Only Australia can save rugby in the Southern Hemisphere

Harry Jones Roar Guru

By Harry Jones, Harry Jones is a Roar Guru


197 Have your say

    Geoff Parkes is the canary in the coal mine. The Roar’s prolific scribe took a break from weekend rugby wraps and making Melbourne’s beautiful people’s smiles even straighter and whiter, to write a book which may later be seen as a harbinger.

    A World in Conflict: The Global Battle for Rugby Supremacy is a dispassionate survey of the rugby battlefield. Parkes patiently builds his diagnosis of the fabric, foundation, and scale of true control of the game.

    “Political battles are won by people who accrue resources – money, votes, influence – and then use them at the optimal moments,” Parkes writes near the end of his book, after explaining World Rugby’s feet are made of soft clay.

    Even though the book comes in just under 300 pages, each engrossing chapter could be accordioned out to another book in a series.

    After I read it (and full disclosure, my inebriated account of a day in Clermont is quoted therein) I had one thought: only Australia can save us.

    Only Australia is hyper-competitive enough as an economy. Only Australia has the advanced market economy to compete with and beat the UK and France in the drive for assets and revenue and audience. Only Australia is a true regional leader of a fast-growing sphere. Only Australia has the cities to support new clubs, better teams, and no-ceiling development.

    Australia is as big as contiguous America, but only has the population of Sri Lanka. In 1960, there were only ten million Australians, and now there are about 24 million.

    But unlike South Africa, which has also grown fast both from natural increase and external migration, Australia has provided continuous growth, low crime rates, contained inflation, almost full employment, low public debt (for an advanced market economy), and a stable system capable of thriving even during the global financial crisis.

    Only Australia can save us.

    By ‘us’, I mean the great beasts of the south, the semi-finalists of the 2015 Rugby World Cup, the perennial Big Three, the wild and wonderful Fijians, the bustling Tongans, the folkloric Samoans, the rawboned lads in Bloemfontein looking at a stacked deck, the young prop in Salta eating his steak, the horribly flawed but scintillating vehicle called Super Rugby, and the provenance of about a thousand top players and dozens of the south’s best coaches in the Northern leagues, many of whom are even becoming citizens or long-term residents, with faint hope of return during their short and brutal careers.

    Argentina and South Africa cannot save southern rugby. South Africa hasn’t ever had honest leaders, the lights and the water aren’t on anymore, corruption is deepening instead of being cleaned up, quotas are being used as blunt force trauma amputation of talent rather than transforming the land to open opportunity, and the Republic is increasingly punching below its weight in every competitive sphere.

    Rassie Erasmus will fight a rearguard action and, with a bit of luck, might even pull off a surprise in Japan in 2019. But the home of the Boks cannot supply the south the financial or political muscle to make the commercial investment needed to shift the balance of power.

    SARU’s and the subordinate provincial unions’ leaders are routinely in the same corruption dock as South Africa’s political leaders, and the decisions that decide their fate are rarely honest or transparent. The Kings had to play for months without wages, Western Province is insolvent, Jurie Roux is in serious trouble.

    Before the Lions’ renaissance, rugby in Johannesburg was almost dormant, and no foreign coach in their right mind would take the Bok job. The stadiums are massive, but empty for normal matches, half-empty for big games, and except for Newlands (which is unsafe and falling down) not even full for the All Blacks.

    Argentina is not a world leader in transparency and trust. Wild swings in fortune, forever under-performance in economy, and sketchy deals in their rugby unions plague this wonderfully rich land. With 44 million mostly well-educated Argentines, all the water and wine the rest of the world would want, and a sport pedigree to envy, the Pumas and Jaguares should be sitting pretty, but they are in fact in a mortal struggle to stay afloat.

    It is entirely possible that Argentina and South Africa have already seen their respective rugby zeniths, unless Australia saves them.

    Why not New Zealand? It is just too small, and already optimised.

    In the top rugby nations, Japan can still rise (with 126 million very rich people, but limited growth ahead), while the UK and France have a similar total combined (131 million, but sport-saturated and already allegiant to rugby if they ever will be).

    If 54 million South Africans and 44 million Argentines cannot lead the south, the administrators and money magnate avatars from a ‘nursery’ of 4.5 million Kiwis cannot do it. They can (and do) lead on the field and in the coaches’ box.

    But if Parkes is right, and a “hard prune” and “managed growth” is needed to save rugby, then only a true national heavyweight can stand against the feudal lords of the north.

