Frequent readers will know that I have generally been pushing a strong anti-club line recently in regards to Australian rugby.
Many people’s strong support of the clubs position in the game is due to emotional attachment, not rational reasoning.
I understand a club rugby system to be both beneficial and critical. What I disagree with is the view that many attempt to portray, that the club rugby system is turning random mugs they pick up off the streets into professional players.
While no matter what happens, a club rugby system will be required, one that attempts to wield less power over the code in Australia is in the best interests of the game.
I no longer believe this development is the case. With the strengthened pathways that have developed over professionalism, the improvement in players is occurring due to academy programs with elite training programs.
Sometimes these players may continue to ply their trade in club rugby, but by this point they are putting back into the club than they are taking out. The clubs are receiving professional athletes who are being subsidised for them.
Because of the vocal support of the club system – and many that say that’s where all our players come from – I wanted to look closer and see where exactly our players did come from.
So to do this I have taken the 163 players who are published as contracted with their details available and researched their backgrounds.
Obviously this information is hard to come by and in some cases assumptions need to be made. But my research and conclusion has been based on the premise, that if a player was part of age group representative programs for multiple years from school level, and commenced a contract within 12 months of their time with that program, they were not a product of the club system, they were a product of the representative pathways.
Their time in club rugby has generally been playing colts in between representative fixtures.
Now if a player had not been part of these at all, or had been, and then spent more than a season playing at club level before commencing a contract, it’s my view that the club system has helped them develop from being unable to obtain a contract to becoming a professional.
Looking at these 163 players, 34 are immediately taken out of the equation as they have been developed in other countries or through NRL systems. 10 of these are Rebels, 5 Reds, 3 Waratahs, 5 Brumbies and 11 from the Force.
Of the remaining 129 players, 32 of these would be considered to be developed by Shute Shield. These contain a number of different examples.
From Luke Burgess and Chris Alcock, who were not part of national representative programs, to players like Mitch Inman and who has represented Australia at Under 20 level or equivalent (prior to 2008 there was Under 19s and Under 21s) and 7s yet never was contracted until two years after Under 20s.
Dave McDuling is another example who represented Australia at Schoolboy level, Under 20s and took another three years beyond that to progress to being contracted.
The notable players (Wallabies) on this list are as follows.
Now if we look at the Hospitals Cup in isolation that gives us nine further players. The notable from these nine are:
Scott Higginbotham is a good example of the development of the Hospitals Cup. He didn’t play first XV at school and therefore wasn’t a part of schoolboy representative programs. After school he developed, while playing for Wests into a professional player.
There are another six players to have progressed from other club rugby ranks. Most notably Ben Alexander and Sam Carter.
So this tells us that 47 of 129 locally-bred players are coming from club rugby in 2015. 30 of these 47 players were born before 1990 (Over 25), which tells us that the trend is for this to potentially decline.
This make sense as the representative programs are slowly being improved over time, to identify and develop talent. There is also the possibility that these players are still yet to develop though.
But when you consider this to the players that have left Australian shores, and would have been part of the club rugby system had I conducted this in 2010, it appears to be slowly changing.
Then there’s the remaining 82 active, Australian-raised players as part of representative development pathways and schoolboy rugby programs.
25 of these 82 players did not play Australian schoolboys, though were a part of either state or combined schoolboy sides.
In total, 11 of these 82 players did not play Australian Under 20s. But then, there is a reason for this. Lolo Fakaosilea and Campbell Magnay from the Reds have not, but they played Australian Schoolboys in 2013. They will likely play in 2015.
Rory Walton and Zack Holmes did not. They did however play NSW Country 20s, and ACT Under 20s and then sign contracts before playing senior rugby while being part of a professional set up.
Nick Phipps and James O’Connor did not, because they were playing Australian 7s, and in O’Connpr’s case, Australian 7s, Super Rugby and Wallabies the years they were eligible.
Steve Mafi was already part of the Waratahs Academy and then went overseas, Nick Cummins was playing Australian 7s, Beau Robinson was playing Super Rugby and replacing an injured Phil Waugh, while Robbie Abel was already part of the Western Force set up and Adam Coleman, while playing for Parramatta was already a part of state and national academies.
My argument comes down to the fact that 82 of the 129 Australian raised players in the Super Rugby squads have come through major development pathways.
Schoolboy rugby, age-level representative rugby programs and state and national level and major academies. If they have spent any time playing club rugby prior to their debut, it’s been while they were already contracted and training in elite programs with the franchises of the national set ups.
In this cases, it’s the clubs who have opportunistically picked up these players, but then claim they were a major part of their development, when really being in an elite training environment has been the major factor.
The club program worked perfectly as the major development pathway when the game was amateur, but again that was assisted with Wallabies and Wallaby aspirants being part of the AIS, essentially training as professionals before professionalism.
It has now though, developed to a stage that without the clubs, this development would still occur. The players would still be playing in local competitions against men until they got to the level to debut, but their growth as players is coming from the academies, state and national representative teams now.
Now players are coming through the increasing representative programs and Junior Gold Cup, and will develop for Super Rugby level primarily through the NRC. I’d estimate within three years, no players will be selected for the Australian under-20s team outside of the NRC.
As this happens, club rugby will be a further less influential part of the development program and these players likely will be adding more than they will be taking away from the club.
It’s time to understand that amateur clubs are no longer the cornerstone of successful professional rugby that they once were.
I love the tradition and the positives that they bring to the game. But I loathe their self-interest and attempts to maintain relevance at the game’s expense as a whole.