The National Rugby Championship’s (NRC) full draw and broadcast schedule was announced last week, with planning and the clubs themselves starting to ramp up for the fledgling competition’s equivalent of the important second album.
A few weeks ago, I spoke in great depth with ARU general manager, pathways and performance, Ben Whitaker, the man tasked with pulling the NRC strings; something that’s not always easy within Australian domestic rugby.
Brett McKay: What can we look forward to in the 2015 NRC?
Ben Whitaker: Well, I think and you’d like to think that one year on that it evolves, and it was obviously set up for that; we obviously didn’t have a lot of time to lead into the first iteration.
So I think us as an organisation, and also all the teams are really super excited about having some good lead-in time.
But you’ll see teams further embrace the style of game that you saw in 2014. We’ll find different ways of dealing with some of the law variations. As you saw there, Brett, it was a really fast game, particularly in the first half of the competition, and probably defences weren’t as well organised and possibly struggled to keep up a bit. But I think that’s going to change this year.
Hopefully that creates a better contest, and it also means that attack will have to evolve as well. I think one year on, we’ll learn how to play to the laws [the variations applied to the NRC].
I think the NSW teams will be far more organised, too. There’s the element of time to get ready, and to appreciate what they need to do to be successful on and off the field, and the level of support they’ll receive will be far greater than in 2014, from a range of different parties.
Will all the 2014 law variations remain in 2015?
Yes, we were always keen to play them over at least a two-year period, so that we could genuinely assess their impact in the game.
We certainly came out of 2014 with no major issues with the variations that we brought in, and we surveyed across coaches, players, referees, and supporters.
It’s interesting timing, because World Rugby have just kicked off their 2015-2018 law review cycle, and we’re getting a feeling that SANZAR are looking at what can be done in the lead into the 2016-plus iteration of Super Rugby.
So, by that do you mean new variations and/or interpretations for 2015?
We’ll look at it closely. If it fits with some of the other projects going on, then I think, again, we’ve put our hand up to suggest that we’re really keen to trial variations at NRC level. It’s a really good platform, and I know at the review meeting over in London recently there were some good references to the NRC around trialling variations.
What about two referees? Is that something you’re seriously considering?
Yeah it is, and we considered it last year.
We know the Varsity Cup in South Africa run two referees, where the second referee is essentially responsible for the offside line. And I think that’s certainly something to look at, because there has been some talk about getting defences back – a metre, five metres, whatever.
It becomes difficult enough to have them at the last feet, and which you’d probably dare say they’re not, when you’ve got a ref and two guys out on the sideline looking on, so they [SARU] have found through their couple of years trialling two refs that it does make a difference around offside being adhered to.
So we are looking closely at that, and hopefully we can feed that through to some other project discussions happening at the moment to see if can be trialled.
What were the main areas of review feedback to come back from the various stakeholders?
Within the game itself, the only thing they asked us to look at – and it wasn’t across the board unanimous; only a couple of the nine teams – was the points scoring system. There was some belief that a three-point conversion was maybe too much, and so they asked if we’d look at maybe even increasing the try value [to six points] and keeping the conversion value at two.
That’s something we discussed when I came in, Ben…
It was, you’re quite right.
I think we’ll look closely at whether we look at maybe a six-two-two-two system, if that makes sense. So six points for a try, two points for everything else.
We know that we want to use this environment for a number of reasons – development, etc – and trialling variations is certainly one of them, but we just don’t want to go… you know, we don’t to get to the point where people are thinking, ‘they’re just making a mockery’ with the changes.
But that’s [the points value] definitely one we’re looking at right now. We’re putting those things on the table with the clubs currently.
The other thing is exposure for players at different levels, being contracted players who perhaps didn’t get a lot of game time in Super Rugby – so that was a massive tick last year. The exposure for that next level of players looking to break into the Super Rugby contracted level, and then we also got some good pay out of some really young guys getting some time – so your [Campbell] Magnays at 18, your [Adam] Korcyks at 19, your [Andrew] Kellaways at 19, were some of the more standout players in the competition.
