Winning is a habit: Australia needs to learn the New Zealand way

Nicholas Bishop Columnist

By Nicholas Bishop, Nicholas Bishop is a Roar Expert

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    “Winning is not a sometime thing; it’s an all the time thing. You don’t win once in a while; you don’t do things right once in a while; you do them right all of the time. Winning is a habit,” so said legendary NFL coach Vince Lombardi.

    “Unfortunately, so is losing. Running a football team is no different than running any other kind of organisation – an army, a political party or a business. The principles are the same. The object is to win – to beat the other guy.”

    The Australian sporting psyche has always prided itself on being the winning mentality, the toughest out there. When all the punches have been thrown and taken, the Australian is the last man standing.

    As Lombardi says, he is the guy who “plays from the ground up – from the soles of his feet to the top of his head. Every inch of him has to play.”

    In my experience, words like ‘rebuilding’ and ‘development’ tend to dominate a sportsman’s vocabulary when the sense of winning – how it feels, what you have to do to find it again – is becoming a fading memory.

    And this is where Australian rugby finds itself right now, in a situation where there is a lot of talk of development and ‘building pathways’, while the on-field results suggest that, over a period of time, the winning mentality is being steadily eroded away.

    Towards the end of this week, there will be discussions held on the future of the five Australian franchises within the overall structure of Super Rugby.

    The principal criterion used to decide their fate, and whether Australia sticks with five or drops back to four, should be: what action will best enable us to recreate the winning mentality in Australian rugby?


    The combined record of the Western Force and the Melbourne Rebels stands at 32 per cent since the inception of the two expansion franchises (2006 for the Force, 2011 for the Rebels) and neither has ever reached the knockout stages of the Super Rugby tournament.

    The last time I wrote an article on this topic, back in July 2016, Australian teams had just experienced a weekend where they had lost to their (non-Australian) opponents by an average score of 13-45.

    Over the first two rounds of this year’s competition, the score is remarkably similar, at 19-42. The ultimate question is the same now as it was then: at what point does talk of development stop, and a conversation about winning begin?

    This is how a table of Australia’s decline in Super Rugby appears statistically.

    Seasons 1996-2005 (three teams) 2006-2010 (four teams) 2011-2016 (five teams)
    Average win percentage 55% 47% 42%

    As the number of franchises has expanded, so the number of wins has decreased proportionally. Over the past two seasons, the win ratio has dropped even further, down to below 37 per cent in 2015 and 2016 combined.

    In particular, how does Australia ‘develop’ as a rugby nation while steadily losing ground to its closest historical rival, New Zealand? In 2016, Australian Super Rugby sides only won three out of their 26 encounters with New Zealand opposition – now that record has already extended to three out of 29 into 2017.

    The table describing Wallaby success against New Zealand mirrors the decline of their Super Rugby teams within the same timeframes.

    Wallabies against All Blacks 1996-2005 2006-2010 2011-2016
    Average win percentage 43.50% 17.60% 10.50%

    As the number of its Super Rugby franchises has expanded, Australia has become steadily less competitive at both regional and Test level, and especially against the All Blacks, where the win ratio has dropped by 33 per cent since the movement from three to five teams.

    New Zealand has, in the meantime, retained the five regional sides with which it started Super Rugby back in 1996. The snowball of Kiwi success at both regional and Test level has been fuelled by consolidation, not expansion.

    The concrete result is that the winning mentality and aura of self-belief which Australian sportsmen have always enjoyed has, at least in rugby terms, seriously diminished. Whether that change becomes permanent may be decided by the choices of the ARU and SANZAAR at the end of this week.

    The game of the weekend – between the Highlanders and Crusaders in Dunedin – was a perfect example of an encounter between two teams who possess an inner core of self-belief, built up through structural stability and the experience of a number of winning seasons.

    Both sides ‘played from the soles of their feet up through the top of their head’. The audience, both live at the ground and remotely on TV, responded to a game that was being fought out with every fibre of each player’s being.

    Although the Crusaders won with a terrific fight-back in the second half, I suspect the Highlanders will also take a lot of positives out of the game.

    You’ve got to be smart to be number one in any business, more importantly though, you’ve got to play with your heart. If you’re lucky enough to find a guy with a lot of head and a lot of heart, he’s never going to come off the field second.

    The Highlanders did not come off the field second despite losing the match, and their three tries all demonstrated the highest levels of skill associated with true winners.

    The quality of a team’s set-piece attack tends to illustrate their self-belief particularly well. The levels of skill required to bring to life a blackboard plan from the week’s preparation and break open an organised defence ‘in the moment’ are of the highest order, and the Highlanders did it on three occasions.

    Lineout 26:25
    Look at the amount of detail that went into the Highlanders planning at this attacking five-man lineout. Their target area is the zone around the tail of the lineout and the first requirement is to widen the space available there to the maximum.