    And that is Australia.

    With free trade agreements in place with all the key Asian countries and the USA, no neighbouring threats, and only France and the UK – in the rugby elites – having a higher GDP, but with the kind of pluralistic, participatory, dynamic freedom that allows for explosion of opportunity, Australia is the key to survival .

    Only Scandinavian countries and New Zealand have higher ‘perception of non-corruption’, and of that list, only Australia is ‘big’.

    Only Ireland, among top rugby lands, has a higher GDP per capita, a crucial component in sport spending by fans and owners.

    If Australia grew 40 per cent from 1990 to 2017, while still growing richer, too, it is not unreasonable to think that New South Wales, Victoria, and Queensland will continue to grow by 125,000, 150,000, and 75,000 a year, for the foreseeable future.

    In this era, it’s all about cities. Australia has several of the world’s true magnet cities: livable, attractive, young, sunny, and strong.

    Australia has a healthy 1.5 to 2.2 ratio of natural to migrant increase.

    By 2050, there might very well be 35 to 40 million Australians, with top-20 purchasing power.

    If Australia has been a top-four rugby power for a century with a low population, divided between so many big-athlete sports (league, AFL, basketball, swimming, athletics, boxing, boganism, and crocodile hunting), but its pie keeps expanding, why could it not be the leader of rugby in the south, and hatch lucrative competitions which keep the best Argentines, Saffas, Kiwis, and Pacific Islanders this side of the equator?

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    The Crowd Says (197)

    • February 17th 2018 @ 3:28am
      Ad-0 said | February 17th 2018 @ 3:28am | ! Report

      All well and good but you have 2 problems. Rugby is the 4th most popular football code in Oz and going backwards. And out of all the first tier Rugby nations our administrators are the only ones who have managed to shrink the sport since professionalism. Sort that out first and you might have something.

      • Roar Guru

        February 17th 2018 @ 3:38am
        Harry Jones said | February 17th 2018 @ 3:38am | ! Report


        The good news is rugby is in the top four, in the richest big rugby country in the SH!

        Why wouldn’t rugby be able to grow similarly to the AFL?

        The AFL’s revenue is >$500M; with annual increases of >$30M.

        That allows the AFL to spend/distribute >$200M.

        Other than amateurish leaders, and anti-growth strategies (both of which can be corrected) why wouldn’t rugby be susceptible to growth like that in Australia?

        And more pertinently, how could rugby EVER scale similarly in small and fully built-out NZ which lacks big cities, the Pacific Islands which lack infrastructure, or hyper-corrupt SA/ARG?

        • February 17th 2018 @ 11:35am
          lesterlike said | February 17th 2018 @ 11:35am | ! Report

          Rugby can’t grow like the AFL because rugby refuses to leave it’s private school safe space.

          • February 17th 2018 @ 1:39pm
            Max said | February 17th 2018 @ 1:39pm | ! Report

            This really is a bit of myth that should be stopped. There seems to be some hate towards private school players.
            When my son was playing juniors there was never more than 20% of players from private schools in his team.
            He played all over Sydney and in rep teams and it wasn’t evident that huge amounts of players were from private schools.
            Whatever players come from private schools should be encouraged not criticised .
            There are enormous pressure in these private school from other codes such as soccer and AFL

            • Roar Pro

              February 19th 2018 @ 11:19am
              PapanuiPirate said | February 19th 2018 @ 11:19am | ! Report


              Did your son play rugby before the age of 12? There are entire junior clubs in Sydney that can only field teams up to under 11’s because that’s when the private high school kicks in and takes all their players. I;ve seen similar issues in Canberra and have heard of the same in Queensland (though I hear it’s a little better in Brisbane). You don’t see private school players past that age because the schools don’t allow the kids to play for their clubs and you don’t see private school kids in rep teams because they have their own rep system.

              • February 20th 2018 @ 2:17pm
                Bakkies said | February 20th 2018 @ 2:17pm | ! Report

                I think you might see that starting to change as schools like St Edmund’s in Canberra are massively down in enrolments as parents are keeping their kids in public schools longer or for the rest of their schooling. Whether those kids end up playing Rugby for their local club is another thing.

                There is another whole new suburb being built across the border called Googong which has a K-12 public school planned and Queanbeyan Rugby Club have already said they will set up a Rugby program in the area.

