NRC sponsorship loss must convince the ARU to return to its grassroots

Spiro Zavos Columnist

By Spiro Zavos, Spiro Zavos is a Roar Expert

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    The loss of Buildcorp’s naming rights sponsorship of the NRC, along with BMW and Lion Nathan walking away from their rugby deals, should be a wake-up call to the ARU that the experiment of using the rugby game as an ‘agent of social change’ must stop.

    In its pursuit of this experiment, the ARU has essentially abandoned the traditional heartland of rugby in pursuit of an agenda that is worthy but does not represent the real mission of the ARU, which is to promote the interests and growth of rugby as a priority concern.

    Buildcorp is withdrawing its NRC sponsorship because its requests for a women’s XV version of the competition has been rejected.

    The principal and co-founder of Buildcorp, Josephine Sukkar (whose name will come up later in this article in a different but crucial capacity) has been quoted by the Daily Telegraph, which broke the story, as saying that Buildcorp “could not continue to align their business with an NRC competition that didn’t offer the same opportunities to women as it did for men.”

    Buildcorp has been and remains a valuable sponsor for rugby, despite its withdrawal of support for the NRC.

    NRC rugby - Australia's rugby future

    In June 2016, for example, the ARU announced a “historic partnership” with Buildcorp to become naming-rights partners of the Wallaroos and the Women’s National XVs Championship.

    In the ARU media release announcing this sponsorship, it was noted Buildcorp had a sponsorship presence at “grassroots, state, national and international levels of rugby … ranging from women’s and men’s university rugby teams in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, to the Buildcorp National Rugby Championship, and now the Buildcorp Women’s National XV Championship and the Buildcorp Wallaroos.”

    Also in this media release was the following statement by the ARU’s chief executive, Bill Pulver:

    “Women’s rugby is a core strategic focus for our organisation, as we strive to make Australian rugby a game for all, and inspire all Australians to enjoy our great global game. By 2020, we want 15 per cent of all Australian rugby players to be female.”

    Now, a year after the announcement of the Wallaroo’s sponsorship, Buildcorp has pulled out of its most significant sponsorship.

    Buildcorp are a success story in an industry littered with financial collapses. In an interview with the Australian’s Glenda Korporaal a year or so ago, Josephine Sukkar explained why her company sponsored the NRC.

    “There’s a gap between club rugby, like Sydney Uni, Randwick and Warringah, and the Waratahs. It’s a huge jump for the players. The NRC pulls up the stronger players from the clubs into the middle tier, which is faster and a bit stronger and it gives them exposure to go to the next level.”

    Well, perhaps. But clearly with Buildcorp’s sponsorship withdrawal from the NRC, Ms Sukkar’s commitment to closing the gap for club players – male players, that is – is no longer a major concern for her.

    Given the vitality and interest generated by club rugby, especially in the last couple of years, it is time for the ARU to revisit the NRC concept.

    A ‘Super Club’ tournament involving the leading Sydney and Brisbane clubs, with championship-winning sides from Melbourne, Canberra and Perth, would seem to be the ideal replacement for the NRC. The tournament would take place when the NRC does and teams would be allowed to bolster their ranks by taking, say, a couple of players from clubs that have not qualified for the tournament.

    I noted earlier that the name of Ms Sukkar would come up later in this article in a different capacity. Now is the time for noting that Ms Sukkar is a member of the Nominations Committee, which identifies and recommends prospective directors to the ARU board.

    I have some problems with a major sponsor for the ARU holding such an influential position concerning the ARU.

    Bill Pulver Cameron Clyne press conference

    (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)

    There are clearly conflict of interest problems created by having a sponsor with such determined policies concerning the ARU as she does. Imagine the outcry if, say, the chief executive of Lion Nathan had a position on the nominating committee of the ARU board.

    It is immaterial that these policies are generally good for rugby. The appointees made on her recommendation are essentially expected to endorse her agendas for rugby. And when they did not, Ms Sukkar’s company has withdrawn an important sponsorship.

    Clearly, the ARU, which includes a number of members who have been nominated by Ms Sukkar, did not agree with her views on how the ARU should distribute its financial resources in the best interests of the game.

