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EXCLUSIVE - The Explosive Rugby Row Emails: Papworth vs Pulver

ARU CEO Bull Pulver. (AP Photo/Tertius Pickard)
Expert
20th October, 2016
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17772 Reads

A scrum of former Wallabies, locked in by star players and the coach of the wonderful side that defeated the All Blacks at Eden Park 30 years ago, Alan Jones’ Wallabies, is set on challenging the ARU.

They are demanding “serious questions regarding the strategy” of the board and its executives.

Bill Pulver, the embattled CEO of the ARU, is takjohning a dismissive attitude to this challenge before even discussing the questions with the Wallabies.

Given the hostility to Pulver and the board among former Wallabies, former administrators, heartland clubs, coaches and schools, this dismissive attitude from Pulver, the we-are-right attitude despite the fact that the rugby project in Australia is drowning in abysmal administration, there is going to be an almighty battle to get rid of the ARU board and its executives.

Let us set the scene of the challenge.

On Monday October 17 at 10.10 am, former Wallaby Brett Papworth sent a group email to around 50 Wallabies, former coaches (Alan Jones and Bob Dwyer) and rugby masters at some of the traditional schools.

Most of the Wallabies on the list were in Sydney for a lunch on the Wednesday celebrating the 30th anniversary of their historic Bledisloe Cup series win in 1986.

The Papworth email was headed: Letter to the Board of the ARU.

“G’day Gents,

Are you well.

A number of us have been talking for quite a while and have concerns about the game and its future. Sadly, it appears they have stopped listening.

So, with the help of quite a few, we have drafted the attached letter, and the plan is to have your names on it as signatories! The distribution list above is the tip of the iceberg, and just the former Wallabies I have details for. Please pass it on to anyone you think would be pleased to have their name attached …

We understand that some may feel they can’t sign this letter, given their position in the game. That’s OK, we understand and will still buy you a beer as we take the piss next time we see you!

The plan is to have this letter sent by this Friday so please send your consent asap.

Looking forward to seeing many of you on Wednesday.

Kind regards
Brett.”

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At 3.55pm Bob Dwyer sent this Papworth email on to another 50 or so other members of the rugby community, including Eddie Jones, a Randwick stalwart like Dwyer and now coach of England, with the following message:

“Guys,

See message and attachment below.

If you agree, sent your response as requested.

If you wish to forward to other Wallabies, please do so without delay.

For the future of our game in Australia, we are most anxious to achieve a result.

Best regards,
Bob.”

Here is the proposed Papworth Letter to be sent to Cameron Clyne, the chairman of the ARU Board:

TO THE BOARD OF THE AUSTRALIAN RUGBY UNION

Dear Cameron,

We write as very concerned servants of the game, with some educated observations, and more importantly some serious questions regarding the strategy of your board and executive.

We would like you to consider very carefully what we have to say.

There are grave concerns within the Rugby community that the continuing failure of the Australian Rugby Union to acknowledge and support the grassroots of the game will accelerate an already alarming decline in both participation and support of the game in Australia.

We all came from grassroots of the game and that is where our loyalty lies. No matter if our journey started in the juniors, at school or through the local premiership club, we all recognised that playing for or coaching the Wallabies would not have been possible without the start that the grassroots gave us.

It is amazing that one of the key responses from fans and corporate partners in the much-heralded Australian Rugby Strategic Plan was the need for an investment in grassroots and Club Rugby (page 9), yet every action by the ARU since the release of the plan has done the opposite with recent media stories even suggesting that all community rugby funding in the states will reduce to zero in 2017 as a result of a reduction in sponsorship.

The following table puts into context how little the ARU invests back into local club/community rugby compared to the other National Unions and domestic codes, it also provides the lowest total contribution compared to its peers, including even Scotland.

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(In local currency) England Wales Ireland NZ Scotland ARU NRL AFL
Revenue 208 73.3 75 133 43 85 353 558
Club/Community 32 9.5 9.6 16.8 3 2.4 28 51
% of revenue C/C 15% 13% 13% 13% 7% 8% 8% 9%

In both the NRL and the AFL that does not include what is allocated to clubs and therefore will not capture what they spent in developing the local community game.

