Ever since the demise of the Australian Rugby Championship (ARC), the greatest challenge for Australian rugby has been to find an effective third tier competition to allow players on the cusp of Super Rugby to get exposure to professional rugby.
Without a third tier the players are in the extended squads and academies from the Super provinces are forced to rely on injury to a first teamer, to get any exposure to playing with and against the top level players – and generally get limited or no game time through the season.
Additionally, not all top level internationals are identified when they are in their teens or early twenties. Without a third tier the pool of players who are receiving professional level development at any one time is much smaller.
A late blooming player coming through in their mid to late twenties with no exposure to professional training and playing is a difficult way to go about things.
The other problem with having no third tier is a commercial one. Once the Super Rugby season is over, Australian rugby finds itself in the position of having a maximum of one high level rugby match a week (involving a team from Australia) in the public domain.
It’s no secret that the Australian winter sport scene is one of the more competitive scenarios you could find yourself in, and leaving such a huge chunk of the season to be dominated by your competition, will inevitably make life difficult.
Simply, the games are your advertising and one or zero games of rugby a weekend will always struggle to compete against seven games of rugby league or AFL.
So that’s the easy part; we need a third tier.
The idea is not revolutionary. What has been the struggle though was finding a way to get something up and running that was financially viable.
The numbers of fans that followed the ARC in its short life apparently didn’t provide enough funds to run the teams. Basically, there was too much cost to pay and not enough fans of these new teams to provide the cash.
The solution would seem to be to find a competition model which has lower costs and more fans to cover those costs. These, along with widening the pool of professional or semi-professional rugby players, are the three key factors for the Australian rugby third tier competition.
The solution is thus. Once the Super Rugby season is finished and the Wallabies squad is selected and assembled, play another round (or two) of interstate matches with the teams only using the players that are left after the Wallabies are gone.
Points accrued in the Super Rugby season are kept and then added to by the reduced squads and then a one-off final is played between the two top teams (or a two week three team final system if you want to stretch it out). This would accomplish our aims of a competition model that was cheaper, had more fans watching and widened the pool of semi-pro players. Let’s deal with them one by one
1. Costs out. The players’ salaries would generally already be accounted for. The main change would be that instead of players returning to their clubs after Super Rugby to play alongside the amateur ranks, they would continue playing at the higher level.
To widen the pool there would inevitably be additional players requiring payment but this is kept at a minimum with only 30-50 (say) minimum base salaries being required to cover for the missing Wallabies throughout the year. Compare this with the 120 estimated additional players required for the ARC and its clear there is a significant saving. The provinces would already have staff and systems set up ready to go so there would be a potential saving there too (as opposed to starting new teams).
2. Fans (money in). Each team has an existing fan base and there would be no need to build from scratch, additionally pleasing to fans of lower Super ranked teams is the fact that the teams on top would theoretically lose the most Wallabies. As a result the lower ranked teams would surge up the ladder post-Super Rugby and would be better than even chances to qualify for the final(s).
What’s more this system would provide these teams and fans something real to play and cheer for in the second half of the super rugby season with points achieved being carried through in the Aussie only section. The potential for a better TV deal then the ARC had also exists as the competition would be less of an unknown quantity for potential broadcasters. Finally, it would ensure that there were more high level games of rugby (read advertising) going on through the Australian winter.
3. Player pool. The ARC was in hindsight stretching too far and couldn’t be sustained. Obviously the more players in the pool the better but if the comp can’t pay the bills and it all goes belly up, the pool ends up being widened by zero. An additional 30 to 50 players getting regular high quality game time every year, would seem to be a more realistic increase and a large step in the right direction.
This all seems to tick a lot of boxes to me.
Let’s do it, John.