On all three levels there we got some really good feedback, and I think some really good results, and the other thing is we’ve been able to provide really good opportunities for coaches and match officials as well. Some really strong feedback around there.
We had assistant coaches from Super Rugby heading up [NRC] teams, so different experience, exposure to different skills, etc, and we certainly see the NRC as the breeding ground for our next tier of referees, and the game need us to concentrate in that area.
[Disclaimer: I also had a small part in the review process, sitting down with Ben Whitaker in December last year.]
From an internal competition point of view, what do you think were the major lessons you learned from 2014?
I think promoting the competition and the games need a lot more investment. We know that, and we’ve certainly got plans to improve that area this year. And that then ideally results in greater viewership both at the games and on TV.
We’ve certainly got a strategy to increase our coverage on broadcast. We won’t see a massive shift in terms of the number of matches on Fox Sports this year, however we will, or we are looking at a streaming model that will have any non-broadcast game streamed and available for viewing.
And so that would be done at the competition level, rather than whatever the clubs themselves can organise?
Correct, yes. And we sort of got the call last year really late from Fox, and they obviously own all the rights to all that, but they’ve been really involved already this year, and we’ll settle on a streaming solution before the competition begins, obviously, so that all the games can be seen.
What about things like venues, and ticket pricing – are they things that have been looked at and perhaps consolidated even?
Yes, certainly. What you’ll see is, and if I go around the clubs, Perth will keep with their strategy of taking games to suburban grounds, and that really worked for them. Melbourne, obviously they played all their games at AAMI Park, they’re looking into whether they might take games to some of their local venues and create more of a festival-type of atmosphere rather than a big stadium.
Canberra did really well at Viking Park, and I think it’s almost a perfect ground on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, so they’re pretty comfortable there. Queensland obviously has Ballymore; iconic, people want to go there anyway, particularly on a Sunday afternoon and sit on the hill, and they’ll also look at some regional venues for their country team.
Where you’ll see the major difference will be with some of the NSW-based teams, will look at again, more local venues rather than the big stadium. And the NSW Country team will continue their march throughout regional NSW, which is great.
So I think you’ll see a bit of a shift, taking it back to the local communities and trying to create that festival atmosphere.
[This was confirmed with the release of the draw last week, featuring 22 different cities and venues around the country.]
I mentioned ticket pricing in there, and there was a little bit of variation around the clubs. Is that something that could perhaps become more uniform?
Not from our point of view, because one of the things that did take us by surprise a little bit is the venue hire arrangements. So we certainly wouldn’t be dictating ticket prices; we understand where they all sit, but I think there might be some slight changes there depending on what venue arrangement those teams make.
Overall, we thought prices were pretty reasonable. You could certainly question why the differences, but I think a lot of it goes back to the actual venues that were used.
Four of the five states’ support was very good in 2014 – what have you done to ensure that NSW Rugby is more involved this season?
Again I’ll just bring up time. I think that’s going to be really important that we all have led-in time, and the recognition off Year One was that at the end of the day, if you’re talking about the Waratahs or NSW Rugby, they effectively had four teams to be providing support and resources to. The only other one anywhere near that is Queensland with two.
And they’re [NSW] very capable of supporting two teams, but four is a stretch. So we’ve kicked in there, too; so we need to also provide some additional support, too. The on-field stuff I reckon was pretty good, but it was probably more the off-field stuff where they could do with some greater support.
So we’ve put someone on in here whose role is to basically drive the whole NRC, particularly the off-field stuff in support of the teams in the competition. They’ll also support the Sydney 7s tournament, which will be moved here next year; so that’s sort of their role across the whole year as a dedicated resource.
Were you happy with the Wallabies allocations – do you think it achieved the desired impact at competition level and the nine clubs themselves?
The short answer is ‘no’, but at the same time, what we’ve worked on with much greater time this season is to make sure everyone understands how the Wallabies fit into this model.