    First their halfback, Aaron Smith, sets up near the five-metre channel to pull away Crusaders defender Bryn Hall, then the lineout forwards shuffle down towards touch, before mounting a fake jump on #5 Tom Franklin. This keeps the Crusaders’ forwards away from the ‘hot zone’ – they cannot be running in defence when they are already committed to countering in the air.

    The throw by hooker Liam Coltman is finely honed precision – flying 30 metres in the air, and straight down the middle of the virtual tunnel to Waisake Naholo. As soon as Naholo catches the ball, the Crusaders end-defender, hooker Codie Taylor, knows he is in big trouble.

    Both he and #6 Jordan Taufua are in a mismatch in space with the All Blacks’ wingman, and the final nuance is the use of replacement Gareth Evans as the finisher. Evans is a back-rower who has also played wing, so the Highlanders would know he has the foot-speed to beat whatever remains of the cover defence.

    Scrum 34:40
    At this midfield scrum towards the end of the first half, the Highlanders had identified a weakness in the Crusaders’ set-piece defence. The Crusaders were defending with their #15 David Havili in the 10 channel and first five-eighth Mitch Hunt at fullback.

    The fullback has to be a good reader of play and opposing intentions. He has some important decisions to make about which side of the backfield to cover, especially when the blind-side wing decides to press up on the line, rather than sit off on a 10-20m cushion and hedge his bets against both pass and kick.

    Here, Seta Tamanivalu, who betrayed all the signs of a centre playing in an unfamiliar role on the outside, not only presses up on Naholo, he then turns the wrong way when the kick is put in behind him. The wing needs to turn out towards the sideline in order to either shadow Naholo, or at the very least force him to bend his running arc so that a straight line pursuit at full speed is not possible.

    The kick itself is a very high-level skill by Smith. He has to take the ball from a scrum under pressure and run the long way around Taufua before he can even make it. The kick is top-spun while on the move – Smith gets his foot well above the ball to keep it galloping forward after contact with the grass, and it settles in the only five-square-metre patch of ground where Naholo can collect it and score without losing momentum.

    Meanwhile, Hunt has fully committed to the far side of the scrum and cannot play a role in cover defence, which means a break turns quickly into a score.

    Highlanders Elliot Dixon (C) runs in to score a try

    Lineout 45:40
    The final example provides a nice illustration of one way to unlock a rush defence from first phase set-piece via the kicking game.

    The chip in behind the line can typically only be covered by two defenders. The defensive #9 will normally drop into the shallow zone behind the front line and pick up these kicks in phase-play, but in the Crusaders’ system, he starts in the tram-lines and cannot cover the option from first phase lineout.

    The other key defender is the defensive #13, another Crusaders rookie in the shape of 21-year-old Jack Goodhue.

    He cannot commit until the ball has moved beyond the opposing first receiver, otherwise the chip becomes a ‘live’ option. Here, Lima Sopoaga spots Goodhue positioned too wide and caught in no man’s land as he receives the ball, and knows that he can hit his own centre Malakai Fekitoa on a line underneath him.

    Once again Hunt is too far back to prevent either the catch by Fekiota, or the subsequent scoring offload by Fekitoa to Naholo.

    “Knowing what is required to win” means the right combination of sharply honed skills and the composure to spot weaknesses, remember plans, and be able to execute, whatever the pressure. It means “playing from the soles of your feet through to the top of your head”. When you can repeat the process often enough, it hardens into a winning mentality, an inner self-belief.

    New Zealand teams have a settled outlook and a settled structure within Super Rugby. With its five franchises and the bewitching thought of ‘expansion’ at the forefront of its mind. Australian rugby has lost the habit of winning – one which used to be natural to all its sportsmen.

    This applies to both Super Rugby and the level above it, which is fed and nourished by what happens below.

    At present, it is very hard to see how Australian rugby can break out of the loop of failure without a complete re-appraisal of its structure. This Friday, hard facts, not speculation, must govern the decisions made by the ARU and SANZAAR – even if it means going backwards to go forward again.

    Nicholas Bishop
    Nicholas Bishop

    Nick Bishop has worked as a rugby analyst and advisor to Graham Henry (1999-2003), Mike Ruddock (2004-2005) and most recently Stuart Lancaster (2011-2015). He also worked on the 2001 British & Irish Lions tour to Australia and produced his first rugby book with Graham Henry at the end of the tour. Three more rugby books have followed, all of which of have either been nominated for or won national sports book awards. Nick?s latest is a biography of Phil Larder, the first top Rugby League coach to successfully transfer over to Union, entitled ?The Iron Curtain?. He is currently writing articles for The Roar and The Rugby Site, and working as a strategy consultant to Stuart Lancaster and the Leinster coaching staff for their European matches.

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    The Crowd Says (415)

    • March 8th 2017 @ 5:13am
      John said | March 8th 2017 @ 5:13am | ! Report

      Hi Nicholas, what a great article – again. Thank you. There seem to be several misconceptions flying around that I want to mention – no opinion either way but curious for your thoughts.