          • Roar Guru

            February 17th 2018 @ 7:35pm
            Harry Jones said | February 17th 2018 @ 7:35pm | ! Report

            So OZ just needs its SBW?

      • February 19th 2018 @ 3:13pm
        Me said | February 19th 2018 @ 3:13pm | ! Report

        Well said.

    • Roar Guru

      February 17th 2018 @ 3:30am
      Harry Jones said | February 17th 2018 @ 3:30am | ! Report

      To be clear, what I am talking about is fighting fire with fire, which for some will represent a filthy race to the lucrative “bottom,” where the soul of rugby is lost in a cacophony of sponsors, agents, and massive player salaries.

      But how can protectionism protect tiny markets, when any player can follow the money, to anywhere?

      The South needs more revenue, more powerful clubs, and more professionalism, or we’ll be like those terra cotta warriors buried in China: valiant, interesting, and motionless.

      The only nation south of the Equator capable of building corporate structures and luring big winter athletes with exorbitant paydays and evergrowing fanbases with surpluses in their wallets, that can outspend Altrad and the Gang … is Australia.

      • Roar Guru

        February 17th 2018 @ 7:55pm
        jeznez said | February 17th 2018 @ 7:55pm | ! Report

        G’day Harry. Excellent article – Australia could grow the game enormously with potential unlike many other nations but it wouldn’t save the South. It would create another drain on players from around the globe to an Australian comp.

        The evidence is there that a high quality Australian based product can be successful here and generate huge financial gains for the code. AFL and League have provided a template for years.

        A-League Football has also provided a template of how a low performing sport can climb to create something meaningful with the help of a wealthy benefactor. Frank Lowy was key to Soccer’s resurgence and the irony isn’t lost on my that Twiggy Forest has the potential to play a similar role for Rugby.

        Cricket has seen the BBL come from nowhere and grow overnight showing the appetite is there for the right product.

        What is key about AFL, NRL, BBL and A-League is that they are domestic Australian competitions (with a one team NZ involvement in some cases).

        The most successful of these comps AFL and NRL can also lay claim to being the world’s best.

        NZ can clearly get benefit by having their players compete in a comp that is close to home given the evidence of League – but would they actually be better than what they have today in Rugby? I’d suggest not even close.

        Looking at BBL – there are players from around the globe playing, that is what I would see a highly succesful NRC doing in Oz – drawing marquee players in from around the globe, just as Egland, France and Japan do today.

        It would further the drain on the likes of of the islands, SA and Argentina – not save them.

        The evidence is in with Super Rugby – it does not pull on the national psyche, the evidence is pretty solid that the only way to do that is through a national competition.

        That said the potential looks set to be unfulfilled given the ineptitude of the RA board.

        • Roar Guru

          February 17th 2018 @ 10:26pm
          Harry Jones said | February 17th 2018 @ 10:26pm | ! Report

          I agree: the player drain would stop pointing North, and would turn Down Under. But the player breeding grounds in NZ, SA, Pi, ARG could “keep” their stars inside a “home” with the best salaries in the world. The Wallabies would be the biggest winner; bc they’d have the CJ Standers, Billy Vunipolas, and Martin Johnsons. But rugby in the South could survive in 2040; with Australia being the South’s Top14/Aviva sugar daddy.

          • February 17th 2018 @ 10:35pm
            Bakkies said | February 17th 2018 @ 10:35pm | ! Report

            Australia had the opportunity in 2004 to get it right but stuffed up big time. A hugely successful RWC was hosted in Aus in 2003 pushed for a 4th Super Rugby side which had to happen but were vetoed due to lack of depth in player numbers (the cue from NZ was that an extra side would dilute the player base and you don’t have the development to put players in) and national competition to push through players. What did O’Neill do.. Buy league players, divert the national comp to the Sydney district comp rather than try and setup a national comp like Gary Flowers did and leave.

            • February 18th 2018 @ 1:23am
              Realist said | February 18th 2018 @ 1:23am | ! Report

              Personally I think the survival of the game rests primarily with the All Blacks at this point in time.
              That team is in the middle of the most fruitful and successful era of all time. Plenty of my rugby mates who are disillusioned with the state of the game in Oz tuned in to watch the British Lions series and loved it.
              The game always needs a benchmark side setting standards which give the sport credibility as to how it can and should be played. It’s also worth referencing after years of denial that the English are undisputably a better side than the Wallabies. Only the players can respond to this

        • February 18th 2018 @ 6:56am
          concerned supporter said | February 18th 2018 @ 6:56am | ! Report

          Hi Jenez, you say,
          What is key about AFL, NRL, BBL and A-League is that they are domestic Australian competitions (with a one team NZ involvement in some cases).””
          You are correct,but another important factor is that they are televised on FTA.
          For example, BBL cricket since leaving Foxtel/Murdoch and going to Ch 10,has seen an enormous increase in crowds,TV ratings.
          Only 30% of Australians have access to Foxtel.

