So the ARU has announced that its new national comp, the National Rugby Championship (NRC), so called third tier level, will kick off in 2014.
Chief executive Bill Pulver has outlined some of the conditions necessary for club involvement in such a comp.
Okay, before we go any further, no-one should be surprised when I decide to put my two bob’s worth into the pot, re a national comp.
Yeah, two bob’s worth, not two cents worth, since I’ve been pushing it that long, almost from the time our currency changed (1966, in case you’re wondering).
Mention national rugby comp and I’m like a moth to a flame, or rabbit in the headlights – ‘fatal attraction!’
I first read about a national comp in 1968 – the Wallaby Shield. This lasted from 1968-77 in various formats. Quite extraordinary it existed at all during one of the darkest periods of our rugby history.
In that same timeframe, 1968-77, the Wallabies won just 14 Tests, drew two and lost 27.
To put things in better perspective, eight of those 14 wins were against Fiji, Japan, Tonga and USA. Not pretty, not pretty at all. Scary in fact, huh?
But here we were, in the amateur era, with a national comp. First division comprised Sydney, NSW Country, Queensland and Victoria. Second division comprised South Australia, Western Australia, Tasmania and ACT (from the mid-70s after they split from NSW Country).
But guess what, it was unsustainable and eventually folded. But something magical happened.
Firstly, Queensland, then NSW, began playing regular matches against New Zealand provinces, which lifted the standard of our rugby immensely. Initially, it was about 3-4 matches, then expanded gradually to about 6-7 per year.
The development in Australian rugby was quite extraordinary.
In the early 1980s, the far-sighted and innovative Queensland Rugby Union secretary Terry Parker proposed a Trans-Tasman comp of six provinces – Queensland, Sydney, Auckland, Wellington, Canterbury and Otago.
Nothing came of it at the time, but it was the foundation of the South Pacific Championship (SPC) that kicked off in 1986 with Queensland, NSW, Auckland, Wellington, Canterbury (top three New Zealand provinces) and Fiji (top South Pacific nation).
By the way, the Currie Cup became an annual affair in 1968, while the NPC kicked off on a regular basis in 1976.
Prior to this, South African teams had contested the Currie Cup on an irregular basis since 1889. Over in NZ, provincial matches had been conducted on an ad-hoc basis, apart from the Ranfurly Challenge Shield, contested since 1904.
Come 1992 with the return of South Africa to international rugby and the SPC became the Super 10, with qualification to be via top four New Zealand provinces (from NPC); top three SA provinces (from Currie Cup); Queensland, NSW and top South Pacific nation. The teams were divided into two pools of five with the two pool winners playing off for championship glory.
In 1996, with the advent of professionalism, it was proposed to have an International Provincial Championship (IPC) but this was quickly scrapped in favour of a regional Super 12. And so Super Rugby was born, which grew to Super 14 in 2006 and Super Rugby in 2011.
Are you still with me tree people? Are you reading every word of every paragraph? Are you joining the dots? Are you following the bouncing ball? Can you follow the thread?
You see, every attempt at a national comp, even the 2007 ARC model, was based initially on provincial teams and later regional teams. But these teams generally had history, they had tradition, they had relevance. They usually meant something to a lot of people.
At least to as many people as possible in the fourth most popular football code in Australia!
But now the ARU want to kick-start their new NRC with a market-based solution – “show us the money and we’ll give you a spot in our comp.”
Oh, we wouldn’t mind if you also demonstrated current and potential fan-base and some other wishy-washy things, but let’s not kid ourselves here – it’s all about the money.
So, it’s possible, although let’s pray it won’t happen, that we get clubs that have little relevance to districts or suburbs, such as Sydney University and Queensland University, or clubs plucked in-toto from other comps, like Sunnybank (Queensland) and Balmain (NSW).
I’m sure the fans of Sunnybank and Balmain love their club dearly, as indeed the fans of SU and QU. But hey folks, we’re talking national comp here. Not Shute Shield or Hospitals Cup, or suburban rugby.
The 2007 ARC was a wonderful concept doomed to failure by impractical, short-sighted, self-interested compromise. The early signs suggest the 2014 NRC will be equally poorly compromised and therefore, equally doomed.
There is a solution, although it seems the ARU is too far progressed in its folly to see the light.
The guiding light is the football A-League, as well as the New Zealand and South African rugby models.
The A-League model has two clubs from each of Sydney and Melbourne (the two largest cities) and one each from Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide, Newcastle and Central Coast. Canberra’s entry must surely be in the new future.
Over in New Zealand rugby, they have the Blues and Auckland province; Crusaders and Canterbury province, etc. Over in South Africa rugby, they have Stormers and Western Province; Bulls and Northern Transvaal.
At least Natal and Free State don’t pretend that there is any difference between their Super Rugby and Currie Cup teams.
So the model for Australian rugby is simple, and here it is (five SR teams plus five others based on regions):
1. Brisbane Reds
2. Canberra Brumbies
3. Melbourne Rebels
4. Perth Force
5. Sydney Waratahs (representing North Harbour/Northern Beaches)
6. Adelaide Falcons
7. Gold Coast Breakers
8. Newcastle Wildfires
9. East Sydney Fleet
10. West Sydney Rams
Ten clubs from the eight largest cities in Australia. Adelaide must be included because they are also part of the Junior Gold Cup and it is a plank of the ARU that the smaller regions eventually produce home-grown Wallabies.
You have to have the five Super rugby teams represented because the Super Rugby concept is an anomaly that simply can’t last forever.
If you followed my history of Southern Hemisphere comps, you will understand why. Eventually the Super Rugby teams will be absorbed back into the Currie Cup, NPC and whatever the ARU calls its national comp at that time.
This third tier nonsense is just that – nonsense. The sooner we get back to enclosed national comps with the leading teams playing off in a Heineken Cup style finals format, the better.