth was largely ignored with the ad hoc setup the ARU came up with. The teams and the players in front of the local ‘crowds’ often meant little or nothing to them.

It would be tedious and pointless to go into this and all of the competition’s other shortcomings here. Suffices to say, I cannot remember one team name; where they were nominally from; who played in the final; or who won. Is it just my bad memory?

It is my impression that a national competition that falls between the top club level, and the Super 15 and national level is generally agreed to be needed. Without it we have a nominally ‘elite’ pool of players who almost seem to acquire tenure if they don’t totally lose it, and if their agents are clever enough.

Lack of a proper, routine peer to peer testing environment gives them a huge incumbency head start. To say that this is not good for the game seems somewhat trite, given the state of Australian rugby this week.

With many of the domestic competitions well along in their seasons at this time of the year, we are facing a rather long competitive break between those competitions and the spring northern hemisphere tours. Not good. Not good at all.

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Our fair-haired boys will probably take a nap and wake up on the beach sometime around Christmas – wondering what happened. Is anyone still harboring thoughts of a ‘grand slam?’

We need a national competition to flush out the complacency that seems to have become so much a part of the chosen elites, get would be tourists in match condition, unearth new talent, and generally revitalize interest in the game.

Just as an aside, while watching the Tasman v Hawkes Bay match on Friday, the announcer mentioned that a TAB representative said a punter had $NZ 100K on Hawkes Bay to win the match. Now that’s interest! Hawkes Bay won – but barely.

The old competition is gone. What can be learned if we think about where to go now?

First, if it was really a good program, local organizations may well have stepped up to rescue it. It wasn’t, and there is a big key to the problem.

It wasn’t something that local organizations knew much about, let alone in which they had any real stake. They collectively wanted something, but if it was what the ARU designed then the ARU better pay or forget it.

Most Australians will drink almost anything if someone else will shout. We all wanted (still want) a ‘drink’ but if we have to buy the second round ourselves it probably won’t be what the ARU was pouring when they were paying.

Ironically (not really) the key to a successful national competition is to think ‘local.’

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Organisers and sponsors don’t, and won’t, work for the ARU. Since they inevitably end up doing the work, it must pay off for them. They know that, rhetoric aside, the ARU doesn’t really have much interest in them and the feeling is reciprocated.

They want their players and efforts recognised, but they do it for their own reasons, not because they are committed to a greater good in the form of the ARU; rugby union as a concept perhaps, but not the ARU.

So, what must a national competition look like to have a chance of being successful?

ORGANIZATION
• It must be organized by a national coalition of ‘locally-based’ entities.
• It must be run by those ‘locally-based’ entities, so they develop a stake in the competition.
• It must be coached by local coaches who have a personal interest in the success of the sides.

COMPETITION
• It must have a similar sized player base for all teams to be at least nominally competitive.
• It must be oriented to the aspirations and competitive needs of all players – not just the established elite.
• It must be open to 18 year olds – physically mature high schoolers – to keep emerging talent interested.
• It must be, and also be seen as, a clear pathway to S15/Wallabies.
• It must have a meaningful name (some historic figure?) and an appropriate national sponsor.
• It must have a large $$$ prize ($250K?) for winners – Australians will pay attention to anything where serious money is involved.

TEAMS
• It must be comprised of local players (preferably state of origin for S14 players).
• It must be virtual representative sides drawn from the ‘local’ pool of players.
• It must have team names that fit the needs of ‘local/regional’ marketing.
• It must be primarily supported by ‘local/regional’ sponsors who see what they are getting.
• It must be outfitted in very well designed ‘marketable’ uniforms (keep club socks to encourage ‘tribal’ instincts).

MATCHES
• It must be supporter-oriented/’tribal’ (make matches a spectacle for families, if possible).
• It must be attractively priced. It may need local ‘not-for-profit’ entities for each side, to discourage marketing stupidity by officials who get carried away with revenue potential.
• It must have scheduling that fits the needs of local markets (time, venue, etc.)
• It must be on free to air TV – in real-time for away sides when distance is substantial; slight delay locally.

FUNDING
• It must have some mechanism to even out the cost burden. The major market sides in Brisbane, Sydney, ACT and Melbourne save on travel, so they will all need to pitch in to the effort to make the whole program work.
• Prize money should come from involving someone who stands to benefit. Perhaps get a coalition of big punters to put up the cash – they will get it back in spades.
• Anything that raises the profile of local/regional rugby will enhance everyone’s incomes. Let the local organizers figure out what works.

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IMPLEMENTATION
At this point things become a bit problematic. If local is the key then the local entities must work this out – not a bunch of us here on the Roar. That said, here is at least something to get the discussion started. Please remember, I said the locals need to figure this out.

START DATE – Spring 2010

TEAMS (16)
• Queensland (4) Brisbane; suburban/country; coastal.
• New South Wales (4) Sydney eastern; western suburbs/country; north coast/country; south coast.
• ACT (2) Canberra; ACT/country.
• Victoria (2) Melbourne; suburban/country.
• South Australia (1) Adelaide.
• Western Australia (2) Perth; Fremantle/country.
• Northern Territory (1) Darwin/Far N.Qld/drafts.

SCHEDULE
To minimize travel and enhance local interest, the teams must be grouped in ‘local’ pools. These pools would play round robin home and away. This makes six matches in six weeks for Round 1.

ROUND 1 (six weeks)
• North pool – QLD 1; QLD 2; QLD 3; QLD 4.
• Central pool – NSW 1; NSW 2; NSW 3; NSW 4.
• South pool – ACT 1; ACT 2; VIC 1; VIC 2.
• West pool – SA 1; WA 1; WA 2; NT 1.

ROUND 2 (one week)
1. North 1 v South 2.
2. North 2 v West 1.
3. South 1 v Central 2.
4. Central 1 v West 2.

ROUND 3 (one week)
1. W1 v W3.
2. W2 v W4.

ROUND 4
W 1 v W2

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Perhaps the most obvious problem with this structure is inclusion of SA, WA and NT. The travel may be a deal breaker for the first iteration of this competition. Two imperfect alternatives would be:
1. Drop the SA, WA, and NT from the first year to get the competition started, and figure out the details going forward
2. Give WA 4 sides and let them include SA and NT players in their pools.

Regardless of what is done to address this conundrum in the short run, these sides will need to be subsidized by the east coast (for everyone’s benefit) to make their travel costs viable.

That is what I think. Your turn.