    But there is a deeper issue than a dispute over the most responsible allocation of the ARU’s financial resources. That issue is what the proper role of the ARU is.

    On last year, an official ARU site, Beth Newman wrote an article entitled ‘Rugby’s agents of change‘.

    The first paragraph set the tone: “ARU board member Liz Broderick believes Rugby can change Australia and she, Ann Sherry and Pip Marlow (fellow board members), are three women who want to help it along.”

    Broderick, the article noted, served as Australia’s sex discrimination commissioner for eight years.

    The article quoted Broderick: “The men’s game is very strong and needs to continue to be strong but what we have now (with women’s Sevens) is the opportunity to be a game for all to really build the women’s game…

    “I think Rugby has the power to speak to men and women equally and when we do that, we do change the nation.”

    Marlowe, the general manager of Microsoft Australia, endorsed this ‘agent of change’ approach: “Role modelling is an important part of creating a culture and creating change. That’s why it’s amazing to have three women on a national sports board setting a new tone for the code.”

    We need to be very clear about all this. The point I am making is not an argument about having women on the board of the ARU. It is not about opening up rugby to girls and women.

    As a game that prides itself (with some justification, although there are notable historical exceptions) on being an inclusive game, rugby has rightly pushed hard for and invested heavily in women’s rugby.

    Charlotte Caslick Rugby Sevens Australia Rio 2016 Olympic Games

    (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)

    But that push, driven by ideological concerns, has come at a cost to nurturing the heartland of rugby. And it is the heartland, even more than the sponsors, that generates the passion and the income to grow rugby for the benefit of female and male players.

    One of the features of the ARU board, whose composition has been influenced by Ms Sukkar, is that it has disregarded the concerns of the heartland of rugby.

    I received an email in on March 1, 2016, from a headmaster of a leading rugby school not long after I wrote scathingly about the ARU’s Strategic Plan that endorses this point:

    “I, like a number of GPS Headmasters, have been totally disillusioned with the approach to grassroots rugby, especially as we rightly consider ourselves to be ‘grassroots’ … Some years ago the GPS Headmasters did have a major attempt at communicating our frustrations and ideas for the future of schoolboy rugby to the ARU in a meeting with Bill Pulver and many of his staff, with the promise that there would be a follow up with us … we have not heard a word about the promised annual follow-up from the ARU since that time. In fact, our frustrations are now even more intense.”

    The point about all this is that the ARU should be more concerned about its heartland, for female and male players, than with social agendas.

    This means the board should reflect this heartland priority.

    In turn, it means that the selection process for the board should reflect also the heartland priority; right now, we have a board and a selection process that is totally unrepresentative of the real interests of Australian rugby.

    The loss of the NRC sponsorship and, even more damagingly, the sponsorships from BMW and Lion Nathan should make it obvious to the ARU that it needs a new direction and new and more appropriate board members.

    Spiro Zavos
    Spiro Zavos

    Spiro Zavos, a founding writer on The Roar, was long time editorial writer on the Sydney Morning Herald, where he started a rugby column that has run for nearly 30 years. Spiro has written 12 books: fiction, biography, politics and histories of Australian, New Zealand, British and South African rugby. He is regarded as one of the foremost writers on rugby throughout the world.

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    The Crowd Says (82)

    • Roar Guru

      June 7th 2017 @ 12:05pm
      Train Without A Station said | June 7th 2017 @ 12:05pm | ! Report

      So summarizing your article Spiro.

      Sponsor withdraws due to ARU’s failure to develop elite level women’s league.

      This signals that the ARU should invest more into grassroots.

      Not sure how that would have prevented losing Buildcorp as it doesn’t address their concern.

      And of course you say the ideal replacement for concentrating the best 280 players outside the Wallabies into 8 teams would be to play a competition that sees something closer to the best 1,100 players spread across around 50 teams.

      How is this any better than the standard of Club Rugby already?

      I’ll answer that one for you. It’s not.

      • June 7th 2017 @ 1:59pm
        ads2600 said | June 7th 2017 @ 1:59pm | ! Report

        Well said Twas!

