Brett Papworth and his supporters want to take the NRC head on by having the four top teams in each of the Sydney and Brisbane Premier rugby competitions play a competition at the same time as the NRC.
The plan has hit some roadblocks with a planned meeting between the Sydney and Brisbane Premier club presidents announced and almost immediately cancelled.
This was accompanied by comment from UQ Rugby club president Michael Zaicek that they could not afford to run this competition without support from the ARU.
The top four teams from these two competitions could argue they are the eight best club teams in the country, although the likes of Tuggeranong might wish to make their case. Regardless there is no way they can claim to contain all the best club players in the country.
Further they will not contain the majority of Super Rugby players that are available to play at that time of year.
Each of the five cities supporting a Super Rugby side has a Premier competition that entails first Grade-4th Grade and a Colts competition that includes 1s-3s in Sydney and Brisbane and a single Colts side each in Canberra, Melbourne and Perth.
(I’ve taken that from official guides that I could find on-line, I’d appreciate it if those with closer connections to the competitions could correct me if I have made an error).
Most of these regions also have Sub District or Championship competitions that cater for lower divisions and also not counted here are the various Country rugby competitions.
The Premier Rugby competitions support different numbers of teams:
Sydney Shute Shield – 12 clubs
Brisbane Premier Rugby – 9 clubs
Perth Pindan Grade – 10 clubs
Melbourne Dewar Shield – 9 clubs
ACT John I Dent – 7 clubs
That is 47 Premier first grade sides of varying strength spread around the country, these contain most of the best club players in the land and also the Super Rugby players that have not made the Wallaby squad.
Meanwhile, the NRC encompasses eight teams which condense the best of all those 47 sides, along with anyone from any of the other competitions such as Subbies or Country that may be good enough to join.
There can be no contest that the NRC is a higher quality group of players than that contained within just the best four teams from each of Sydney and Brisbane.
Papworth has stated that he wants to “Close down the Super Rugby teams that eat money”. Given the NSWRU needed a bail out from the ARU in 2000 and the Queensland Rugby Union as recently as 2010, does that mean he wants all Australian Super Rugby teams shut down?
Were that to occur then the Sydney and Brisbane club competitions could get a shot in the arm with their inter-state contracted players likely to return home, although most would be likely to head off-shore to earn what professional rugby will pay them.
Concentrating our talent into two competitions totalling 21 teams in just two cities with a combined population of about 7.5 million ensures that talent is spread too thinly to make the game competitive enough to develop them to be able to feed the Wallabies.
And, the 7.5 million potential supporters will be spread to thinly to allow the competitions to generate enough revenue to match what the likes of the Aviva Premiership, French Top 14 and Japanese Top League can generate operating with less teams and vastly bigger potential audiences.
Further restricting higher completion to just the top four teams from each comp ensures that most of the best players would not get to compete at a higher level before being asked to step up to state, provincial or national level.
The Premier Rugby clubs need to recognise that they are feeder competitions and that they are now feeding the eight team NRC which ensures all the best players at that level can come together.
These eight NRC sides in turn feed the five Super teams – whether five is too many is a different discussion but the structure of condensing the best Premier players into a restricted competition is the correct model.
I said it in a comment on another article, that each tier of rugby in Australia should be focussed on having a progressively smaller number of players covering a larger geographical footprint.
This means that our true grassroots level where we need to focus investment will see the broadest number of kids welcomed into rugby through the junior clubs and schools. These kids will play in highly localised competitions to make it easy for them to compete without the overhead of travelling.
After school players are welcomed into the Subbies, Championship or Country competitions which by their nature are likely to cover a broader region. These are inclusive comps catering for all levels of play.
If players have the aspiration and are good enough then they can seek admission to one of the Premiership clubs with a view to playing at the highest level attainable at a citywide level.
The best of the Premier players along with rare outliers from Subbies and more commonly Country rugby are then able to push for selection within the NRC.
This is the first level of national competition at a national level and therefore brings the potential audience towards 20 million. It is also the first step into a semi-pro environment.
Broadcast deals are in place and the competition is highly restrictive that only those deemed good enough can play the grade which mixes the best club players with hardened professionals from the Super franchises.
Key to the NRC is that the teams condense all the best talent from all lower tiers, with in most cases only one team to a city or region. This mixes amateur and professional players in a semi-pro environment.
The best of the NRC players will feed into Super Rugby which is fully professional and is a State/Provincial completion that takes on similar teams from a number of regions around the globe.
The best Super players feed into the national set up which is the country’s best players who in turn take on other nations across the entire globe.
Papworth complains that the importance of Premier Rugby (and in particular Sydney and Brisbane Premier rugby) is being eroded. This is incorrect with these competitions continuing to play an important role as the player numbers condense and the region covered increases at each successive tier.
The reality is that Premier Rugby needs to confirmed as fourth tier. Given the state of Australian rugby finances the fourth tier needs to be amateur to ensure that these clubs can survive without significant subsidisation by the ARU (as the country and subbies already manage).
Focus on investment should continue to be at the junior and school level, alongside the investment in the top three professional and semi-professional tiers with the majority of broadcast and gate revenue to fund the junior grassroots being produced at those highest levels of the game.
I believe we are on the correct pathway for Australian rugby with the NRC now having completed its third season.
A separate competition that keeps players from the top eight clubs in Sydney and Brisbane out of the NRC would be detrimental to ensuring all the best players of that calibre are in competition against players from the Super level.
Papworth’s plan for a Sydney and Brisbane club challenge should be put aside for the good of rugby union in this country and the NRC given every chance to succeed.