Michael Cheika could end the international careers of a handful of veteran Wallabies with the stroke of a pen as he finalises his squad to contest the Rugby World Cup in Japan.
One of the great challenges of writing about the grassroots is that it’s a rather nebulous term.
From a two-day schools sevens program up to masters rugby, with everything in between (including semi-professional club rugby), it all falls under the banner of grassroots to someone.
But the place with the deepest roots is senior amateur rugby (SAR).
Sydney Subbies is the largest centrally organised rugby competition in the world, taking in vast swathes of players in city and country competitions across Australia. Subbies’ only competition for the largest playing segment is junior rugby, which has the challenge of most of its participants not really caring what Rugby Australia has to say – they’re just looking forward to a sausage sandwich after 40 minutes of running around, vaguely understanding what is going on.
Some of the oldest clubs in the country form part of SAR competitions and they are the standard bearer for rugby’s identity as an amateur sport, played in the spirit of friendship, competition and sportsmanship.
Crucially, SAR clubs are also home to perhaps the largest concentration of rugby people – those mythical beats with cauliflower ears and limping gaits who have so much to say about the current direction of Australian rugby.
These people are the foundation on which the sport is built, playing, volunteering and supporting all levels. They are driven to get their kids playing rugby, hoping for them to achieve more than their old man’s three-game stint in third grade at his second division club. Without these people, the game loses a piece of its soul, a connection to its past, an understanding of the present, and the resources of the future.
But these people are being let down by Australian rugby administration. Year after year, as competition for the time and money of players increases, the administration saddles SAR with increased costs and regulation.
In the worst cases, liability for injuries is passed on to club officials without the means to execute that responsibility to the benefit of players or their club. Levies increase, putting greater pressure on clubs to raise subscription fees. Those higher fees result in players deciding not to play, reducing player resources and putting increased financial pressure on the remaining players.
RA trumpets increases in players, driven through juniors, sevens and women’s participation, which is great news that should be celebrated. But RA are not transparent about the continued decline in senior numbers. There also appears to be no strategy, policy or plan to arrest the decline in their core support.
Can rugby in Australia live on once SAR has withered? Is that the path RA is willing to take in order to focus on other metrics?
I really believe RA is doing the right thing, seeking to solidify the next generation of supporters and professional players. The glossy, commercial, professional face of rugby looks like it will live on and perhaps thrive.
But I worry for the future of the amateur game. Steeped in a history of participation over mere support, rugby may no longer be the game you play at 42 years old in spite of your bad back and the anger of your partner at you vanishing for six hours every weekend. The game will go on without SAR, but it will be poorer for it.
So what does RA think about this slice of its kingdom? Does RA see it as a relic, something to be managed into non-existence? Does it see it as the unfortunate casualty of focusing on other parts of the game? Or does it see it as a core part of their support, a constituency whose ongoing existence is a fundamental responsibility in their role as custodians of the game?
Whichever it is, I hope they tell us soon.