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On the Australian rugby estate, the distance between the Castle and the Forrest is big, and growing.
We all know of the huge geographical distance between Sydney and Perth, but there’s obviously a significant philosophical gap between Rugby Australia and Global Rapid Rugby.
So 2019 will deliver Australian rugby a two-speed economy given the revolutionary rule changes and territorial ambitions that GRR have set out against a conservative Raelene Castle-led RA, who understandably are prevented from being too adventurous given they operate under the dreary World Rugby.
What’s the outlook for RA and GRR in a pivotal year for both? Which organisation, RA or GRR, is likely to make bigger strides?
For RA, being a World Cup year means the heat is on. All the planning and preparation since the last tournament in the United Kingdom is meant to come to fruition.
Wallabies fans should’ve expected a few signs over the past 18 months that they could go toe-to-toe with the world’s top teams, but the results have been woeful.
The forecast is pretty gloomy. Nine losses in 13 Tests this season was the Wallabies’ worst year of the professional era.
The upside is that after such a stinker of a year, the Wallabies surely can’t get much worse.
Not much credence will be given to the abbreviated Rugby Championship; everything is geared towards Australia’s first World Cup game against Fiji on September 21 in the Japanese city of Sapporo.
The Wallabies’ other top-tier nation in their pool is Wales, so they’ll only need wins over Fiji, Uruguay and Georgia to bag a quarter-final berth.
If that eventuates, they’re likely to face either England, France or Argentina.
It’s a decent draw. But given the Wallabies have been so underwhelming recently and RA have opted for stability and not panic mode by sticking with Michael Cheika as coach, Aussie fans are rightly demanding a massive lift.
It’s hard to imagine that an inept lineout, inconsistent scrum and ineffective attack can improve to a point that they can replicate 2015’s spot in the final.
The biggest chance of a stunning turnaround therefore lies with Scott Johnson, who was this week appointed to a new role as RA’s director of rugby.
Part of the reason is to lighten Cheika’s workload. Cheika will be answerable to Johnson.
It doesn’t seem like a staff appointment could translate into the stark surge required to be a World Cup contender, but who knows? The shackles might come off.
But as it stands, the Wallabies are on track for a quarter-final berth and a potential exit there or a semi-final defeat.
Anything more and especially if the Wallabies can play with some swagger and verve, then it’s Johnson that gets plenty of kudos.
Global Rapid Rugby’s fortunes are intrinsically harder to predict given they’re going into uncharted territory.
Billionaire backer Twiggy Forrest’s team have proposed eight teams from the Asia-Pacific region – the Western Force, Fiji, Samoa, Japan, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore and an as-yet-unconfirmed side from Hawaii – for a competition starting in February.
The territorial expansion is intriguing, but there’s more curiosity in the rule changes.
Penalty goals being reduced from three to two points is a great start.
Kick out on the full inside your 22m area and the lineout’s marked where it was booted to encourage more ball-in-play.
A nine-point power try is awarded if scored from a move starting inside a team’s own 22m area.
No ‘mark’ call in the 22m area.
Reduced time for kick-offs and penalties.
And cutting back game time to 70 minutes.
These are the best of the rule changes. It’s bold, but rugby can do with a shake-up like World Series Cricket and Twenty20 sparked up another conservative sport.
However, despite Twiggy talking up rugby’s growing popularity in the region, it’s hard to imagine a significant surge in crowd numbers and TV viewers.
Given how dire the crowds were in Singapore for the Sunwolves’ Super Rugby matches, is there really the appetite for the sport in Asia, where much of the commercial value lies?
Maybe they just want their own team.
The worry is that there will be too many one-sided games. Even with the rules revolution, uncompetitive matches will make GRR a hard sell.
The fixtures between the Force, Fiji, Samoa and a Japanese side will be the best guide as to which rule changes could potentially be adopted by other competitions around the world.
They will be watching with interest given the game has been rigidly controlled by World Rugby for so long and rule modifications are as unlikely as an Owen Farrell shoulder charge penalty.
Twiggy’s enthusiasm and conviction should be recognised and applauded.
His iron ore credentials are well proven, but if he can sell a slightly different brand of rugby to a lot of superficial fans, his golden touch will be well earned and indisputable.
Twiggy is ambitious in wanting to poach a good chunk of the world’s best players.
So there’s a good chance he’ll be swooping midway through the year with a plan to announce some big-name signings just as anticipation is building for the World Cup.
Only when he gets some top-line players in his competition will Twiggy’s GRR have a chance to steal a decent slice of the Australian rugby audience away from Super Rugby.
But if the Wallabies pluck some zest from somewhere and turn it on at the World Cup, then GRR’s second-season prospects look dim – at least for Australian rugby fans.