      • June 7th 2017 @ 5:19pm
        Harry said | June 7th 2017 @ 5:19pm | ! Report

        You have nailed it this time TWAS.

        Australian rugby is in enough trouble. One of the reasons why it continues to fall is the wrong move to disbandon the ARC when JON returned to run the ARU. Instead many millions have been spent or “invested” on the Melbourne Rebels for what I would argue is very little or very poor return.

      • June 7th 2017 @ 5:22pm
        James Pettifer said | June 7th 2017 @ 5:22pm | ! Report

        But TWAS, club rugby worked in the past to provide Wallabies so surely it would work now.

        It isn’t like anything has changed in rugby on a global basis in the last 40 years.

        I will note that I am very much in favor of a “Super Club” tournament but I see that as being a short tournament in addition to Super Rugby/NRC rather than a replacement.

        • June 7th 2017 @ 9:37pm
          Jock Cornet said | June 7th 2017 @ 9:37pm | ! Report

          Exactly the answer is in the clubs. All rugby World Cup holders were from the clubs.

          • June 7th 2017 @ 11:18pm
            Sterling said | June 7th 2017 @ 11:18pm | ! Report

            Where else were they going to come from at the time?

            Serious question Jock. Would you rather;

            1) win RWC 2019 and have Brisbane and Sydney remain as providers of 90% of our rugby talent through Premier rugby.


            2) Get pumped at RWC’s until the 2031 event, BUT have a successful regionally based national comp that leveraged and engaged nearly all of Australia’s populated areas, metro and rural (i.e. NQ, CQ, SthQ, Hunter Valley, Adelaide, ACT, Syd, Bne, Melb, Tas, Perth, NSW Country etc).


          • June 13th 2017 @ 12:17pm
            Sterling said | June 13th 2017 @ 12:17pm | ! Report

            As I thought.

        • June 7th 2017 @ 10:37pm
          Train Without A Station said | June 7th 2017 @ 10:37pm | ! Report

          Exactly James.

          Sure it’s irrelevant that in amateur days we had players going through the AIS Program so essentially got a head start on professionalism.

        • June 7th 2017 @ 10:55pm
          Sterling said | June 7th 2017 @ 10:55pm | ! Report

          Holy crap! Are you serious? Please go and do a little reading about what has changed globally in rugby since 1977. I’ll give you a hint. Shit tins. And I’m probably ignorant to most of it.

          Don’t get me wrong. Club rugby would provide Wallabies tomorrow if asked. And the rugby communities in Sydney and Brisbane would rejoice. Just not the rest of Australia, as the continued non-presence of serious representative/semi-pro rugby in these areas would lead directly to the continued shrinking relevance of rugby and growing domination of other codes.

          • Roar Guru

            June 8th 2017 @ 2:49am
            Shop said | June 8th 2017 @ 2:49am | ! Report

            “It isn’t as though anything has changed in rugby on a global basis in the last 40 years”

            That has to take the prize for the most outrageous statement on the Roar this year!

          • June 8th 2017 @ 10:54am
            Corw said | June 8th 2017 @ 10:54am | ! Report

            The clearest of sarcasm.

    • Roar Pro

      June 7th 2017 @ 12:22pm
      Matt Davis said | June 7th 2017 @ 12:22pm | ! Report

      NRC is rep rugby, that’s why it’s such an important step, a step up from the clubs but before super rugby.

      We are already seeing the benefit of this-players such as Jake Gordon, Ned Hanigan (there’s many others of course, I’ve payed the most attention to the Tahs the last few years) come to super rugby far better equipped than they may of in a similar circumstance set five years ago.

      So your solution is not really a solution to the problem here, Spiro.

      No, the issue here is a short-sighted approach to women’s rugby at a domestic level. Even more so when you consider that our women’s 7s team are the most successful team in the country-how can you not look for every opportunity to leverage that?!!

      I want to see a side by side NRC XV in the winter, games played back to back. Then a side by side NRC 7s series in the spring/summer.

      Going to be pretty hard without any sponsorship. Even harder if none of the players have any confidence in what the ARU is “doing”.

