Creative destruction: How rugby’s existential crisis could rebuild the game

PapanuiPirate Roar Pro

By PapanuiPirate, PapanuiPirate is a Roar Pro

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    Cast your mind back some nine months to January 2017. Australian Rugby is at a low ebb, the Wallabies have had a poor 2016 season with only six wins from 15 games including four losses to England and three to the All Blacks.

    Australian Super Rugby teams have performed poorly with a single team in the play offs, one team facing an uncertain future following an emergency ARU takeover and another appearing unsustainable despite its private ownership.

    Television viewers are down, crowds are lower, a rift is opening between the management of the game and rugby’s cohort of player-supporters from the semipros to juniors. A palpable malaise is falling over the rugby community as a sad resignation has set in.

    Maybe this is the beginning of the end of our game in this country. Maybe this is rock bottom.

    Oh how wrong we were. At least about the rock bottom part.

    Things are somehow worse. Much worse. The worst performance by Australian teams in Super Rugby ever. A whole season without a single victory over a New Zealand side and again only one side in the play-offs, this time purely by the largesse of the system.

    The Brumbies qualified on 34 points ahead of the Blues on 37. The Wallabies are defeated by Scotland at home and have conceded a record first half score to New Zealand in Bledisloe 1.

    A brave effort in Bledisloe 2 confirms a frightening fact: Australia have the players to compete with the best in the world, but they are held back by something inherent in how the game is being approached.

    At the grassroots level things are dire. While the semi-professional game is managing to survive, and in some cases thrive, the junior and amateur competitions are crumbling. Suburban and country rugby is on the ropes as fresh blood becomes harder and harder to find.

    The ARU participation fee threatened one of rugby’s strangest community advantages, it’s one of the cheapest games to play, especially for adults. Numbers are dwindling in the boy’s juniors, hidden behind the figures of significant increases in the girl’s game especially in sevens.

    As an aside the tiny bright light that is the growing participation in the women’s game is threatened by the dark cloud hanging over the men’s game. While all forward steps in women’s rugby are to be applauded it is not at the point where it will be able to stand on its own without the money and supporters from the game’s traditional male strongholds.

    I am hopeful this will change in the future and that the ill winds currently battering the sport don’t snuff out these long overdue developments.

    Worst of all the Western Force, a shining beacon of community engagement in a game so divorced from the bottom of its pyramid, has been cut from the competition. I am on the record here with my support rugby in the west, where it felt like there was a genuine connection between the Super Rugby side and their supporters.

    The removal of that team is, without question, nothing short of a travesty. This is leading to a possible schism at the professional level with Twiggy Forrest doing his best Kerry Packer impersonation and threatening to set up a rival Indo-Pacific competition.

    Andrew Forrest (AAP Image/Richard Wainwright)

    Things are grim, but something rather remarkable is happening through all this doom and gloom. People are talking about rugby!

    Never in my time playing, coaching and generally being involved in rugby in Australia have I ever heard so many people discussing the state of the game.

    Never have I seen so many front-page articles, opinion pieces and raging comments sections focused on the game.

    I believe that the issues that are plaguing the game at the moment don’t necessarily stem from mismanagement but something much deeper.

    Since the 2003 world cup final something happened to Australian rugby supporters. It happened slowly and quietly, almost imperceptibly.

    People just stopped caring so much. Even before the crowds dropped they started going quiet.

    Suddenly, with the game in dire straits, voices are once again getting louder and speculating on the future of rugby union is becoming a national pastime.

    Green shoots are appearing in the club competitions of Sydney and Brisbane, with crowds growing to the point where some games are better attended than professional games! How could this be when the game is in such decline elsewhere?

    Because a few years ago the club game was going through what the rest of the game is going through now. A crises of existence. With ARU funding pulled, significant challenges in getting games televised and crowd numbers down, the club competitions faced extinction and they fought back.

    They went back to their base, reconnected with their communities and rebuilt their approach to management.

    Super Rugby Fans Reds Highlanders 2016

    Reds fans. (AAP Image/Glenn Hunt)

    Creative destruction, loosely, is the necessary elimination of a previous state of being in order for a new state to emerge.

    Sports in Australia have a history of creative destruction, driven by a crisis of stagnation and sparked by an internal conflict. Think the Super League War or World Series Cricket.

    Both of these events had pundits heralding the death of rugby league and cricket respectively and yet their aftermath resulted in stronger leagues, more attractive products for supporters and ongoing success.