      First, is the issue the player pool being diluted by 5 teams or the coaching pool? Tim Horan (or anyone else north of the Tweed) will tell us that a strong Reds is a strong Wallabies so we should drop one of the expansion teams, yet the Force beat a star studded Reds outfit last Saturday. A Force that was shackled for 6 or 7 years by Michael Foley and Richard Graham. A Richard Graham who was only seen for what he was once he weaved his unique magic in Brisbane. So why doesn’t Australia have 5 strong provincial coaches and a strong national coach?

      Second, the plays you described require very minute planning, then very precise repetition on the training paddock and finally perfect execution on a field. A lot of things have to go well for those plays to work. As I read your article I wondered how many set piece tries have been scored across all super rugby teams and TRC teams over the past say 5 to 10 years. That would be fascinating research that would surely bring other facts to the fore.

      Finally – basic skills. Does it really matter how many super rugby sides Australia has if the player pool is arriving at the higher levels lacking basic catch, pass and tackle skills?

      • Columnist

        March 8th 2017 @ 6:58am
        Nicholas Bishop said | March 8th 2017 @ 6:58am | ! Report

        Hi John.

        Thanks for your intelligent response.

        I think the player dilution effect is a real issue, and it also impacts the basic skills area you mention at the end of your post. The more concentrated the talent in a group, the higher the level of basic skills and the more the competition between players forces them to improve. You want to create that internal pressure to push levels higher.

        Atm there is very little for an Australian SR player to lose. There is no threat of relegation for his team (as there is in the EPL) and the five franchises supply a plethora of spots for some players whose skills are pretty ordinary.

        Australia always used to be the best in the world at creating and implementing killer set-piece attacks (I know, I used to have to break them down!) now that mantle has been taken over by NZ at both Test and provincial level. Sign of the times.

        • Roar Guru

          March 8th 2017 @ 2:25pm
          Hoy said | March 8th 2017 @ 2:25pm | ! Report

          Our coaches suck. Look at how we rotate the same ones… with the same or even less success…

          I could go on for a long time on the coaches and why the decisions to hire them were madness, but the fact is, Rugby in Aus is being held back by itself effectively.

          We have the cattle, they just aren’t being put in the right paddocks by their farmers.

          • March 8th 2017 @ 3:15pm
            ClarkeG said | March 8th 2017 @ 3:15pm | ! Report

            Or many of the players you have might have the basic rugby skills of those you might expect cattle to have.

      • March 8th 2017 @ 7:38am
        mania said | March 8th 2017 @ 7:38am | ! Report

        john “a strong Reds is a strong Wallabies ” is BS
        in NZ we had a similar axiom and that was “if Auckland is strong then ABs are strong.”
        the Blues have been the weaker nz franchise for over 7-8 years yet the ABs are in a golden era.
        agree about your basics skills. its a waste of time having 5 franchises if all the players coming through suk. that’s not achieving anything other than those players just turning up making up numbers and collecting their salary.
        not sure about your coaching problem

        Nicholas – yet another awesome article. u bring a lot of enlightenment to this site

        • Columnist

          March 8th 2017 @ 9:10am
          Nicholas Bishop said | March 8th 2017 @ 9:10am | ! Report

          Cheers Mania!

        • March 8th 2017 @ 9:25am
          Rugby Tragic said | March 8th 2017 @ 9:25am | ! Report

          mania, remember the days of rucking… and it was then, “If Otago and Southland were strong, the All Blacks would be strong” … it had nothing to do with the main rivalry in NZ between Auks and Cantabs who between them dominated the rugby scene in NZ

          • March 8th 2017 @ 10:26am
            mania said | March 8th 2017 @ 10:26am | ! Report

            RT I have honestly never heard “If Otago and Southland were strong, the All Blacks would be strong”
            that’s bizarre

            • March 8th 2017 @ 10:52am
              richard said | March 8th 2017 @ 10:52am | ! Report

              I can only assume that goes back to the late 1940’s when Vic Cavanagh had the then dominant Otago side in NZ.Don’t know about Southland,though.

              • March 8th 2017 @ 11:26am
                mania said | March 8th 2017 @ 11:26am | ! Report

                must be. I started watching rugby in the late 70’s and had never heard that

              • March 8th 2017 @ 11:47am
                richard said | March 8th 2017 @ 11:47am | ! Report

                Yeah,it’s before my time.But,I have read of Vic Cavanagh ( how he didn’t take the AB’s to SA in 1949 unbelievable.Combination of politics/envy is my guess).

              • March 8th 2017 @ 3:02pm
                Old Bugger said | March 8th 2017 @ 3:02pm | ! Report

                Yep – Vic Cavanagh and Otago go together like size 12 boots and rucking. He initiated this form of rugby and Otago, became the initiators to show it, to the rugger fraternity.

                That’s when you learned how to take a tackle, fall and roll toward, the safest pairs of boots……your own team-mates because, even the almighty, wouldn’t be able to save you, if you didn’t!!

