The ARU CEO Bill Pulver has answered over 100 questions, many of them extremely detailed, from informed and passionate rugby supporters who contribute to making The Roar a leading sports website in Australia.
» The Roar’s burning questions for ARU CEO Bill Pulver
Essentially, the Pulver gospel is that rugby is facing problems of finance, support and recruitment – as are most sports other than AFL – but positive countermeasures are being put in place.
He argues that the ‘three pillars’ for the increased growth of rugby in Australia are: more participation of young boys and girls, the success of the Wallabies and national Sevens sides, including the world-champion women’s team, and a growth path for young men and women through strong youth and club competitions.
The final point will be achieved by developing a ‘middle pathway’ from schools to the professional teams.
This is good stuff and makes a lot of sense. But I would like the ARU to be more proactive in the creation of these pillars.
If I have a criticism of Pulver it is that the big picture he paints is excellent but he needs to explain to us, the rugby community of Australia, how to get the desired final result.
This would require the ARU to be more hands-on in matters that have been considered in the past to be the main concern of the various state unions.
Phil Wilkins, a great sports writer for the Sydney Morning Herald during my time and the author of a terrific history of the Gordon club, used to say that if Australian rugby needed an answer to a rugby matter of concern, the authorities should look to see what is being done in New Zealand.
Take the matter of rugby in schools, for instance. The New Zealand Rugby Union has dedicated officials whose task it is to co-ordinate national plans for school rugby.
These officials, for instance, have identified Auckland as a prime source of rugby talent that is not coming through the system. Resources in coaching, infrastructure, competitions and pathways up through the ranks are being put in place. Change Auckland to, say, New South Wales and the context becomes relevant to the ARU.
The states in Australia will kick up hell but something like this intervention is needed. It makes no sense, for instance, that there are three reasonably elite school competitions in Sydney.
There should be one competition, with different grades for different level schools.
In Christchurch there is a top-ten school competition. The top schools in this competition go on to play in regional tournaments until there is a top-four tournament to find the best school First XV in New Zealand.
Do you wonder why New Zealand produces such terrific Super Rugby, Sevens teams and the All Blacks, with a rugby population the same as Australia’s and a quarter the size of England’s? Look to the intense competitive systems in place from the earliest age of a player’s rugby life.
I would have liked Pulver to spell out in detail the plans he has for Australian rugby along these lines. I would also like the ARU to be more proactive in SANZAR and the IRB.
Pulver is correct that SANZAR runs its own agenda and that Australia is one of three partners. But leadership has nothing to do with numbers, and everything to do with ideas and a sense of direction and destiny.
The ARU needs to dare to win and be a dominant force. I raised the matter with SANZAR recently of the confusion that was created when the Blues played the Force, with the visiting Force’s travelling colours clashing with those of the Blues.
SANZAR fobbed off my complaints. But I know from feedback from viewers that the enjoyment of the contest was diminished by the clash of colours. I reckon that a CEO of the ARU should be on top of matters like this and get on the phone to the Force and SANZAR to put an end to their nonsense.
I understand Pulver’s difficulty in answering questions about the future of Super Rugby and what the agreement after 2016 will be.
The ARU is still in negotiations with the SARU, the New Zealand Rugby Union and the broadcasters about the final form of the new agreement.
One of his answers yesterday made news in New Zealand when he noted that the ARU pushed for an Australasian Conference in the new agreement but that the New Zealand Rugby Union wanted to maintain a strong South African connection.
On the matter of the dreadful refereeing the Reds were subjected to in South Africa, I want the ARU to be more assertive with SANZAR in sticking up for the rights of Australian teams, and for greater recognition of Australian officials.
Pulver also talked about how he is involved with improving the governance of the IRB. This is a good thing, but he should be more assertive about pushing for more entertaining rugby with the introduction of the full ELVs, for instance.
There are other matters, too, about the scheduling of Rugby World Cup tournaments, payments in Europe to iconic sides like the Wallabies, Springboks and All Blacks, and the unified rugby season that are of crucial concern for the future of rugby in Australia.
The point is that in Australia, Pulver’s hand is restrained because of the Wallabies’ relative lack – given they are still the number three side in the world – of success. But for the growth of the game worldwide, which is in the long-term interests of Australian rugby, there are not these restraints.
Pulver is right when he says that what Australian rugby needs is to win the Bledisloe Cup. This is easier said than done. But it is a fact. There are some officials who admit that it wouldn’t be such a bad thing if the All Blacks did relent a bit and somehow manage to lose two Tests out of three to the Wallabies.
Australians love winners, don’t all sports supporters? The Wallabies are the main source of income, as Pulver notes, and a handsome source at that, for Australian rugby. A Wallaby side that can defeat the All Blacks and the Springboks will generate extra revenue for Australian rugby.
As would a Wallaby side that wins another Rugby World Cup tournament, starting next year in England.
There is not much money – yet – in winning Sevens teams, with the women’s side unrecognised world champions by politicians and sports editors. But Pulver’s ambition for both teams to make the podium at Rio in the 2016 Olympic Games is a worthy one.
There is something that is not working about the IRB Sevens tournament on the Gold Coast when you compare it with the Wellington and Hong Kong IRB tournaments.
I would have liked Pulver to spell out the detailed Sevens program the ARU actually has in Australia (it is impressive) and how the commercial, television and spectator interest can be galvanised for the IRB tournament in Australia.
Sevens Rugby should be the game’s equivalent in spectator, television and commercial interest to T20 cricket. It is at the IRB level, and in NZ, and should be in Australia too.
It is not being unfair to Pulver to suggest that the detail in many of the questions was far more interesting and informative than his answers. What this means really is that on matters of sport, especially, we are all experts.
But it is the ARU and the leadership of Pulver that has to work out the systems, how they are going to be paid for and how they can be made to work. Right now, this is a difficult task for all concerned.
Pulver’s prime concern “to re-engage our fans” is the essential direction, but I would have liked more on how he intends to do so. Perhaps next year when his stewardship has had some tenure will be the time for him to spell this out in greater detail.
Finally, on behalf of The Roar I’d like to thank him for his good humour, his candour and his intelligent consideration of the questions put to him by our readers.
The Roar readers have benefited from what, hopefully, is an annual State of the Union overview from the ARU’s CEO who, in turn, has benefited from some of the insights and concerns expressed by those asking the questions.
» The Roar’s burning questions for ARU CEO Bill Pulver