    Similar events in the United States have led to the strength of major sports there with competing leagues forming and then merging to develop a stronger product.

    Rugby has had a number of these events over its long history, though we have a more complicated and politically fraught history than most. Rugby survived and prospered following the Great Schism of 1895. The game flourished despite the suspensions of two world wars.

    While reverberations are still felt in the Republic, rugby found its way after the Apartheid boycotts and the rebel tours. Finally professionalism dragged rugby kicking and screaming into the modern age, beginning the march to becoming a major world sport.

    All these prior happenings had a similar feeling to what we have now. It feels a bit like the world may be ending.

    Forces internal and external challenge the viability of the game at every level. But the response is fantastic. People are starting to care again and boy do they care.

    The fall of the Western Force may be the catalyst that shakes the apathy from rugby supporters across the country. Rallies are being organised and boycotts discussed. The resignation of a number officials at the ARU presents an opportunity to rebuild the national organisation with a new vision, one that embraces the community the same way the club game has. The elite pathway has never been so close to making sense, with a third tier competition of reasonable quality now entering its fourth year.

    Bill Meakes Western Force Rugby Union Super 2017

    The Western Force are out of Super Rugby (Photo by Will Russell/Getty Images)

    The NRC isn’t perfect but it’s nearly got the structure right. It just needs to refocus the connection between the club teams and their local NRC counterparts, own that identity and bring those club fans with them.

    Twiggy’s break away competition looks doomed to fail to me, but it opens up new ideas and opportunities for how Australia manages the second tier game. Even if all a breakaway comp succeeds in doing is keeping the Force alive long enough to be brought back into the fold then that’s a win in my books.

    Things are dark right now fellow rugby fans but maybe, just maybe, all that means is that there is light coming soon.

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    The Crowd Says (86)

    • September 8th 2017 @ 3:16am
      Jumbo said | September 8th 2017 @ 3:16am | ! Report

      Time to move on. Steve tew has just confirmed no kiwi interest in this rogue league.
      If you haven’t got the big names, you haven’t got any pull. Twiggy is better off building a theme park in Perth, they really need it.

      • September 8th 2017 @ 4:37am
        Silent1 said | September 8th 2017 @ 4:37am | ! Report

        Steve Tew also is locked into a binding contract untill the end of 2020, so obviously can’t do anything without getting NZR sued for multimillions of dollars. He also said as much and is open to talking to “Twiggy” with Sanzaar.

        There is alot of Nz talent left over after SR teams are full and I bet there is some to look to within NRC. Top League has alot of big names who do sweet fa for half a year and the P.I’s are allow pushing out future players of the game.

        There are the players there if this comp is done right and maybe he shouldn’t be pushing it as a ‘rebel’ comp so not to get WR etc off side. Nz has enough talent and supporters for another team and I for one would base it in the Central or Eastern North Island who barely get any SR games. Add a P.I combined side or a side each for the big 3 nations and a Jap or 2 plus one each from HK and Singapore (who actually bidded for the SunWolves licence) and this thing could get off the ground and possibly meege with SR if or when Sa decide to leave or even if it gets enough traction

        • September 9th 2017 @ 4:01pm
          republican said | September 9th 2017 @ 4:01pm | ! Report

          ……..I thought support for the code was in decline in NZ as well?

      • Roar Rookie

        September 8th 2017 @ 10:33am
        piru said | September 8th 2017 @ 10:33am | ! Report

        Feel free to ignore us then – as per usual

        • September 9th 2017 @ 3:08pm
          republican said | September 9th 2017 @ 3:08pm | ! Report

          ……..which one of you is being ignored piru, the Kiwi or the Wassie?
          Are you one of those dual citizens, with an expedient foot in both camps?
          Just joshing piru………

          • September 10th 2017 @ 3:32pm
            andrewM said | September 10th 2017 @ 3:32pm | ! Report

            Piru, are you a member of Federal Parliament as well? 😉

      • September 8th 2017 @ 12:12pm
        soapit said | September 8th 2017 @ 12:12pm | ! Report

        steve tew doesnt decide who plays where. players signatures will be what decides the success of the new comp.

        only relevance of tews opinion will be whether players will be ab eligible in a new comp but that will be far from the only consideration for potential signings

        • September 8th 2017 @ 2:00pm
          Jumbo said | September 8th 2017 @ 2:00pm | ! Report

          Money and lifestyle are a draw card also. Many young families want the oe experience of Europe and japan, opposed to wa and indonesia. Cant see them competing money wise with everybody else.