Number one, we’re pretty keen to make sure that while we want an attachment [between the Wallabies and the NRC clubs], they’re really not going to be around much at all this year; their involvement is going to be minimal, if anything.
And to be honest, it’s not about them; this is about the next batch, and we want to make sure that yes, it’s a third-tier comp, but it’s about the next batch of Wallabies proving themselves and being exposed so that they can come through.
I think we’re better off now around understanding the role of a Wallaby in this competition. We certainly get the marketing and promotional piece, but it’s not as if they’re around all week, every week of an 11-week competition. In fact, if you look at this year, I reckon they’re not here one week at all, if they go right through to the end of the World Cup, which is the idea.
The question equally applies to the Super Rugby-contracted players – if I think of how Perth were very proactive in how they managed their Force players, were you happy with the amount of exposure for those players at NRC level as well?
That’s a balancing act, because you want to have the experienced guys involved, because that’s certainly supports the development of the younger, emerging guys. That’s been proven over time; it’s not a new thing. You want to manage their involvement too, and make sure the emerging guys get the right exposure themselves.
So it’s a balancing one, and we saw some different ways of doing it [last season]. Perth’s numbers did change depending on whether they were at home or playing away. Melbourne and Canberra did it differently again.
If you look through the number of contracted player who played in those teams, they were all very much fringe or emerging Super Rugby players who didn’t have a massive number of caps. And yes, they’re full-time [in the state squads], but they really hadn’t played a lot of footy.
It was a reasonably competitive competition – someone’s got to come first, and someone’s got to come last – but I think all in all it was competitive, and with some changes around how teams operate, recruit, and select, etc, we’ll see it will be even better in 2015.
Equally though, you guys must have been wrapped with the number of players coming out of the Perth, Melbourne, Canberra club competitions, and even out of NSW and Queensland Country, too?
Absolutely, and you know, the stats were fantastic. And full marks to Perth, Melbourne, and Canberra, because they put forward in their submissions – and we supported this; we wanted this – that they would select local guys unless there was a drastic shortage in a position. And I think the only team to recruit outside their state or territory was Canberra, who went for a hooker [Seilala Lam] and that was pretty important because they didn’t have anyone else at that level to come in.
So that was great, and you’re right, they’re developing local talent which contributes to the overall player pool, which over the years has really been reliant on NSW and Queensland.
At the same time, people can hopefully start to get a sense of the thought that went into the number of teams, and some might say maybe it was too many, etc, but it allowed for probably over 50 per cent over the course of the competition, of players that started NRC games were non-contracted players. So that’s 15 players, on average, in every game were not contracted, playing across 39 games.
So we’re getting the fringe Super players getting more meaningful game time, and we’re getting a real good number of players being exposed to a higher level of rugby.
You’ve mentioned the streaming model you’re working on – how will more people see the NRC in 2015?
It’s a key part of the strategy. I mean, ideally we want people to be going out to the grounds and experiencing the games and the ‘festival’ idea of it, but then we also think that a really simple, accessible streaming option that the clubs can them promote through their channels is an obvious one that we knew pretty early last year.
Were you were happy with how the Thursday night TV games went last year?
Yeah, we were. Fox were very keen to give it a second year, because they believe that giving it that clear air on a Thursday night, as opposed to Friday, Saturday, Sunday through other codes’ finals is important, and we’ve backed that.
Again, they’ve been fantastic this year already, in the whole set up of the competition, and I think you’ll see them really ramp up their work to support the promotion of the comp as well.
Did Fox express concern about the ratings in 2014?
They went up and down, there’s no doubt. I think Week 1, there was the initial interest, and it certainly followed the teams.
It looks from our point of view that the most eyes on Fox Sports watching rugby are from NSW and Queensland, and so we knew that when we had a game that didn’t have a Sydney Stars or a Brisbane City, for example, that the ratings were going to drop. That certainly became the case in the second half of the comp.
The National Rugby Championship kicks off on Thursday, August 20, with a grand final replay between Brisbane City and Perth at Ballymore Oval.
The full 2015 NRC schedule can be seen here.