An open letter to ARU CEO Bill Pulver part one: a lesson from Scotland

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By kingplaymaker, kingplaymaker is a Roar Guru

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    This is the first in a series of articles addressing the fundamental issues the new head of the ARU, Bill Pulver, must face with ideas on how to tackle them successfully.

    The opening subject for treatment is how to expand the game internally on a limited, or rather minimal, budget.

    Mr Pulver declared in his remarks on taking the position that, “whether in a corporate world or in a sporting world, the ultimate measure of your success is the financial performance.”

    So any spread of the game has to be done economically, or in reality to use his predecessor John O’Neill’s words “on the smell of an oily rag”.

    Much is said of the need to create elegant pathways for talent to progress to the professional level of the game, to nurture grassroots that may subsequently flourish and blossom.

    The current system is rather vaguely criticised for not tending with sufficient care to the rites of passage through which young players must pass in order to ensure they arrive successfully and in pristine condition in Super Rugby and the Wallabies.

    So there is the issue of refining what is produced, but what of the raw material that will undergo this journey?

    Is it perhaps important to consider how many players take part in the game and whether this could be expanded?

    Whatever the processes that refine the gold, good or bad, if its original quality is far higher then the resulting extent of final product should be too.

    So even if structures are imperfect, if you have double the playing numbers at the outset you will have a lot more players in the end.

    As mentioned, any move towards radically increasing playing numbers would need to be very modest in cost.

    Ideas such as the expansion of Super Rugby within Australia and abroad, the creation of a third tier, and the funding of local clubs will of course lead to increased playing numbers but these all require some financial input.

    Casting one’s eye across the globe, is there any example of a strategy to grow playing numbers that does not cost the earth?

    Scotland have long been in the doldrums of international rugby but this process has accelerated in recent years, to the extent that dramatic action has been taken to reverse the decline in participation, national presence of the game, and effectiveness of the international team.

    Such measures had to be effected with the most threadbare of resources.

    So the idea was born to increase playing numbers by 50 percent through introducing the sport to schools where it is not traditionally played, mainly secondary ones.

    It isn’t just habit forming that makes secondary schools the best to focus on, but that they are larger and more concentrated than primary schools, and the results in Scotland have been spectacular.

    Schools playing rugby rose from 184 to 240 between 2008 and 2010, with the number of under-18 players taking part going from 15,000 to 25,000 far ahead of schedule.

    A scheme offers rewards to successful staff taking part and 75 club development officers helping with extra-curricular activity.

    The final goal is for rugby to be played at all 376 secondary schools in Scotland (why other small countries such as Wales and Ireland don’t undertake such a scheme is a mystery).

    Of course, bringing rugby to schools need not cost much at all as it is largely a case of persuading governments, state authorities and the schools themselves that a large international sport is worth playing.

    This was the major Scottish discovery: you don’t need to pay to expand this way.

    This article will only address the issue of rugby in schools in the new territories of expansion, Victoria, Western Australia and South Australia.

    The question of school rugby in New South Wales and Queensland is labyrinthine and draws in other issues such as the competition with a similar sport in rugby league.

    Two of these territories have a Super Rugby team while the absence of one in the third large unrepresented market is a continuing outrage among some rugby fans.

    The three in combination comprise a population not far off 10 million, almost half the country.

    Rugby has attempted to present itself through the guise of Super Rugby, although with no success in the case of South Australia.

    Indeed in the case of another new territory, John Eales was dispatched to Tasmania with the aim of drumming up interest in the code, only to be greeted with the question, ‘Is the state at a disadvantage because there is no top tier Super Rugby side?’

    He might have replied that a population three times the size doesn’t yet have a Super Rugby team.

    Schools would seem to be an ideal way to penetrate these areas.

    That the areas they inhabit are AFL-dominated need not mean that schools don’t wish to expose their pupils to a range of sports, especially ones that lead onto a global stage.

    The schools themselves, the state and national authorities decide which sports are played and they do not choose with a wish to boost the most locally popular code, but with the desire to broaden the experience of their charges as much as possible.

    Nowhere should have been more opposed to an expansion of rugby in theory than Scotland.

    Football utterly dominates and rugby is perceived not only as elitist but worse, English.