          • September 8th 2017 @ 3:12pm
            soapit said | September 8th 2017 @ 3:12pm | ! Report

            so yep steve tews opinion has little relevance.

            would think twiggys pockets would compete with many other paymasters in rugby so we shall see.

            not going to make judgement on whether people would prefer living in japan europe or indonesia, thats really a seondary issue to cash in any case.

            given we agree the issue will be the big names i dont think its a sensible point to move on a couple of days into recruiting even if a nzru administrator has decided he wont support it.

            • September 8th 2017 @ 5:20pm
              Jumbo said | September 8th 2017 @ 5:20pm | ! Report

              Steve tew will ensure that no all blacks will play without their input,So there’s your big names out.
              Considering most people in perth and indonesia for that matter, have no idea what rugby union is? Is a pretty good indication of where this rogue competition will end up. Money is not the only reason to migrate, these players have families to consider which i know french teams put alot of emphasis on. Id love to see twiggy prop this up, for how long? Is he going to pay the wagers, the travel, the stadium fees? I hope he’s got deep pockets and doesn’t expect to see it again.

              • September 8th 2017 @ 5:50pm
                soapit said | September 8th 2017 @ 5:50pm | ! Report

                no current all blacks who arent willing to take a sabbatical plus the rest of the rugby world.

                i’d say that leaves plenty of potential for big names including new zealanders.

              • September 8th 2017 @ 6:53pm
                Jumbo said | September 8th 2017 @ 6:53pm | ! Report

                So like the nrc with asian teams and a pi team, if twiggies paying like the top14 or in British pounds he might snare a few unwanted players. So when are you flying out to jakarta to catch a game? Soapy..

              • September 9th 2017 @ 5:32am
                soapit said | September 9th 2017 @ 5:32am | ! Report

                id say i’ll be watching it on tv pending details of whose playing.

          • September 8th 2017 @ 7:46pm
            Katipo said | September 8th 2017 @ 7:46pm | ! Report

            @Jumbo. yeah. Who wants to go to Indonesia?

            You do know that Australia’s most popular foreign holiday destination is Bali, right,

            Bali, Indonesia.

            Playing professional rugby for about a team based out of=Canguu sounds pretty awesome to be honest.

            • September 9th 2017 @ 1:36pm
              Jumbo said | September 9th 2017 @ 1:36pm | ! Report

              I said jakarta, big difference from bali if you’ve ever been there.

              • September 9th 2017 @ 1:47pm
                Katipo said | September 9th 2017 @ 1:47pm | ! Report

                @Jumbo I have been to Jakarta dozens of times actually because I ran an Indonesian company for several years. Jakarta makes no sense for rugby. Bali does though, right?

                I bet plenty of rugby players wouldn’t mind playing out of Bali for 6 months a year while earning Aussie dollars. That would be an ex-pat rugby team obviously. A fairly desirable one I would imagine.

      • September 8th 2017 @ 12:26pm
        Ex force fan said | September 8th 2017 @ 12:26pm | ! Report

        There are lot of successful competitions in the Rugby World without NZRU’s active participation, e.g. Top14, Pro 14 etc.

        I think there is a trend away from Tier 1 competitions with Tier 2 and 3 competitions that are more local and connected very well supported. In Australia there is the Shute Shield, in South Africa the Varsity Cup and even school rugby, even the IPL and Big Bash are competitions that generate far more interest than their equivalent stale Tier 1 competitions. It is all about the format, the entertainment value and less about the quality of rugby played. So give Forrest an opportunity to put something together that people would like to watch, that would attract enough marquee players and makes it an interesting competition to watch where the underdog van win on their day.

      • September 8th 2017 @ 11:15pm
        Party Pooper said | September 8th 2017 @ 11:15pm | ! Report

        Just invite the biggest and best union clubs from Sydney and Brisbane to participate, that is the key to making this work.

        Forget about this ‘Asia’ nonsense. Noone in Asia plays the sport or is interested. It is too brutal a game for their tiny frames.

        If Twiggy wants to wedge union in Australia, get the big clubs.

    • September 8th 2017 @ 5:02am
      Bob Wire said | September 8th 2017 @ 5:02am | ! Report

      Mate, your glass is half full, let me shout you another round, Just to top you up before kick off tonight. It should be a great game where rugby is the winner.