            • March 8th 2017 @ 3:42pm
              Rugby Tragic said | March 8th 2017 @ 3:42pm | ! Report

              mania sorry probably I used wrong choice of words but I was referring to actually rucking but never indicated that. It was, if my memory serves me correctly late 50’s (OB might recall), when Carisbrook and the ground in Invercargill was often a bog and rucking was the key weapon of the disputed breakdown ball.

              Otago and Southland were apparently very strong in those days and I recall the words of a gentleman Mr Shaw (the father of my best mate at that time), a policeman who took me to my first live rugby test in 1956) telling me of the exploits of the two southern provinces who apparently had dominated the Ranfurly Shield in years gone by (don’t know how true that was, I was too young but eagerly listened to whatever I could about rugby) and that if the two southern provinces were strong, then the “AB’s would also be strong”.

              • March 8th 2017 @ 4:03pm
                Old Bugger said | March 8th 2017 @ 4:03pm | ! Report

                richard is right RT – more in the ’40s.

                However, some interesting tid-bits that I failed to mention. There were two “Vic Cavanaghs” being father and son commonly referred to as Old Vic and Young Vic.

                Both were players of cricket and rugby and coaches of both. Old Vic pioneered the 3-4-1 scrum back in the late ’20s while Young Vic pioneered the rucking form in the late ’40s. They both coached Otago Rugby and did so, as a tag team, in 1936.

                Sadly, Old Vic passed on 11 June 1952 (a day before my entry to this world, hence my excuse, as to having very little knowledge of him) while Young Vic passed on 20 July 1980.

                PS – Thank goodness for Wikipedia.

              • March 8th 2017 @ 8:05pm
                Ridzenieks said | March 8th 2017 @ 8:05pm | ! Report

                RT – I played on Rugby Park in the 50s. More mud than grass, and the edges of the boot indentations were like razors on frozen Saturday mornings. In memory, rugby at that time seemed to be mostly lineout after lineout.

              • March 8th 2017 @ 10:26pm
                Rugby Tragic said | March 8th 2017 @ 10:26pm | ! Report

                Thanks OB … and Ridzenieks the grounds yesteryear were constant bogs. drainage was letting the ground dry our naturally! I started playing rugby as a 10 year old, early 50’s the first game I played (or participated more like it) in was at Western Springs in Auckland.

                I sort of remember it well in that I have memories of slipping and sliding all over the ground. Even though such a long time ago, I vividly remember the occasion as I had no boots!

        • Roar Guru

          March 9th 2017 @ 10:44am
          taylorman said | March 9th 2017 @ 10:44am | ! Report

          Logically that doesn’t actually mean that a strong Auckland side doesn’t mean a strong All Black side.

          The 80’s World Cup side was heavily Auckland influenced as were the sixties sides.

          There’s every likelihood that a dominant Auckland side would result in an even stronger AB side. It’s just not necessary to have one now.

    • March 8th 2017 @ 5:30am
      P2R2 said | March 8th 2017 @ 5:30am | ! Report

      AUS Rugby will be better off with 3 Teams….the percentages prove that…now that there are 5 Teams….mostly full of ex-NRL players, Fijians, PI’s and NZers….where is the pathway for home-grown Australian boys…say no more

      • March 8th 2017 @ 8:35pm
        soapit said | March 8th 2017 @ 8:35pm | ! Report

        the pathway is clearly there if theyre good enough

    • March 8th 2017 @ 5:38am
      RedandBlack said | March 8th 2017 @ 5:38am | ! Report

      Sun Tzu he say “Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.”

      • Roar Guru

        March 8th 2017 @ 6:11am
        taylorman said | March 8th 2017 @ 6:11am | ! Report

        Ha ha, the latter of which is exactly what the Crusaders did, bar the defeat of course.

        • March 8th 2017 @ 8:58am
          RedandBlack said | March 8th 2017 @ 8:58am | ! Report

          Yeah – well thats probably a bit of a fair call – am I the only one who got the impression that the senior forwards took over towards the end, binned the game plan and said lets go where we are strong. Its just that what had gone before did not seem to be a lead in towards that finish.

          • March 8th 2017 @ 10:40am
            BBA said | March 8th 2017 @ 10:40am | ! Report

            To be fair R&B, I think you are right, but if the inference is that the coaching team and game plan got it wrong may be unfair.

            I think the Crusaders played what was in front of them, and that as the game proceeded the Highlanders injuries and inexperience gave the Crusaders pack an advantage, the players on the field recognized that and correctly placed greater emphasis on the tight play. I think that is what you want from the team. You could also say with the bench they chose that it may have been the game plan.

            While I certainly had a feeling of deja vu with how the highlanders game was going in the first 60 mins, I also have to say that the Highlanders scored some very skillful tries. I did feel that the Crusaders was always going to finish stronger but was hoping that they wouldn’t have to come from so far behind.