    Yet the schools and authorities have adopted the game as they are not there to perpetuate social differences. The same would be true in Australia.

    Any significant growth in rugby in schools not only produces a larger number of players, but a greater pool of fans.

    More broadly, the result is a spread in awareness and general interest in the game within a city.

    Players would be able to join the local Super Rugby team, new fans introduced to rugby in schools would be able to watch it (except in South Australia) and others connected to these ex-pupils would be slowly drawn into the circle.

    So much of the groundwork for establishing the game in the new half of the country has been done that it would be a shame not to push forward to fill out the picture. Nor should rugby wait too long.

    Scotland postponed this kind of initiative until their fortunes were at absolute rock bottom. Australia must not do the same.

    It is currently whipped by the AFL and NRL which enjoy far greater profiles, while the biggest threat, soccer, mushrooms ominously in popularity.

    John O’Neill identified AFL as ‘the gorilla in the room’ a few years ago. He was correct, but failed to mention the sabre-toothed tiger hidden behind it that is soccer.

    So the ARU could engineer a scheme to spread the code through schools in Western Australia, Victoria and South Australia, and despite their limited numbers of schools, Tasmania and the Northern Territory should be included as well.

    Approaching the government, state authorities, the schools themselves and club representatives is the means of action.

    Expanding in the new territories would not only bring in a larger market, an increase in players and revenue, but also leverage the game against serious growth of the NRL, AFL and A-League in New South Wales and Queensland.

    It is a case of success with a proven precedent and model plan to follow.

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    The Crowd Says (88)

    • February 4th 2013 @ 4:16am
      Hightackle said | February 4th 2013 @ 4:16am | ! Report

      How you guys think expanding super rugby in Australia is an option is beyond me.
      It is not going to happen. The 5 clubs you have now will be against it, NZ and SA will be against it, its not viable (5 teams are not in Aust yet) and it is not the answer to the lack in depth.
      The answer to not having enough talent at super level for 5 teams is not 6 teams. Not in any way, shape or form. How you come to that conclusion is beyond me.
      The answer is complex in Aust but a viable national comp is the best start. How can that happen is the tricky part.

      • February 4th 2013 @ 7:45am
        kingplaymaker said | February 4th 2013 @ 7:45am | ! Report

        HT this article isn’t focused on that issue in particular, but in a later instalment it will be addressed.

        • February 4th 2013 @ 8:10am
          Darwin Stubbie said | February 4th 2013 @ 8:10am | ! Report

          Now there’s a surprise

          • February 4th 2013 @ 8:22am
            kingplaymaker said | February 4th 2013 @ 8:22am | ! Report

            Maybe DS, but here you have something new to behold.

    • Roar Guru

      February 4th 2013 @ 5:31am
      biltongbek said | February 4th 2013 @ 5:31am | ! Report

      Kpm, I agreewith you participation should start a school level.

      Question, all these schools that don’t
      Lay rugby Union, do they lay Rugby League?

      • February 4th 2013 @ 6:02am
        mania said | February 4th 2013 @ 6:02am | ! Report

        morning biltongbek – more importantly has the ARU tried getting public schools involved? if so then how successful has it been?

        • Roar Guru

          February 4th 2013 @ 7:13am
          biltongbek said | February 4th 2013 @ 7:13am | ! Report

          Morning Mania, from what I have read in the past the schools in Australia doesn’t like to be told what to do.

          • February 4th 2013 @ 7:20am
            mania said | February 4th 2013 @ 7:20am | ! Report

            well the private schools feature rugby as part of the cirriculum why cant public? honestly i cant see why aus doesnt realise this? its the key to the AB’s production line, start them young

            • February 4th 2013 @ 8:27am
              Justin2 said | February 4th 2013 @ 8:27am | ! Report

              I’d say they realise it but implementing it is another question entirely. resources resources and did I mention resources…

              • February 4th 2013 @ 8:30am
                mania said | February 4th 2013 @ 8:30am | ! Report

                pretty sure that ARU is doing all right for itself. the profits from 100+ years of rugby and 17 of super and 3N and now TRC mustve gone somewhere, because it didnt go to grassroots.