      • Roar Guru

        June 7th 2017 @ 12:28pm
        Train Without A Station said | June 7th 2017 @ 12:28pm | ! Report

        Matt the ARU are looking to leverage the women’s 7s success.

        They are starting a women’s 7s competition this year.

        • June 7th 2017 @ 12:54pm
          Selector said | June 7th 2017 @ 12:54pm | ! Report

          I am disappointed at Buildcorp’s stance (without understanding the real details of the relationship).
          I have felt like the ARU is taking steps with women’s rugby. Note: they are not massive steps, but I honestly do not feel the ARU are in a position to be taking massive steps, as Australian Rugby is already on shaky legs.

          Lets just try and stabilise the position we are in now and then look to how we can grow the game.

          Sort out this Super Rugby mess
          Strengthen the NRC
          Continue to invest in Women’s and Men’s 7 – From the national level right down to local

          • Roar Guru

            June 7th 2017 @ 12:56pm
            Train Without A Station said | June 7th 2017 @ 12:56pm | ! Report

            If there was reasonable interest in the Women’s 7s competition then surely that would be a good starting point to then look at a XVs competition.

            The Women’s National Championships were held not too long ago. Apparently some states failed to field full teams.

          • June 7th 2017 @ 12:57pm
            Selector said | June 7th 2017 @ 12:57pm | ! Report

            Oh and invest more in Juniors and Coach development pathways

          • June 7th 2017 @ 1:04pm
            scottd said | June 7th 2017 @ 1:04pm | ! Report


        • Roar Pro

          June 7th 2017 @ 12:56pm
          Matt Davis said | June 7th 2017 @ 12:56pm | ! Report

          I don’t agree-they’re leveraging it, but not enough.

          This was the year to start a whole range of things, top to bottom. I’m not saying they’re doing nothing, (but I do think the Uni comp is a misstep) but if a major is already behind something such as a women’s NRC, how can you sit on your hands and let them leave like that?

          How will they find it now?

          • Roar Guru

            June 7th 2017 @ 1:00pm
            Train Without A Station said | June 7th 2017 @ 1:00pm | ! Report

            But were Buildcorp willing to up their sponsorship to cover the costs?

            I’m very doubtful.

            • June 7th 2017 @ 3:46pm
              Perthstayer said | June 7th 2017 @ 3:46pm | ! Report


              I’m not saying BuildCorp would have stumped up but it would look very bad if it transpires they weren’t going to, and they’re very rugby committed.

              What upsets me is the ARU response. Buildcorp’s specific comments for why it ended sponsorship gave ARU license to be specific in return. They could have said they didn’t have the $ to fill the gap between what BuildCorp had committed and what it sees as the total amount required. Or if B’Corp weren’t going to commit then just say we don’t have the money.

              As it stands they just look as if they reneged on an agreement.

      • Roar Guru

        June 7th 2017 @ 2:55pm
        sheek said | June 7th 2017 @ 2:55pm | ! Report

        My main argument against NRC has primarily been we don’t need BOTH super rugby & NRC.

        Duplication of resources.

        For me, the structure, both in Australia & southern hemisphere, is all wrong.

        Super rugby is chasing pots of gold at the end of rainbows. It’s fantasy stuff.

        Fix the structures, & we’ll be on our way to achieving long-term success, both temporal & spiritual.

        The temporal being eventually improved TV broadcasting & sponsorship revenue going to players & coaches & the game; the spiritual being the adherence to history, tradition, heritage & tribalism.

        • June 11th 2017 @ 7:50pm
          Cook said | June 11th 2017 @ 7:50pm | ! Report

          If the structure in the southern hemisphere is so wrong why do the All Blacks have probably the best 3 teams at the moment?

          • June 11th 2017 @ 10:48pm
            Sterling said | June 11th 2017 @ 10:48pm | ! Report

            Sheek is referring to being able to engage the Aust public with a good competition structure.

            Aust has the structure wrong because SR teams are just money making franchises playing in capital cities. So piss them off and concentrate on the regional/provincial NRC teams.

            Sth Hemisphere has it wrong as everyone else is also using SR franchises instead of promoting their national comp.