    • September 8th 2017 @ 7:18am
      Buk said | September 8th 2017 @ 7:18am | ! Report

      ‘Even if all a breakaway comp succeeds in doing is keeping the Force alive long enough to be brought back into the fold then that’s a win in my books.’

      Some very good points in your article Papanui, epitomised by this one – long term I can’t see it succeeding as a rebel comp., as it then would only attract those prepared to jeopardise their test careers, to play for money, or the love of the concept – and there are already very lucrative money options already in Japan and Europe.

      Hopefully the eventual outcome, like the Kerry Packer revolution, will eventually produce something superior to the current situation

      • Roar Pro

        September 8th 2017 @ 9:55am
        PapanuiPirate said | September 8th 2017 @ 9:55am | ! Report

        One of the interesting things about competing leagues is that they almost always end up merged and stronger than the sum of their parts.

        Very long term I think we will probably see a sort of regionalised pan-southern hemisphere tournament not too dissimilar to the European Champions Cup. We might see a few of these rebel comps rise and fall before then.

      • September 8th 2017 @ 11:38am
        Cliff (Bishkek) said | September 8th 2017 @ 11:38am | ! Report

        What every one is missing is that there are many players in all countries who will never ever wear their countries’ jersey, and missing out by the shortest of margins. But are prepared to play in the hope of possibilities. To get the PI interest, the Twiggy Comp has to at least be able to attract their, not all, best players. So money becomes a question. Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore – teams very capable and will be strengthened by expats.

        The competition has merit and possibilities. But needs good planning. The IRB has rejected any advances and assistance to the PI regions for years.

      • September 8th 2017 @ 12:20pm
        soapit said | September 8th 2017 @ 12:20pm | ! Report

        given super rugbys issues they have a pretty good shot at becoming the premier SH club comp and thats what they should be aiming for. would think salaries on offer would be needing to match or exceed europe or japan to have any chance but dont think this will be a huge issue for forrest.

        reckon the plan is for forrest to sink a few years of big time cash into it with the aim of supplanting super rugby and then having the cash injection lessened as it gains popularity and ultimately when super rugby dies.

        thing no one seems to have mentioned in my brief reading is how many current force players would actually command a spot in a premier league style comp. for it to succeed i think it need to have a good smattering of the worlds best talent and how many old force players would need to be squeezed out to do this.

    • September 8th 2017 @ 9:07am
      Josh said | September 8th 2017 @ 9:07am | ! Report

      Aus rugbys problem was super rugby that problem is still thier. People dont give a crap about teams that play in the middle of the night against opposition from who knows where on tv they cant watch at home and this isnt going to change and to make matters worse they lose most games as well. Ignore the stupid indo china comp which has no players and put the money into an enhanced NRC although Sydney teams need to change a bit and prob bris as well but the idea is close and a 100m would make it more popular then Super Rugby

      • Roar Pro

        September 8th 2017 @ 9:49am
        PapanuiPirate said | September 8th 2017 @ 9:49am | ! Report

        Super Rugby has a lot to answer for in the last few years but I don’t think it can be blamed for all rugby’s ills. No one stays up to watch late night games in South Africa and New Zealand but they are far less anti-super rugby than Australia is.

        I’m a big supporter of the NRC. I know a lot of people don;t like the teams without history but I agree it’s close to being a solid third tier competition.

        • September 8th 2017 @ 12:30pm
          Ex force fan said | September 8th 2017 @ 12:30pm | ! Report

          The problem with Superugby is that it is more of the same….same teams. playing the same way with NZ dominating. It is boring and the entertainment value is low.

          • September 8th 2017 @ 5:23pm
            Jumbo said | September 8th 2017 @ 5:23pm | ! Report

            No nz teams no entertainment simple.

            • September 8th 2017 @ 5:53pm
              soapit said | September 8th 2017 @ 5:53pm | ! Report

              i guess keeping it simple over sensible is beneficial to some.

            • September 8th 2017 @ 11:21pm
              Party Pooper said | September 8th 2017 @ 11:21pm | ! Report

              Hah! I couldn’t name a current NZ Super player in one of those franchises.

              Oz should leave Super Rugby. We just don’t care!

    • September 8th 2017 @ 10:00am
      Mac said | September 8th 2017 @ 10:00am | ! Report

      Well I agree we are in strife in Rugby. Doomed though we are not.

      But I will say that all this chatter is great but the point made that we all went quiote after 2003. Yes we did. Why.