      • Columnist

        March 8th 2017 @ 6:49am
        Nicholas Bishop said | March 8th 2017 @ 6:49am | ! Report

        I like that axiom R&B – thanks… The capacity of NZ sides to bring plans to fruition on the field is certainly unmatched by anyone else in the world.

        • March 8th 2017 @ 8:45am
          John said | March 8th 2017 @ 8:45am | ! Report

          Remember the All Black try in the RWC 2011 final? The one where the lineout splits front and back with Woodcock (?) taking the pass right through the middle?

          Was it 4 years later in Chicago and the All Blacks used it again and scored. The referee both times was Craig Joubert. Go back and watch the replay in Chicago and listen to Joubert once he awards that try when he says to Richie “Where have I seen that before?”

          Not often you see a referee that game-aware as to spot a set piece play from 4 years prior.

          • Columnist

            March 8th 2017 @ 9:12am
            Nicholas Bishop said | March 8th 2017 @ 9:12am | ! Report

            Yes that is a move Steve Hansen has been aware of ever since his time in Wales – the Ospreys used to use it with Mike Phillips through the middle. If you ever see the reaction in the box after Woodcocks’s try, GH immediately smiles and shakes Shag by the hand!

        • March 8th 2017 @ 9:02am
          RedandBlack said | March 8th 2017 @ 9:02am | ! Report

          You are welcome Nick – as with all of Sun Tzu there are multiple interpretations of that stanza but that is the simplest and most direct English translation I have come across. As TM has hinted above I wouldn’t object to the Crusaders plans being implemented slightly less opaquely.

    • March 8th 2017 @ 6:23am
      AndyS said | March 8th 2017 @ 6:23am | ! Report

      Agree with the conclusion, but the structure that needs to be changed is the one below SR. It should have happened in 2003, but they lacked the will. It could have happened belatedly in 2007, but they still lacked the will. They have made a start again, but appear to have stalled somewhat. Ultimately you can’t build on sand, you need foundations. And what the NZ system shows is to support a professional structure you need a solid semi-professional foundation, so that the top ream is polishing rather than teaching. Unsurprisingly, it is also where you find out which coaches and refs have what it takes, and which don’t before you give them two years leading the top team up the garden path.

      I would add that, even then, NZ has always seemed far more forward looking. They could have sat back complacently and revelled in success – they’ve had enough of it over a long time. They could have told themselves that so long as Auckland and Canterbury were strong, the ABs would be strong and it didn’t matter if the other teams languished. But they didn’t – it wasn’t broken, but that didn’t mean it couldn’t be improved. So they moved out of the past, levelled the playing field and accepted that rugby outside the old strongholds might be worthwhile and maybe even valuable. So now they have five teams kicking the doors down, and the ABs are setting new records. I wouldn’t mind betting that the flip side of the decline in the Australian success ratios is a similar but even larger rise in NZ success, as it likely has much to do with them getting better than either of their competitors.

      We’ll see what happens this week, if they don’t just kick the can down the street again. But hard to shake the feeling that if the ARU starts stepping back, they’ll end up following their eyes on a one way journey.

      • Columnist

        March 8th 2017 @ 7:04am
        Nicholas Bishop said | March 8th 2017 @ 7:04am | ! Report

        I don’t know a lot about the structure of Aus rugby below SR level Andy, but we all know how a pyramid works (wider and stronger at the bottom) and the NPC certainly gives New Zealand that powerful base as a springboard. Connected with what John has said, it is also a breeding ground for quality coaching.

        The difference between the five teams in NZ and Aus is clear. NZ always had strong historical playing bases in Wellington, Otago & Southland and the Waikato – it was just a matter of harnessing that history and pointing it in a new direction.

        What Australia is attempting with the Rebels and Force is far more ambitious. Building history more or less from scratch, in areas where other sports are already dominant. Not easy!

        • March 8th 2017 @ 8:48am
          John said | March 8th 2017 @ 8:48am | ! Report

          That’s a great point Nicholas,

          I don’t recall Waikato winning much of anything till a few years ago – bring in a good bright coach in Rennie and then back to back titles in 2012 and 2013.

          • March 8th 2017 @ 9:07am
            RedandBlack said | March 8th 2017 @ 9:07am | ! Report

            Ha ha – you’re going to have a few Mooloo boys hating on ya for that comment. They are I think the 3rd most successful province in the history of NZ rugby (and yes that may be disputed too). Perhaps you mean the Chiefs though? Even then they did make a final pre Rennie. Got smashed of course but still …

            • Columnist

              March 8th 2017 @ 9:14am
              Nicholas Bishop said | March 8th 2017 @ 9:14am | ! Report

              Yep the Waikato has always been pretty fair – burial ground of few Lions sides too!

              • March 8th 2017 @ 10:51am
                Jacko said | March 8th 2017 @ 10:51am | ! Report

                The 1981 game V SA that was called off led to some fairly brutal stuff that day

            • March 8th 2017 @ 2:15pm
              John said | March 8th 2017 @ 2:15pm | ! Report

              Oops – yes I meant The Chiefs. Sorry …..