Lack of Free To Air Rugby was identified in the Strategic Plan as a major weakness for the game in Australia, yet one of Rugby’s most entertaining products ‘the Shute Shield’ is likely not to be Free To Air in 2017 because of a funding battle between the ARU and the NSWRU.

We just cannot understand why the ARU does not champion the Club Premiership Competitions in both Queensland and NSW being televised on Free To Air. Channel 7 seem to love it and rating are impressive for a very new product – where is the leadership.

Corporate Partners stressed in the same report the importance of grassroots rugby in building a strong fan base (page 10).

Yes, we totally understand that Rugby is financially constrained as a result of both the extreme competitive environment for sport in this country and some unforgivable incompetence from both Super Rugby and National administrations since the game became professional in 1996 and continues today in too many instances.

Our deep concern is the total imbalance between what is spent at the top of the game, both on players and administration versus what is allocated to the grassroots. This is unsustainable and a total disgrace.

It is clear to thousands of passionate and faithful volunteers in the game that they may as well not exist.

History has consistently shown that volunteer armies win wars because they are motivated in heart and soul well beyond the rewards of mercenaries. There is a war going on in sport in Australia and the ARU’s most vital asset, the grassroots players, coaches, managers, mum, dad and volunteers in all tasks required to run a club are being shafted by the ARU and the State Unions they oversee.

Your board has pursued a national strategy, at the cost of the strength of the traditional heartland. If rugby’s volunteers walked away tomorrow, the game will die.

Why has the board of the ARU endorsed a strategic plan that largely ignores the most vital asset Rugby possesses in this country – the grassroots and the loyalty, values, culture and clear determination they bring to the game.

These are the crowds who turn up to the Bledisloe when we have not won it since 2002. These are the people who continue to be the core of Rugby’s TV audience no matter how ordinary the performance of the Super Rugby teams. These are the people who hunger for rule changes that put the entertainment our game provides ahead of our most agile competitors.

The feedback we get constantly is that the Rugby community is feed up, at all levels, juniors, schools, clubs. Unless you are prepared to fight some series public relations battles with those volunteers, we ask that you listen, learn, and respect the fabric of our game.

We respectfully suggest that the comparatively minor investment in Free To Air TV is crucial, as is the funding of Development Officers at a district level, controlled by clubs but operating under strict KPI’s developed by the ARU.

We want the opportunity to discuss our concerns with the Board directly and would warmly welcome an acknowledgement that substantially more money needs tp be invested in the game’s grassroots.

Yours Sincerely …”

The Papworth Letter and the email thread going with it created a frenzy of interest among the various other rugby threads, especially one involving former ARU administrators.

The rugby community, like most other communities of interest, has number groups inter-connecting through email threads on rugby matters and rugby politics.

Matt Carroll, who is currently the successful CEO of Yachting Australia and was formerly an assistant to John O’Neill when he was chief executive of the ARU, is part of a thread that involve a number of past rugby administrators. He was also on one of the Wallabies and friends thread.

Around, 1.25pm on Monday October 17, Carroll sent on the Papworth Letter to his former boss with this comment:

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“You may have already received this. Some stirring of sorts. Matt.”

For some hours this thread debated the pros and cons of the issues raised by Papworth. There was a consensus that Papworth needed “to structure a letter than proposed actions … he doesn’t get the connection between elite performance results and the transmission downstream.”

At 8.24 pm, some seven hours after he received the email from Carroll, and after some vigorous discussion with participants of his thread, O’Neill sent a long email to Brett Papworth.

O’Neill was concerned, among other things, to make it clear that the problems outlined by Papworth started after his first successful term as chief executive of the ARU ended:

“Hi Brett,

As you can see Matt Carroll has sent this on to me.

Of course, I have noticed your efforts over the last several months on this front. Well done on having the energy, passion and guts to push on with it, as you and others are.