            His post has nothing to do with playing standards. NZ would probably still have the best 3 teams if they only had ITM cup teams as their tier 2 and no SR franchises.

    • June 7th 2017 @ 12:26pm
      Jock Cornet said | June 7th 2017 @ 12:26pm | ! Report

      Pulver and Twassies policies have to go. The ARU are doing everything wrong. They shouldake a decision and then do the complete opposite . Their elitist and ridiculous administration has to be overthrown. We need a new entity or ask NZRFU if they could run it.

    • Roar Guru

      June 7th 2017 @ 12:34pm
      Nick Turnbull said | June 7th 2017 @ 12:34pm | ! Report


      7000 + at Manly on the weekend. Sign of things to come especially if Super Rugby players who don’t make the Wallabies go back to clubs. Great for grassroots.

      • Roar Guru

        June 7th 2017 @ 12:40pm
        Train Without A Station said | June 7th 2017 @ 12:40pm | ! Report

        Was there?

        I’ve read reports that greatly conflict with that saying that it was closer to 3,000.

        There’s been no official report of a crowd number.

        • June 7th 2017 @ 1:06pm
          Jock Cornet said | June 7th 2017 @ 1:06pm | ! Report

          They won’t get 3000 to the June internationals

        • June 7th 2017 @ 2:35pm
          Daveski said | June 7th 2017 @ 2:35pm | ! Report

          Whatever the number, Manly Oval was fuller than Nick Stiles buffet plate.

          • June 7th 2017 @ 10:38pm
            Train Without A Station said | June 7th 2017 @ 10:38pm | ! Report

            You do realise Stiles has lost a bucketload of weight since his playing days?

    • Roar Guru

      June 7th 2017 @ 12:36pm
      Alex Wood said | June 7th 2017 @ 12:36pm | ! Report

      Fantastic article Spiro. While I’m not sure I agree with replacing the NRC with a sort of ‘Champions League’ club competition, I assume the implicit subtext here is that, at least with rugby in the shape it’s in and without a major sponsor, the NRC is unsustainable.

      I’m a huge supportive of the accepting and inclusive nature of rugby, particularly in the modern version; however, this should not come at the cost of the health of the game. Rugby is no good to anyone, regardless of gender, ethnicity or socioeconomic background if it’s weak or, worse still, absent.

      Our sport, our national team and our Super Rugby teams were doing just fine when we respected that a handful of heartland schools and clubs, who probably did piss a fair bit of ARU money up against the wall, were generating world class players at a rate that many of our competitors would envy. It’s not necessary to sacrifice the interests of those clubs to grow the game, it just takes some strategic effort – something which seems to be in very short supply at the ARU.

    • June 7th 2017 @ 12:42pm
      Pirate said | June 7th 2017 @ 12:42pm | ! Report

      Interesting Spiro but once again a metropolitan-based pundit mistakes grassroots rugby as only being capital city based. Considering how many Wallabies and provincial players that country NSW and Queensland have produced, surely there must be a place in any national competition for these two teams, and not just country teams by name only using Sydney and Brisbane club players who may once have had a country connection. How about having these sides made up of the best of the country players combined with genuine country-born players at Brisbane and Sydney clubs.
      I know we can never go back to having country based players in the Wallabies, eg Peter Grigg, but surely there can be some pathway that doesn’t involved having to move to a capital city.
      On that note, why is it that NZ Super Rugby sides can play in provincial areas but NSW and Queensland, who by their names represent the state, only play in Sydney and Brisbane?
      Rugby needs to be fostered in all areas, not just the capital cities.

      • June 7th 2017 @ 4:40pm
        Sam Starr said | June 7th 2017 @ 4:40pm | ! Report

        It would be brilliant if the Tahs took 3 games out of Allianz. I reckon they should have two games at Parramatta and one on the Central Coast. And the Reds could try a couple games at the Goldie at one at Townsville.

        • June 7th 2017 @ 6:12pm
          Ken Catchpole's Other Leg said | June 7th 2017 @ 6:12pm | ! Report

          Sam Stear you ate spot on!

          Been saying the same for years.

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