There appear to be two contrasting forces at play when looking at SANZAAR’s second-tier landscape.
Firstly, there’s the requirement for pooling resources to get within a ball park or two of the big money being thrown at our playing talent from the Northern Hemisphere.
Then there’s the requirement to manage the health of our own backyard to ensure the game survives and hopefully grows.
Rugby Australia has dropped the ball in this second regard.
It’s clear the game has actually retreated in almost every measurable facet in Australia as the national governing body has been fixated on the initial focus while neglecting the product at home.
This has certainly been reflected at each juncture involving the SANZAAR partners negotiating the next Super incarnation and whispers of more change grow louder as we approach the next fork in the road in 2021.
I’ve always advocated for the ARU (now RA) to move us to a model that’s more domestically focused, whatever that might look like.
The problem is, that initial driving force and acceptance of being ‘stronger as one’ to ward off northern raids of our best playing talent is a powerful driver.
It’s led to us caving in to the external prerequisites that our partners come to the table with, while leaving us with a compromised model that has the game here stuck in reverse.
Reports suggest RA’s ideal model has been to break away with New Zealand for our primary ‘domestic season’, leaving the door open to link up with the other parties for a ‘Champions League’ style tournament in a small window later in the season.
This best represents Australian interests but it’s never got off the ground due to the competing drivers of the other partners. For example, the NZRU’s desire for regular game time in the Republic for their players.
This being the case, a time has to come for the national governing body to be brave and take a leap of faith.
Yes, RA must respect the need to tap into revenue that’s generated from beyond our own shores, but with the game’s current trajectory we risk a scenario where we won’t be producing quality players that need protecting from European clubs.
So the question becomes, where can a new external source of revenue come from to soften the blow of cutting the SARU and NZRU cord?
I believe the answer to this question requires us shifting our focus from the old power to the new. Namely the US and Japan.
But first, this is what our domestic landscape should look like. In short, ten teams effectively covering the game’s heartlands and those significant population bases that command a team.
The ten teams I’d include are Brisbane North (Ballymore), Brisbane South (TBA), Gold Coast (Cbus Super Stadium/TBA), North Shore (Brookvale), Sydney (Allianz Stadium/TBA), Western Sydney (Western Sydney Stadium), Newcastle (McDonald Jones Stadium/TBA), Canberra (GIO Stadium), Melbourne (AAMI Park), Perth (NIB Stadium).
A home-and-away season lasting 18 weeks before two weeks of finals to arrive at our premiers.
Things like mascots, stadiums and even alternate season structures might be an article for another day.
The elephant that sits squarely in the middle of the room whenever an idea for a national competition is broached is how to ensure four Super Rugby squads worth of players moving to England, France and Japan isn’t what follows.
Initially, a salary cap of around $3 million across a competition of 10 teams is achievable given the greater depths such a concept goes in covering our heartlands compared to the status quo of four city teams.
This cap is a good chunk less than what our Super teams are currently forking out for playing talent and unfortunately an influx of players moving overseas is unavoidable.
But with contract top-ups for the top 40 or so players in the country, RA can push this hit to only effect the middle tier of players and ensure the impact to the national team is minimal while an entertaining national league product is still showcased.
On the point of playing resources, it’s also worth pointing out another positive side effect that a beefed-up domestic footprint can deliver.
As well as creating a platform that’s more visible, easier to follow and takes the elite rugby product to the doorstep of more fans, it will establish a pathway that will surely keep and turn many more exciting rugby prospects towards our code.
Having only four potential homes to ply a trade locally compared to the 15 that exist in the NRL means a significant amount of footballing talent moves away from or fails to explore our pathway. An extra six professional teams will help shift this dynamic.
The next aspect of this proposal involves RA plugging into a new source of off-shore revenue to supplement pulling out of Super Rugby.
The national governing body should pursue relationships with Japan’s well established Top League and the emerging Major League Rugby in the US.
This new partnership would involve the creation of the Pacific Champions League, including the 10 new franchises making up our national league, plus the best six from the Top League’s 16 teams and the best four from MLR’s nine (soon to be 12) clubs.
These 20 teams would be distributed across a tournament that follows the current structure of the Rugby World Cup – four pools of five teams playing into quarter-finals and so on.
The Pacific Champions League would be played in an eight-week window, preferably following our domestic Test season and before the Northern Hemisphere internationals.
The end results include a significantly larger professional rugby footprint to engage more of our rugby public and potentially convert many more of the masses that have been forgotten by the hard-to-engage-with Super Rugby model.
Free of the obligation to compromise our unique and independent interests with our SANZAAR partners, we’ll have a concept tailored to our needs only to ensure local fans keep tuning in while having the real opportunity to bring in many more that we so desperately need.
If a domestic league covering more local bases, involving only our teams playing within Australian friendly time zones can be a success, over time our own market has the capacity and potential to cover the shortfall created by withdrawing from Super Rugby.
That said, the lucrative US and Japanese markets certainly create the buffer required to take the initial plunge while possessing the potential to be even more financially beneficial than our current alignments.
So, I plead with you Raelene as you no doubt keep a keen eye on the fan columns of The Roar, if we can’t get a deal from our current partners that provides us with a real opportunity to turn around the game’s fortunes, be brave.
Cut the ties that so desperately need cutting. Explore all options out there that can go some ways towards making up the difference.
Yes, there may be some suffering in the short term but it will be worth it.
At the end of the day we simply cannot afford to attach ourselves to another Super Rugby ‘rebirth’ that’s not too dissimilar to the status quo.