For months now, Australian rugby has been a whirlpool of speculation, finger pointing, rhetoric, confusion and anger. I for one am sick of it, mainly because there has been some fantastic Super Rugby on display.
Last weekend, the Brumbies finally broke out of their set-piece mould and showed signs of the true Brumbies spirit of smart, running rugby.
The Waratahs put on the worst opening 20 minutes I have ever seen, but then managed to look like a strong team on a mission in the second half – more of that please.
Then the Force and Kings put on 12 tries in an entertaining dance of the doomed.
There clearly needs to be more focus on rugby and its future.
The Australian sporting market is extremely competitive and rugby is about to make it even harder for themselves by cutting one team.
AFL must be licking their lips as rugby capitulates in either Western Australia or Victoria, which are strongholds for the former’s game.
The Victorian franchise should go, for mine. It is the least established, a poor performer and has been least vocal about keeping their license. Again, the ARU have made it difficult for themselves by selling the license to private owners, but my inkling is that the owners want to get rid of this headache anyway, as they seemingly have lost ground in the market.
Obviously, the ARU have mishandled the entire process. They have not been in proper communication with fans about their long-term strategy, and have been unwilling to talk about the real issues that plague the game.
With that said, I thought I’d provide my points for fixing this colossal mess.
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Communication and honesty
Communication about the changes to Super Rugby has been extremely poor. What both the ARU and SANZAAR need is for fans to understand their position and strategy, but glossing over shortfalls seems to be a hallmark of both institutions.
Take the debate over the playing numbers in Australia with the release of a Roy Morgan report, and the ARU pushing a positive, growing view. The Roy Morgan report looks off the mark – surely there is more participation in Australia than 55,000 – but the ARU’s numbers of 273,095 ‘rugby experiences’ is not telling the full picture.
What the hell is a rugby experience? Coming off the bench for one game in a random school rugby tournament? No one is interested in rugby experiences apart from PR departments, as it is just feel-good fluff.
We want to know how many people are playing rugby consistently, either for school, club, district, state or country level. We need to be honest about the state of the game in order for it to flourish.
The ARU needs to communicate the message clearly and let the fans and stakeholders know exactly what plan they are implementing. The annual reports and strategic plans are too high-level and vague. We need clear and concise leadership.
Communication also needs to happen between local, provincial and state entities, to share knowledge and resources to build the game. If we want to have any chance of getting ahead of the Kiwis, it starts with a national strategy and buy-in from every state and province.
We all want to be the best, so let’s work together.
Double the grassroots funding
Leading on from the communication point, fans need to know exactly what the ARU is spending on grass roots.
Alan Jones quizzed chairman Cameron Clyne about grassroots and Clyne’s response was more defensive than I would like. I believe he mentioned a spend of $4.2 million, but this was unclear.
Regardless, $4.2 million doesn’t get you much these days, so Australia should bite the bullet and double funding at least.
Australia has the talent to be world beaters, but uncovering and nurturing young talent is the key. Schools (not just private) and local clubs should be the priority.
Rugby is a game that people find hard to understand and, to be fair, it is. There are myriad rules and the breakdown and scrums can be downright confusing and very subjective. What we need is a generation of young players who have played the game and understand these rules.
People that love the game and are not bogged down in the old arguments of ‘they kick too much’ and ‘every five second the game stops’. Rugby can be turgid and frustrating when skills aren’t up to scratch but when the game opens up and the skills are on show, there is nothing quite like it.
The game wants to be played for long, unbroken periods and yes, kicking is actually an important part – field position is vital, as turnovers can occur at any time, and if they happen in your red zone, you are in trouble. That’s not to say that we need more kicking, we need less, just a bit more kicking with purpose.
Anyway back to my original point, feed the grassroots double the money, at least, and in ten years time we will see the results. This is a long-term strategy and we need to sacrifice now to ensure rugby’s future.
Leadership and coaching
The ARU needs to take the front foot on all issues circling and say directly, “We have made mistakes, we will do better and this is how.”
Strong leadership provides encouragement and belief, bringing out the best in people. If those at state and local level see this and have the proper investment, then we will see results.
Michael Cheika understands this and has been proactive with getting buy-in from players, pushing them and communicating his messages.
The ARU should take a leaf out of his book, sure he didn’t have the greatest year last year, but he leads from the front and we will see a much better Wallabies team in 2017.
As with grassroots, investment in growing and nurturing coaches must be a priority. A plan must be put in place here so that coaching talent is identified at local level, then they are up skilled using the knowledge of the premier coaches in Australia.
Invite young coaches to Wallabies and Super Rugby training sessions. Give them the tools to develop themselves and empower them to push their players to hone their skills and dream big.
Gone are the days when rugby was the toast of the local sporting landscape, with the Wallabies the shining international light; when a rabble of ex-Waratahs and Reds players combined with some homegrown gems to show that daring, passion and intelligence can breed a culture of confidence which directly translates to the scoreboard.
We now have an inconsistent culture that is lacking in the key areas of skills development and overall commitment.
New Zealand are the masters. From club level to the international stage, they have their culture and identity sorted. Their commitment and desire at every level are a model for all sports, that is how a country with a population the size of Sydney can be so good for so long.
The first step in changing culture is defining our identity. Australians are a weird bunch, for some reason when you heap praise on an Australian team they capitulate and misfire. The best teams had the same characteristics.
First, they are cunning. Australians will never be the biggest or the strongest but we can be the most cunning, the sides of the late 1990s and early 2000s knew this. Don’t be afraid to try new tactics, despite your critics, know that the physical side of the battle is only a component of a larger picture.
These sides also had people who punched well above their weight; these sides always seem to be the underdogs but underdogs with belief in their ability.
Additionally, these sides had a strong foundation of mateship and respect. Playing next to your mate breeds enjoyment for the game and building a culture of respect for coaches and other players breeds work ethic.
Finally came speed and skill. All good Australian rugby sides are fit and need to be because, as Cheika has correctly identified, the Australian way is about ball-in-hand rugby, played at pace. Playing a fast game from a young age is key, it aides the growth of the handling skills professionals need.
All these are elements of a good Australian team and if we correctly get our identity right as cunning, overachieving and fit underdogs, you will see results.
We urgently need Super Rugby on primetime free-to-air TV in Australia.
The fact it is only available on Fox is in keeping with the view a lot of people have about rugby in Australia: it is an elitist game played by private school boys.
Super Rugby has three of the strongest rugby nations as its founders. Playing games week in, week out against New Zealand sides is invaluable. Even airing the Kiwi games alone might give some people insight into how good rugby is when played with the right skill and attitude.
Next year, the competition is reverting back to a better format, but one that is still flawed. Work needs to be done on getting the right mix of interplay between conferences, but the main thing that can be done is give the public the ability to watch the games from the comfort of their own homes, without having to pay a monthly subscription.