            • March 8th 2017 @ 3:40pm
              ClarkeG said | March 8th 2017 @ 3:40pm | ! Report

              Yeah that 2009 final was ugly.

              I remember the semi final v Hurricanes. Couldn’t see the last few mins when the fog drifted in.

          • March 8th 2017 @ 9:12am
            Darwin Stubbie said | March 8th 2017 @ 9:12am | ! Report

            Rennie has never coached Waikato – who have won plenty – a proud tradition of being NPC champions and Shield tenures … the conglomerate Chiefs on the other hand are a different beast

        • March 8th 2017 @ 10:19am
          Unanimous said | March 8th 2017 @ 10:19am | ! Report

          The AFL has and is doing it in non Aussie rules states. They choose to place teams where there is enough of a market to expand upon. They use their player draft and salary cap processes to quickly build the strength of new teams by providing additional draft picks and teamporarily higher salary cap during the early years. The league will subsidise a new club for a few years if necessary.

          You can look also at the NHL which underwent an enourmous expansion from the 1960s on. Different competition format, but all else similar to the AFL except an even greater missmatch between areas of high player development and audience. If top Canadian players had to play in Canada, the US would only be able to support 6 teams. It would be a 12 team comp generating about 25% of the revenue it does. The standard of play would be higher, but no one would be making as much money, and far fewer people would be watching or involved in the sport. Globally ice hockey is in a similar position to rugby. It is an intetesting comparison.

          The AFL is probably scratching its head in amazement at super rugby expecting team strength to be driven by local player strength rather than directing player strength to potential markets. Starting teams in new markets and letting them fail on the field is gross business stupidity.

          The old amateur rep model that operated in rugby in the southern hemisphere – club/district, state/province, nation is still well alive particulary in NZ where SR teams are rep teams for groups of ITM cup teams, and ITM cup teams are rep teams for the clubs below, but some horizontal player mobility has been introduced. The NRC in Australia is following that model. SA is also similar.

          This model is great for player development, and has always enabled the southern hemisphere to develop strong national teams. It works okay in an established market from a financial point of view in the absence of other leagues that drain players away. Due to split seasons it doesn’t enable teams to generate as much money to retain players as a full season does. The split season is important to player development because higher level players play alongside lower levels for part of the year. The model is complete crap at spreading the game.

          NZ doesn’t care about developing markets because they are already as rugby developed as it is possible to be. Up to now NZ has used the All Black money generation capacity and nationalistic aura to retain players. This will fail over the next 10 years as commercially driven leagues develop further in Europe.

          The ARU would switch to an AFL model operating in Aus/NZ immediately if they could. NZ and SA won’t until SR fails almost completely.

          Ideally, rugby needs a global commision that operates similarly to the AFL to coordinate all week to week professional competitions. This would operate a number of national, regional, and champions leagues, but with coordinated salary caps, schedules, seasons (not identical seasons, just coordinated), possibly player drafts, TV contracts, digital distribution, etc. Given the vested interests, I think it will never happen. SR could become that body if it merged with the Pro12 and adopted what are standard business practises for most sports. World Rugby could make it happen too, but they don’t see the need for the role.

          Rugby has always been conservative from a professional point of view and still is. It will continue to underperform from a market point of view.

          • March 8th 2017 @ 11:44am
            richard said | March 8th 2017 @ 11:44am | ! Report

            “This will fail over the next 10 years as commercially driven leagues develop further in Europe.”

            Sure,every chance it will happen.See,the NH is hoovering up SH talent at a great rate now.And the NH will use their clubs to do all their poaching for them.Look no further than Ireland for an example.

            My personal view – this is the NH way of becoming dominant ON the field as well as off it.Buy their way to success.

          • March 8th 2017 @ 2:02pm
            RebelRanger said | March 8th 2017 @ 2:02pm | ! Report

            How are the successful soccer countries doing it? How is Germany etc keeping their domestic/ international teams afloat?
            You’ve got a great post but you’re comparing it to leagues like AFL which doesn’t have the poaching issues that rugby union faces.

            • March 8th 2017 @ 6:22pm
              Unanimous said | March 8th 2017 @ 6:22pm | ! Report

              Germany has teams averaging 70,000 attendance, and large TV audiences. It is one of the best attended leagues and is one of the leagues that sucks in players from the world, as the Top14 does in rugby.

              A better question might be how do the Dutch or Argentinian legues do what they do. Both countries have strong national teams, but not top level leagues although their leagues are reasonably well attended. A number of things I can think of:

              A lot of people go to Soccer to sing and chant along with other peers – the games are an excuse for that so the play and status of the league isn’t as important. A lot of other people like to hear the singing and atmosphere.

              Winning at soccer has a large random element to it, so it takes a larger difference in ability to win frequently than in other sports. This makes salary caps and drafts less important.