As you know I was CEO of the ARU for about 14 years in total: two terms 1995 – 2004 and 2007 – 2012. In between 2004 – 2007 I was CEO of FFA. So, I have had about 17 years having the privilege of leading 2 significant National Sporting Organisations, both of which have the dual presence of domestic and international competition at the highest level. I was honoured to be inducted into Sport Australia Hall of Fame last year for services to both codes.

Also, prior to that career, like you I was a banker and was MD and CEO of the State Bank for 8 years.

As I applaud your campaign: needless to say, I like many others with great affection and affinity for the game, am very concerned about the perilous position the game is in across most of the relevant measures of success (win/loss ratios, viewership, attendances, finances, participation at club level) and realise that much needs to be done right across the board to restore rugby to its former glory both on and off the field. However, it is the collective that will achieve this renaissance not sectional interests.

Improved attention and emphasis to the community game is a given: however, one must be equally intense in scrutinising the performance of the professional game. If the Wallabies and at least 2 SR teams are firing, then the financial and general health and well-being of the game is more sustainable for all participants. The fact and harsh reality is that we are under-performing badly and have been for too long. A brave performance at RWC 2015 may well have wall-papered over the cracks which are getting wider!

Several years ago, post RWC 2007, the NZRU held a summit and the outcome was a non-negotiable priority #1 All Blacks to be #1 in the world, not sometimes but all the time! All the systems and processes they have since put in place, at all levels, are designed to achieve that objective. They created a Unity of Purpose! Result? Back to back RWCs and best in the world by some distance.

Why have I referenced that? Well, that’s what I think the ARU has to do. Emulate that Unity of Purpose. It must remove the obstacles which are the vestige of the federated model and embrace a purpose built model for Australian rugby which is better than the Kiwi’s! There was a window of opportunity to go down this path in mid-2012 but that window shut. I left in October 2012.

Hopefully, by restructuring the game for total success that leads to the revival of the Wallabies to the best in the world and attendant success by most SR teams. That should lead to better outcomes for all other levels to the game: clubs, schools, subbies, 7s, juniors.

I can’t do all this justice in one email. However, on a serious note, I sense that at times, your campaign throws a blanket over the entire last 20 years of the professional era, as though it is entirely homogeneous. That the community game has been ignored since then. Of course, that is simply is not correct. I am not saying that like us all, if we had our time again, I wouldn’t have done some things a bit differently, particularly in my second term. However, it is offensive and dishonest to suggest the root cause of some of the issues you raise commenced in 1996!

The collective of clear thinking, well meaning people can make a difference and great improvement to the game we all love and enjoy. It becomes a lot harder to make that difference when points scoring, turf protection and the old fashioned tactic of playing the man and not the ball is front of mind for some agitators.

Good luck Brett, I wish you well in your endeavours.

Best regards
John.”

I have quoted these email and the Papworth Letter at length to give readers an indication of the various forces in play in this important argument.

The John O’Neill argument, it seems to me, has a lot more merit to it than the Papworth analysis.

The ARU board, its chairman, and its chief executive needs to start emulating the courage and the vision of the NZRU administrators in late 2007.

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The board that presided over the debacle of Rugby World Cup 2007 all fell on their swords.

The new board set out the ambitious program of becoming and remaining the number one rugby nation in the world. I remember walking into the office of the chief executive of the time and seeing this mantra “All Blacks number 1 team in the world” listed as number one priority on a blackboard.

The Bledisloe Cup before the opening game of the series between the Wallabies and the All Blacks at ANZ Stadium in Sydney, Saturday, Aug. 16, 2014. (Photo: Paul Barkley/LookPro)

The statistics provided by Brett Papworth in his letter shows that this investment in creating or trying to create an unbeatable All Blacks side has not been achieved at the expense of school, club, female, and community rugby.

Incidentally, I am quoting from some of the emails in full and the entire Papworth Letter so that interested readers can make up their own minds on the issues raised, rather than being overly filtered through my take on what is being written in the discussion.