          • Roar Guru

            February 18th 2018 @ 3:23pm
            jeznez said | February 18th 2018 @ 3:23pm | ! Report

            Fully agree cs – a domestic comp, with the best players in it on FTA is what would be needed. I see zero chance of it happening with this board in charge.

    • February 17th 2018 @ 3:53am
      Ken Catchpole's Other Leg said | February 17th 2018 @ 3:53am | ! Report

      Great set up Harry, leading to one wild unanswered question – ‘How?’
      Two options come to mind –
      1) Andrew Forrest’s ‘rogue’ competition, and
      2) NZ and SA (perhaps also Argentina) making some adjustments at some level (say Super level) to assist OZ rugby to gain traction against the other Big 3 footy codes in Australia.

      Or have I misread your intent here?
      How does Australia ‘save’ rugby?

      Btw, I hate to be picky but boganism deserves an earlier mention on your list,
      and soccer doesnt make the list at all?
      Is this an early shot in a code war (like the Daily Telegraph killing rugby silently -by pretending it doesnt exist)?

      • Roar Guru

        February 17th 2018 @ 7:36pm
        Harry Jones said | February 17th 2018 @ 7:36pm | ! Report

        I try to think of soccer as a hobby that grew large

      • February 17th 2018 @ 10:40pm
        Bakkies said | February 17th 2018 @ 10:40pm | ! Report

        Ken, O’Neill structured the commercial deals in 1995 so each country did their own commercial contracts (which was according to David Moffett to suit Australia). Why didn’t Sanzar/Sanzaar change this when it clearly wasn’t working?

        Insane really. The organisation was also in developing a website for their competitions and I am not even sure if they have an app.

    • February 17th 2018 @ 4:10am
      Ken Catchpole's Other Leg said | February 17th 2018 @ 4:10am | ! Report

      We may also need to find wster in the desert, Harry – to build cities that can feed and house these big rugby saving boys.
      Have to say, Harry, your geopolitical/economical analysis here is tantalisingly intriguing.
      You are aware though that there is a strong culture in a certain rugby playing nation that would see a progressive movement (such as your suggested one) as a ‘hand up’ for Australia, and therefore to be opposed Whollus Bollus ?
      Which brings to mind the necessary imperative of a new concept- ‘cross-border statesmanship’. Where will we import that from Harry?

      • Roar Guru

        February 17th 2018 @ 7:37pm
        Harry Jones said | February 17th 2018 @ 7:37pm | ! Report

        Lost art of statesmanship …

    • February 17th 2018 @ 4:18am
      AndyS said | February 17th 2018 @ 4:18am | ! Report

      Damn funny read, with the tongue surely in close proximity to the cheek. If there is even a grain of truth to it, the bonedness of SH rugby would have to be beyond the telling. God only knows how we will shrink our way all the way to that sort of success!

      • Roar Guru

        February 17th 2018 @ 5:15am
        Harry Jones said | February 17th 2018 @ 5:15am | ! Report

        Kiwis, Saffas, Argies, Islanders …

        All depending on Australia to save rugby

    • February 17th 2018 @ 4:53am
      Will said | February 17th 2018 @ 4:53am | ! Report

      Awesome read, a completely different spin on the general problem around the ARU. World rugby needs a strong SH and although I am delighted England are starting to beat Aus more frequently and SA (only once since eddie), it just doesn’t feel quite the same as you know you’re beating now average rugby unions playing average rugby.

      I want for us to beat Australia and SA at their best not at their worst as only then you can really measure success. I just feel we’ve found a dip in standard since the 2015 RWC and England have benefited from that.

      Going off topic anyway but point being it was very interesting to get this insight I just hope it sorts itself out in the near future.

      • Roar Guru

        February 17th 2018 @ 10:25am
        Harry Jones said | February 17th 2018 @ 10:25am | ! Report


      • February 18th 2018 @ 1:15am
        DavSA said | February 18th 2018 @ 1:15am | ! Report

        Great post Will.