      Free to Air was dropped. Simple as that. People talk of the kids dropping off well just stand back and watch the Free TV and then listen to the kids and parents. They don’t see Rugby, so nothing to relate to, speak about or cult team following.

      Sydney crowds are up. Why. They took it upon themselves to do Free to Air, So they put the visual backing into the grassroots and gave them something to talk about. Simple, so simple.

      Will this solve all problems, no. Been issue is all sports since the first person ran or booted a ball. But if falling interest is a big concern and I agree it is and it is affect Juniors, Teenage and Seniors then perhaps Free To Air coverage would be a good place to start bring Rugby back to the people and not just the ones who can afford and if like me struggling to have the time to watch it anyway.

      Lets just start with that pitch, get a ground swell, get more Free to Air stations interest because advertiser want in and go from there.

      • September 8th 2017 @ 2:38pm
        noone said | September 8th 2017 @ 2:38pm | ! Report

        Totally agree Mac.
        To me its the reason the AFL is so big, even had the Fed Govt step in a few years ag to ensure it continued.

        In WA, AFL is all we had televised for years, hence most juniors see it as the only sport.
        However since NRL etc has started being televised, the amount of kids wanting to play league, soccer etc has increased…
        It is the one of the most obvious and most overlooked reasons for Rugbys fall…

        A National Comp with Free to Air will bring back Union, though I doubt “Those who Decide Such Things” really give a rats.

      • September 9th 2017 @ 9:06am
        Pete said | September 9th 2017 @ 9:06am | ! Report

        It is as simple as that. Free to air TV is the common denominator to successful sports in this counytry. Foxtel has killed the game.

        • Roar Guru

          September 9th 2017 @ 9:39am
          PeterK said | September 9th 2017 @ 9:39am | ! Report

          before super rugby crowds were not that big at club games , nor were the ratings on fta any good.

          Can’t see how foxtel has destroyed something that was never there.

          • September 10th 2017 @ 10:44am
            noone said | September 10th 2017 @ 10:44am | ! Report

            WAFL ratings on fta are crap too, whereas fta AFL is huge. Doubt if club rugby would ever gain good ratings if televised, however a National comp…

    • September 8th 2017 @ 10:09am
      Jacko said | September 8th 2017 @ 10:09am | ! Report

      Im surprised to have just read that Tyrell Lomax has signed for the Highlanders for 2019 and has asked for an early release from Rebels for 2018……..Aus U20 player of year last year………Another prop lost to Aus rugby? Is it anything to do with this current mess?

      • September 8th 2017 @ 10:24am
        taylorman said | September 8th 2017 @ 10:24am | ! Report

        Yes I just dont get players opting for an across the Tasman contract if it rules out test chances.

      • Roar Pro

        September 8th 2017 @ 10:36am
        PapanuiPirate said | September 8th 2017 @ 10:36am | ! Report

        I’m surprised this doesn’t happen more often, though that may be as a result of Kiwi sides not being interested in Australian players. A lot of players have tried to go to New Zealand to improve their game but often they struggle to make it into teams. The competition for spots is just so much more fierce than in other countries. While Lomax going to the Highlanders is a blow in the short term, long term it could work in Australian rugby’s favour if he comes back a more complete player.

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

          His old man is a Kiwi tho so will be lost to Aus rugby forever…….Alaalatoa is another young prob who chose NZ Super over Aus tests rugby…….It is far more hurting to the Wallabies than wearing Blue will be

      • September 8th 2017 @ 11:30am
        Jumbo said | September 8th 2017 @ 11:30am | ! Report

        He wants to be an all black like every kiwi. Maybe nzr should set up an aus based team for all the kiwi talent over there?

        • September 8th 2017 @ 11:48am
          redbull said | September 8th 2017 @ 11:48am | ! Report

          Wouldn’t it be simpler if all the kiwis in OZ went home?

          • September 8th 2017 @ 11:56am
            Jacko said | September 8th 2017 @ 11:56am | ! Report

            And yet Tyrell Lomax was born in Aus.

            Maybe NZR could set up an academy in WA….They would get some support by the sounds of things

            • Roar Rookie

              September 8th 2017 @ 1:11pm
              piru said | September 8th 2017 @ 1:11pm | ! Report

              Well the ARU isn’t interested

          • September 8th 2017 @ 5:25pm
            Jumbo said | September 8th 2017 @ 5:25pm | ! Report

            That’s the plan red bull, bring home the talent to where they can thrive.

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