One of the respondents on the thread, a former ARU board member, made this response to O’Neill’s email to Papworth:

“John,

Good considered reply at short notice.

The Brett Papworth letter is a bleeding heart job … if I was the recipient I’d struggle to respond … it’s a bit of a waffle.

He needs to restructure a letter that proposes actions, and he doesn’t get the connect between elite performance results and transmission downstream you identify.

I seem to recall that pre and post 1999 when elite performance was at a peak in Australia no one was complaining about the money coming in, attendances, sponors/commercial and participation … and most understood the downstreaming benefits of Wallaby success and at that time Brumbies and Reds.

That was less than 5 years after pro rugby although grassroots as in senior club rugby was struggling to revert to amateur/volunteer rugby. Juniors – grassroots was booming.

They should look at other codes/clubs and what happens when franchises or teams have sustained lack of success. Fans go elsewhere …”

On Wednesday’s The Australian, Wayne Smith, in an exclusive article, provided extracts from the Papworth Letter (but not the entire letter, nor any of the emails discussing the controversy).

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Smith noted that a number of Wallabies, national coaches and administrators had signed the letter.

He also quoted Bill Pulver’s response that Papworth’s statistics were wrong: “It says we spent $2.4m on club and community rugby … in fact, we spent $9.2m and that’s before the contributions of each of the state unions … we’d be delighted to have this summit meeting … because it will be a wonderful opportunity to put facts on the table … the entire construct of the letter is built around that figure of $2.4m and it’s nonsense.”

He further told Fairfax in comments published today:

“Apart from misquoting a $2.4 million investment in the community game – when it’s actually $9.2 million – there’s nothing else tangible in that document that specifically tells me what variable to our current strategy they would like to see … .”

Pulver just doesn’t get it.

He put Papworth down at the beginning of the year in a similar condescending manner when the neglect of grassroots rugby was raised then.

At that time Pulver used a comment by Papworth about Louis Vuitton bags being used by the ARU as a way of trying to discredit Papworth’s crucial argument about lack of funding for the heartland clubs and schools.

And he doubled down on this put-down.

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In defence of the ARU’s 2016 – 2020 Strategic Plan to no longer directly provided financial assistance to the clubs, Pulver went on to make what I regard as the most infamous statement a chief executive of the ARU has ever uttered: “I’m not making any money available for the Sydney clubs to piss it up against the wall.”

This provoked a thunderous response from Bob Dwyer which I reported on for The Roar 18 February 2016 in an article headed: “Bob Dwyer lays the boot into the ARU over Sydney club rugby.”

Dwyer’s anger at the attack on the integrity of the Sydney heartland clubs was defiant:

“It is gross stupidity in all ways. By ignoring those people who not only do the job week in and week out, year in and year out, decade after decade, but come to his assistance, for his own detriment, I don’t know what a person is behind such an attitude.

I don’t know whether this conclusion has been arrived at arrogance or ignorance, but as sure as eggs, one or both these factors apply.”

I have been told that the Papworth Letter will be sent out to Cameron Clyne on Monday. And that if the ARU board disregards and disrespects the messages in the letter, it will “end in tears for them.”

Bill Pulver’s job is on the line if he drops the ball this time the way he did at the beginning of the year.

Game on.

UPDATE: Bill Pulver has had a number of comments published on rugby.com.au in relation to the letters being published. We have also posted a video of Pulver’s comments.

“Brett’s put a few stories out of that ilk over the last couple of years,” Pulver said.

“I’m surprised and a little disappointed there’s a raft of Wallabies that have signed up.

“He underestimates the amount of investment we put there and I’m trying to correct that,” he said in relation to the ARU’s contribution to community rugby.

“In many ways the spirit of what he’s saying is right, I wish he’d come and see us about the issues rather than doing it via the media but it is what it is.

“We’ve invited him for a lot of opportunities to come in here and have this dialogue – I have personally, as has the chairman of the ARU or whatever reason he would prefer to voice his opinion from afar.”

“I would love to engage with the community, where our strategy is wrong, tell us what’s wrong and let’s work on fixing it.”

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