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.
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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?