              • February 4th 2013 @ 9:24am
                Justin2 said | February 4th 2013 @ 9:24am | ! Report

                Have you seen the books mania? What sort of profit were they making for a 100 yrs of amateur rugby?

              • February 4th 2013 @ 10:23am
                mania said | February 4th 2013 @ 10:23am | ! Report

                wouldnt know about the aussie books, but looking at nz in that 100 years a lot was accomplished. grassroots is strong. when i played in the amatuer era as an age grade boy on registration i would get a starter pack which would include rugby paraphenalia and a mouth guard. rep sides would give me other stuff that sometimes included a full kit + a voucher rugby boots.
                IRB have millions worth of assets.

                but then again ARU mightve fkd things and made losses for the last 100 years or squandered profits from super and 3N for the last 17

              • February 4th 2013 @ 12:25pm
                Justin2 said | February 4th 2013 @ 12:25pm | ! Report

                Or maybe you dont have a clue about what the ARU does or has done too? Im not defending them or anything but you constantly give simplistic answers to problems in AUS rugby and you dont know jack about it.

                Case in point below about Keez Mews and a suggestion that ex wallabies arent contributing to the game later on. How would you even know?

                NZ is very different to AUS, yes thats obvious, but it sometimes needs to be pointed out πŸ˜‰

            • February 4th 2013 @ 11:15am
              kippa said | February 4th 2013 @ 11:15am | ! Report

              I played school rugby at a public school. The team was the our town league team plus two. We where a great league team (won a premiership 50-nil in an undefeated year) but the team couldn’t get the hang of the rules and where by far the worst team playing union. Only two others on the team had any knowledge of how to play. The leaguies looked at it as time they did not need to be in class.

              Grass roots is where it has to start. Create passion in the young. Love him or hate him, this is what Cooper has done for the Reds.

            • February 4th 2013 @ 11:17am
              kippa said | February 4th 2013 @ 11:17am | ! Report

              My Cousins son over the ditch had Kees Mews as his coach. He plays under 6’s. How many ex wallabies are out there training kids at this level?

              • February 4th 2013 @ 11:24am
                mania said | February 4th 2013 @ 11:24am | ! Report

                kees mews, one of the all time great AB’s props.
                lots of explayers get involved. this is what ex wallaby’s should be doing. engaging the youth.

              • February 4th 2013 @ 11:25am
                kippa said | February 4th 2013 @ 11:25am | ! Report

                in ten years time Ritchie will be training kids. That is something to think on and worry about.

              • February 4th 2013 @ 11:27am
                mania said | February 4th 2013 @ 11:27am | ! Report

                lol kippa. hope he comes to wellington and coaches my sons but imagine he’ll be involved higher up the NZRFU food chain.

              • February 4th 2013 @ 11:36am
                Johnno said | February 4th 2013 @ 11:36am | ! Report

                mania I also had KFC on Friday night mate. Had a good feed.
                And on a side not you play gridiron and have played alot of rugby, what is more physical, or is it too different to compare the physicality.

              • February 4th 2013 @ 11:55am
                mania said | February 4th 2013 @ 11:55am | ! Report

                johnno – viva la KFC!! good ol traditional samoan cooking!! πŸ˜‰
                hands down gridiron is easily more physical than rugby. because you rest so much everything you do is at a sprint speed. helmets and pads dont help that much as they tend to make ppl feel invulnerable, therefore leading to bigger hits, which lead to bigger injuries to both parties.
                i’ve played almost every contact sport there is and i’ve never been hit as hard as i have been in gridiron

          • February 4th 2013 @ 1:54pm
            Australian Rules said | February 4th 2013 @ 1:54pm | ! Report


            Here’s an article that explains, in part, why rugby is falling behind other sports. Sports in Australia can no longer expect to thrive in schools just because they did 20 years ago. Real funding direct from the governing body is an obvious advantage:


            • Roar Guru

              February 4th 2013 @ 5:08pm
              biltongbek said | February 4th 2013 @ 5:08pm | ! Report

              Cheers mate. It is relatively simple then, isn’t it.

              Either the ARU do something about it or they find sponsors who will do something about it.

              As far as the Australian government is concerned, what is their attitude towards Rugby Union?

