With the release of it’s ‘2016-2020 Strategic Plan’, the Australian Rugby Union has identified a number of key areas, across ‘four pillars’, as significant for the future success of Australian rugby.
Prominent among the initiatives announced by CEO Bill Pulver is a strategic emphasis on women’s rugby. Reaction to date varies from visionary genius to sheer madness.
The context in which the plan has been formulated is important. While rugby in a global sense is flourishing, coming off a financially successful and remarkably popular 2015 world cup, Australian rugby faces difficult and uncertain times.
There are a number of reasons for this.
The ARU is strapped for cash, announcing a $9.8m operating loss for 2015, which includes a $5m assistance package for the privately owned Melbourne Rebels
Participation numbers in core areas, for instance 15-a-side club rugby, are down by 7.6 per cent on 2014 levels
Rugby competes with cash-rich giants the AFL and NRL, and the growing A-League for exposure in the local sports market
Rugby is reliant on a share of the global TV rights income it generates, the ARU is wedded to SANZAAR’s Super Rugby competition, which many fans maintain does not serve its best interests
It is proving increasingly difficult, and costly, to keep star local players from accepting lucrative offers to play overseas
Australian Super Rugby franchises are struggling to remain competitive on the field. Australia’s top side, the ACT Brumbies, are currently placed eighth on the overall points ladder
Throw in other concerns like the new national domestic competition, the NRC, which lacks visibility and relevance, no meaningful ‘free-to-air’ TV presence, the Wallabies not having won the Bledisloe Cup since 2002, and criticism that a Sydney-centric administration is out of touch with grass roots supporters, it isn’t difficult to understand the extent of Pulver’s challenge.
The global rugby bus is purring, but Australia is dangerously close to missing it.
Pulver’s plan neatly intertwines two areas that are undoubted positives. Firstly, participation rates for women’s rugby are increasing and greater engagement with this sector provides for continued transition out of traditional male and alcohol-dominated club frameworks into a more contemporary model where a majority of future rugby supporters may never ever set foot in a suburban rugby club.
This is not to say that clubs should be ignored – far from it – and the success of Pulver’s plan will be measured in part by how well he farms this new ground, while not losing any more diehards along the way.
Many of these women participants are, or will be mothers, who are responsible for making decisions about which sports their children adopt. The more they understand about rugby, the more they love the game, then the more likely they will be to encourage or allow their children to play.
This point is particularly important given rising concerns and negative publicity about the potentially damaging effect of concussion injuries arising from contact sports.
The second positive is the growth of sevens rugby. Traditionally seen as an interesting amusement or novelty, with a once a year ‘big bash’ in Hong Kong, the international sevens circuit has grown into a highly competitive series which the traditional powers treat seriously, and which provide a wonderful development opportunity for nations such as Mexico, Morocco and Germany, among many others.
The 2016 Rio Olympics sees the debut of rugby sevens and with it, an opportunity to win over a massive global audience, millions of people being exposed to rugby – in any form – for the first time. Almost certainly, viewers will be surprised by the athleticism, pace, physicality and skill on display.
Both the men’s and women’s competitions will prove to be among the most fiercely contested medals over the games, and the good news for Pulver and the ARU is that the Australian women have a strong chance of winning gold.
Despite placing third last weekend in the Canadian leg, the Aussie women retain a clear series lead, and with it, favourite status for the Olympics. Coach Tim Walsh would be the first to maintain that they are a young team with no stars, but Fijian born Ellia Green, who previously represented Australia at the world school games in 2009, possesses a serious set of wheels, and is a stand-out.
Diehard rugby people know that sevens rugby is not 15-a-side rugby, and will not tolerate any hiding behind sneaky spin which seeks to offset diminishing support for the ‘real’ game with gains in non-traditional areas.
But if the ARU are nimble and smart enough to be able to translate some of this new interest into engagement with the Wallabies, Super Rugby franchises and local clubs and schools, then it is an initiative worth pursuing. They could also find a kindred spirit in Cricket Australia, challenged with trying to leverage BBL success into their traditional model.
In this respect, more effective marketing, particularly through social media, seems an obvious opportunity, although outside of Israel Folau and David Pocock, the current crop of elite players lack star power.
Compare that to New Zealand, which, despite the retirement of Richie McCaw and Dan Carter, has no shortage of ‘x-factor’ players on which to build a hot promotional campaign. Youngster Damien McKenzie’s scintillating speed and deadly smile are a marketer’s dream.
Longer term, this raises questions about the need to better develop a more intuitive, identifiable Australian style of play, where stakeholders at all levels recognise and take responsibility for ensuring that the game is appealing and attractive for participants and viewers alike.
Cleverly, the Australian women’s sevens team has already been ‘adopted’ by the top-rating Sunrise breakfast team, and the potential to leverage off any success they achieve in Rio is obvious.
Traditionalists who associate with their rugby heartlands of private schools and Sydney’s Shute Shield clubs describe this and other aspects of the strategic plan as fringe dwelling, pie in the sky, thinking. For many rugby lovers, Super Rugby, with it’s convoluted conference structure, lack of tribalism, and punishing travel, is a folly.
And it is true that the ARU has so far not effectively managed the transition from an amateur game to a two-tier sport, being able to effectively administer, support and blend both the professional and grass roots levels.
Allocation of an additional $10million and a commitment to increase community rugby development staff by 50 per cent will help but, more than anything, club volunteers and players just want to know that they are being listened to.
With this strategic plan, the ARU has, for better or worse, chosen not to cocoon itself into a fight for relevance in a confined, intensely competitive domestic market. If it did, their main revenue source would disappear overnight, along with many of their elite players.
It has instead sought to latch on to rugby’s true competitive advantage, that it is a true global sport.
While it may lack the cash of the AFL and NRL, with a new $270-million deal from Fox Sports in place there is at least a sense that the ARU now has a seat at the table, a hand of some sorts, and a few chips to play with.
Michael Cheika’s Wallabies will need to do their bit. They must put a cocky Eddie Jones and his touring England side on their backside in June, and perhaps even eke out a surprise Bledisloe Cup win against the All Blacks, that is the best way to get free-to-air TV networks sniffing around again.
If not, it will seem as if responsibility for the future of Australian rugby passes to the women’s sevens team in Rio. A massive burden for young shoulders perhaps, but one where success may ultimately mean much more than an Olympic gold medal.