              Soccer has important knock out competitions that predate leagues, and large knock out components to international competitions. There is more luck in these compared to leagues, which combined with the luck in individual matches, gives lots of teams chances to win something.

              This luck helps prevent rich leagues from dominating international club comps completely and so clubs from lesser fumded leagues still do well occasionally which helps them maintain some status in their own countries.

              The soccer economy has been dominated by clubs from very early on. National teams generate interest now, but this was not the case until after WW2.There is a long tradition of watching your club no matter what.

              For most of its history soccer has used a transfer system of richer clubs paying poorer clubs for their players, and poorer clubs having a say in their player transfers. The central bodies do not transfer which club a player is registeted to play for without the old club’s say so. This has resulted in poorer leagues at least being able to replace big name players with good substitutes.

              Probably soccer could be even more popular if it put more things in place to equalise leagues in different nations, look at attendances when top teams come here compared to A-league games. But it is seen to be doing well, so there is no percieved problem at the top level.

          • Columnist

            March 8th 2017 @ 2:47pm
            Geoff Parkes said | March 8th 2017 @ 2:47pm | ! Report

            Really good post Unanimous. Big picture, I that’s a pretty fair assessment of the lay of the land.

          • March 8th 2017 @ 2:51pm
            Republican said | March 8th 2017 @ 2:51pm | ! Report

            … is moot as to whether the AFL’s forays have or will prove successful.
            Gold Coast is certainly struggling while GWS is a huge punt on the AFL’s part especially when you consider that there are a number of assured markets domestically that the AFL ignored i.e. Tassie, an extra Perth side and of course Canberra, to name a few.

          • Columnist

            March 8th 2017 @ 5:32pm
            Nicholas Bishop said | March 8th 2017 @ 5:32pm | ! Report

            I do recall following the NFL in the States when it changed the goalposts around the mid 1990s. Up until then only one of four or five teams could win the Superbowl, and there were winning dynasties in cities like San Francisco and Dallas.

            Then they changed the rules on free agency and extended the college draft to favour the new expansion franchises and perennial bottom feeders. Now there is a much wider spread of winners, and they seem to ensure that the newcomers have a chance to progress to the playoffs within the first 3-5 years of their start-point.

            • March 8th 2017 @ 10:01pm
              Unanimous said | March 8th 2017 @ 10:01pm | ! Report

              Yes. It’s the standard way to run professional leagues. Soccer has different ways to give various teams a go as listed a few comments up, but most professional leagues in most sports in most of the world put things in place to equalise teams access to players and give special help to new teams. SR hasn’t because it hasn’t suited NZ, and to a lesser extent SA, to do so. NZ is running out of worthy oponents because of it. Next they’ll be unable to retain their own players and our great player development systems will be feeders for European teams.

              • March 9th 2017 @ 6:11am
                richard said | March 9th 2017 @ 6:11am | ! Report

                The player development systems already are a feeder to Europe.That horse has long bolted.

      • March 8th 2017 @ 10:47am
        BBA said | March 8th 2017 @ 10:47am | ! Report

        On your point AndyS, I also think there have been strong benefits below Superugby at the NPC level. Which I think is helped by only being a smaller and less financially draining, or paying competition. Accordingly players tend to play more for provinces they identify with and where you play NPC does not necessarily restrict you on who you play Superugby for (once you have been selected by another Superugby team).

        Accordingly you get better competition (apart from Canterbury always winning it at the end, well at least for most of the last decade). Second tier teams can still have stars playing for them, and fans tend to identify more with their teams.

    • Roar Pro

      March 8th 2017 @ 6:27am
      Matt Davis said | March 8th 2017 @ 6:27am | ! Report

      Seems to me Australia spend that much of the latter period after 2006 (until perhaps Pulver came in, and subsequently Cheika?) with their priorities out of order.
      RWC 2003 funds were depleted, bonuses were big, and there was very little strategic thinking (that i can see any evidence of).

      It’s only now that we are starting to see these things turn around-a leaner ARU, a strategy (even if some people don’t like it), a top-down focus. These are all things that if our leadership had had more sense, they would of taken a minute to look at NZ’s already successful structure in 2006 and seen, and looked to replicate.

      So then the problem that you mention-we don’t have the requisite success at this point to justify five franchises in this structure of Super Rugby, but the two new franchises have built communities and fan-bases and are starting to to produce (in great numbers) local talent at a provincial level. So how can we decide who to cut?

      To boot, nobody likes this current Super Rugby format (except maybe the South Africans who it appeases, and obviously the Japanese and the Argentinians must).

      My early thought is that I think that we the only way forward is expansion, i think that we need to split the competition into an A and B level (like Champions Cup and Challenge Cup in Europe)-two twelve team round robins.