              • February 4th 2013 @ 5:33pm
                Johnno said | February 4th 2013 @ 5:33pm | ! Report

                Biltongbek. Here is a brief snapshot mate. Plus the government gives money to sports boards, that have a modern governance, how much don’t know.

                Hence last year there was an ARU governance review, that is expected to be formally put into place by end of April this year. Basically modernising he governance to get more government funding.


              • Roar Guru

                February 4th 2013 @ 5:45pm
                biltongbek said | February 4th 2013 @ 5:45pm | ! Report

                Thanks Johnno, that doesn’t seem like a lot of money.

                Essentially sport is on its own.

    • February 4th 2013 @ 6:02am
      Justin2 said | February 4th 2013 @ 6:02am | ! Report

      The Scotland example is interesting.

      Australia is a unique case, no other country has a football market like it, none.

      • February 4th 2013 @ 9:34pm
        stu said | February 4th 2013 @ 9:34pm | ! Report

        the interesting thing is that if one states that the only football codes played in scotland are soccer and RU, the RL and AFL fanatics will tell us that their game is played there and flourishes!!!

    • February 4th 2013 @ 7:58am
      tc said | February 4th 2013 @ 7:58am | ! Report

      KPM . Good article mate ,I didn’t realise the success Scotland was having in the schools . I must admit I was pleasantly surprised at the viewing numbers out of the AFL states for the World Cup in 2011 ,maybe this is where the ARU should push for entry into schools . One thing though KPM you have to keep it all in perspective Rugby has grown leaps and bounds in Australia since the game went pro in 1996 ,and the ARU knows there are issues that have to be addressed like a third tier ,but these things take time.

    • February 4th 2013 @ 8:53am
      kingplaymaker said | February 4th 2013 @ 8:53am | ! Report

      tc the question I would suppose is how much is such an initiative is part of general strategy: until this plan in Scotland there was little in the way of such projects to the extent that not a single player from a non-private school in Glasgow, by far Scotland’s largest city, had ever played for the national team.

    • February 4th 2013 @ 9:17am
      Johnno said | February 4th 2013 @ 9:17am | ! Report

      Grassroots Junior rugby is the heart and soul, of finding Wallabies.

      -The Wallabies itself are fine. They are the end product, well resourced.

      -But below that it’s a worry, even some super rugby sides the Force, could do with more help.

      Rugby union needs a national junior pathways strategic plan.

      -One massive way to drum up exposure at no cost, is show TV junior rugby

      -This year the NRL is showing the GIO school boys cup.

      -But the old fashion GPS/CAS/ISA schools won’t have a bar of pay tv, at least not yet. maybe this year,we may see change.

      -But Bill Pulver is an ex-GPS boy as is Micheal Hawker. I fear they will be to loyal to the establishment,.

      -But tv ratings in NZ/STH Africa rate very well for school boy rugby, a great way to expose rugby, to a broader and wider audience, at no cost. Free advertising.

      -Rugby league also step up junior rugby league, away from school system too.

      Under 18/16 – Harold Matthews/ SG Ball – elite junior comps where most of the NRL teams at least in NSW and Canberra have a team.

      -So in rugby league, already the talent is marganlised from 16 up to under 18 to under 20.

      School boy rugby is almost by passed by the best under16-18 rugby league players in sydney.

      -Training with the best peers, where all players are decent.

      -Maybe rugby the shute sheild clubs should take over elite development from GPS 1st 15 rugby, and the other school conferences.

      -Either way schoolboy rugby in OZ, needs a serious shake up , and this year a strategic plan needs to be discussed and implemented by 2015. That would be ideal.

      -And no room for sentiment, or slowing down progress, and going backwards, only forwards.

      • February 4th 2013 @ 1:28pm
        kingplaymaker said | February 4th 2013 @ 1:28pm | ! Report

        All interesting ideas Johnno. Although the battle for NSW/QLD/ACT is key though, it would be good to see some movement into the new territories. Often it’s thought that where rugby is it must remain, and that simply tweaking things in the heartlands is enough. Doubtless changes and tweaking are needed in the heartlands too, but often developing in new areas can create strength that would be more hardwon at home, but with which a code can return empowered to grow more easily at home.

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