      The local conferences as they are play each other once, as they are now to start the season to get a seeding.
      Then Super-Dooper Rugby, top two from each SA conference, top 3 from Australia, and all five NZ teams play in the top tier. Perhaps after the first year, the winners get automatic qualification to the next year’s comp, and NZ reduces to four teams qualifying (rewarding the most successful country)
      Second tier comp (Almost-Super Rugby) is comprised of the bottom two teams from Australia, bottom four teams across South African conferences, two more teams from Argentina, two from the USA, two from Canada who play each other in a robin.

      Names need work.

      • Columnist

        March 8th 2017 @ 7:10am
        Nicholas Bishop said | March 8th 2017 @ 7:10am | ! Report

        I quite like this idea of a two-tier comp Matt. It would certainly make some sense in playing terms, providing you could get the TV networks and host Unions to accept it. The Challenge Cup in Europe is very much the poor relation however, and the main problem might turn out to be how to make that tournament truly viable. A promotion/relegation format would definitely add some urgency to the development plans of the Aus SR franchises, which is sorely needed!

      • March 8th 2017 @ 7:55am
        Kane said | March 8th 2017 @ 7:55am | ! Report

        Beg to differ, names are spot on.

    • Roar Guru

      March 8th 2017 @ 6:43am
      Harry Jones said | March 8th 2017 @ 6:43am | ! Report

      Top class article, as usual.

      I agree winning can become habitual (and then you tend to win the ugly close games you shouldn’t).

      Within that macro-habit, there are micro-habits of winners:

      – fitness
      – decisions under pressure
      – unity
      – knowing what to do in almost any situation

      • Columnist

        March 8th 2017 @ 6:47am
        Nicholas Bishop said | March 8th 2017 @ 6:47am | ! Report

        Agree with all of that Harry…

        England have acquired that habit over the past 18 months, and part of the reason for that was the ‘work of irrigation’ done by Stuart Lancaster in the previous regime – bringing the relationship between the clubs and the national side much closer together.

        However many Australian SR sides there are after Friday, at least and preferably three of them need to end up with winning seasons in 2018, in order to really support the efforts Michael Cheika and his coaching group are making.

        • Roar Guru

          March 8th 2017 @ 6:50am
          Harry Jones said | March 8th 2017 @ 6:50am | ! Report

          Agree w that
          EJ stepped into a really good situation

          • Columnist

            March 8th 2017 @ 7:15am
            Nicholas Bishop said | March 8th 2017 @ 7:15am | ! Report

            Yep and I don’t think he can still believe just how ready-made it was Harry!

          • March 8th 2017 @ 7:20am
            Dan in Devon said | March 8th 2017 @ 7:20am | ! Report

            Lancaster’s problem was that he didn’t seem to know what his best XV was – Eddie has a clearer idea about who and what he wants to play. That said, it will avail to nothing if things should start to unravel closer to the RWC. I am not sure that England can maintain the Jones style intensity for four years. They have looked wearied in parts during the six nations and I can see them losing both games to scotland and Ireland. Perhaps the selection of Billy Vunipola will give them the dynamism they have been missing?

            • Columnist

              March 8th 2017 @ 7:25am
              Nicholas Bishop said | March 8th 2017 @ 7:25am | ! Report

              Stuart knew his best XV Dan, though he wasn’t always able to put it on the field. That’s why 90% of Eddie’s choices are Lancaster picks – when all the ‘experts’ were demanding big changes of personnel after EJ took over…

              Agree that the sort of burn-out you describe will be a factor sooner rather than later though… Scotland will be a true test for England now… and the fact that the Scots haven’t beaten England at Twickenham for about 158 years will give them all the motivation they need!

              • Roar Rookie

                March 8th 2017 @ 12:42pm
                Dwards said | March 8th 2017 @ 12:42pm | ! Report

                To me this is the big question for England looking forward. 18 wins on the trot will feel pretty hollow if they don’t succeed at the next RWC. Perhaps their timing is out by about 18months?

              • Roar Guru

                March 8th 2017 @ 6:20pm
                Fionn said | March 8th 2017 @ 6:20pm | ! Report

                Agreed, Dwards. An upset loss to Australia or Wales or Ireland in the quarters or semis in the WC and suddenly people no longer remember Eddie fondly.

                Do you remember how much we loved Robbie Deans in 2010 and early 2011 (basically, until the World Cup fiasco, including that upset loss to Ireland that meant we played NZ in the semis rather than France…)?

              • Columnist

                March 8th 2017 @ 8:01pm
                Nicholas Bishop said | March 8th 2017 @ 8:01pm | ! Report

                And timing your peak to the WC cycle used to be an AB problem!!

              • Roar Rookie

                March 8th 2017 @ 8:52pm
                Dwards said | March 8th 2017 @ 8:52pm | ! Report

                I think the Allblacks seem to have sorted the timing problem.
                They’re just at peak the whole time now.

              • Columnist

                March 8th 2017 @ 9:13pm
                Nicholas Bishop said | March 8th 2017 @ 9:13pm | ! Report

                Yep a 90% win rate would suggest that!…

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