Is Australia being marginalised in terms of rugby?
Is Australia just becoming a pool of talent to supply the wealthier northern hemisphere clubs?
Is Australia developing into just another Pacific Island nation where all the best talent moves overseas when the money offer is too good to refuse?
I think if one is looking at trend lines over the last 15 years, then the answer would be yes to all of the above.
So how does one protect the game do you create a tariff – a protectionist wall?
This is a natural reaction, but there are unintended consequences from adopting protectionist behaviour – namely weakening the Wallabies, who already cannot win the Bledisloe and are slipping down the world rankings.
The Wallabies win/loss ratio has crashed to below 50%. Australia are being beaten by the teams we used to easily defeat in the past, such as England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Fiji and Samoa.
The Wallabies will not get out of the quarter-finals at the World Cup. Let’s see what happens next month.
Protectionism will also ruin both the international and domestic reputation of rugby in Australia.
I suggested in March 2013 on The Roar that a Giteau Law style rule be implemented when a threshold of 60 Tests for Australia had been met. This recommendation was finally adopted by Michael Cheika in 2015.
This recommendation would help bring down the protectionist barriers that were appearing within Australia. It is time to relax those rules, or even drop them.
Some experts have said that relaxing the Giteau Law will result in Super Rugby looking like football’s A-League. Unfortunately – and I hate the idea of a weakening Australian Super Rugby – it is inevitable.
The weight of money in rugby union is not in Australia, but overseas. The difference between the amount a professional rugby player can earn in Australia versus what can be earned overseas is only going to widen.
Talent in Australia is more difficult to hang onto. Big-money contracts to Australian rugby players are sending Rugby Australia broke, and could send rugby in Australia to oblivion.
Australia is already starting to look like a very big Pacific Island. The Super Rugby sides domiciled in Australia are being hollowed out, with the average age of players dropping to the early 20s. It will start to look like a glorified colts system, with a sprinkling of mature players. The real talent will be playing overseas, just like Fiji, Samoa and Tonga. The new reality.
If one now accepts what appears to be inevitable – that the best players need to be available for the Wallabies regardless of where they play – then there is an opportunity for Australia to have its best side on the park. No excuses. The selectors can have a smorgasbord of talent.
This will come at a cost: Super Rugby is going to be weakened and will eventually look like the A-League. This is happening anyway. This is unavoidable on the current trajectory. You can slow down the decline, but the decline is already lapping at our shores.
Then what plans do we need to make today to disrupt this trend of decline?
Australia needs allies. Who is the most powerful rugby country to Australia? It is New Zealand.
Australia needs New Zealand, and New Zealand needs Australia. New Zealand is also experiencing the same problem, but due to their very deep talent pool, they are not feeling it as severely as Australia. New Zealand are like the best horse-and-buggy maker when the motor car arrived. They will be the last man standing, when Australia will have retooled and gone a new path.
Australia needs the help of New Zealand to make it more of an open market, although this is easier said than done. New Zealand have very high walls of protection due to the pulling power of the All Blacks jersey.
Australian rugby needs to utilise the significant skill sets that New Zealand can provide, including coaches (already happening), administrators (already happening), training, players, and all the other resources of a rugby super power.
Australia has called upon the help of New Zealand before in the 1970s. When Australian rugby was on its knees, it was New Zealand that dragged Australia out of the gutter and created a world-beating rugby infrastructure.
Apart from New Zealand, RA should no longer offer multi-million dollar rugby contracts to Australian players to stay in Australia to play Super Rugby. This is unsustainable and will send rugby in Australian rugby broke.
RA should adopt a more ground-up approach, rather than top-down. RA should send out all of its rugby scouts to sign up all young rugby talent – as many as possible on long contracts. School boys and girls, anyone with talent up to the age of 19, with an odd exception for a late-blooming or offshore rugby player.
The promise is to train them, pay them a small amount, and give them opportunities, possibly making them famous if they’re good enough. They would play Super Rugby, play for the Wallabies if they’re good enough, when they get injured they’re offered the best medical care, allowing them to play rugby wherever they like for as much money they can earn.
They can even go and play another sport if they choose. They don’t even have to be available to play for Australia when they go overseas if that’s what they want. There is no restraint of trade.
Their only obligation is that if they do go and play rugby overseas or anywhere for money or some form of emolument, they have to pay out the unexpired term of their long contract.
The consequence of this set up will be that RA will have more control over the rugby talent. There will be about the same cost in contracts, but with a huge pool of young aspiring rugby talent. The pay day for RA will come when the long contracts are paid out when the maturing players are offered big contracts to play in the UK, Europe, Japan, and elsewhere. The USA will come into the mix in the next generation with the really large money contracts.
I also calculate there will eventually be more money for around for RA to fund everything, including signing up more young rugby players to be trained up and available to overseas clubs on large contracts. Not all players will be a success under this program, but the successes will outweigh the cost of those who do not succeed.
In the long term, Australia should have more players everywhere. There is an opportunity for Australia to flood the rugby market with top talent, or at the very least be one of the major sources of rugby talent in the world. Australia has the opportunity to give itself the reputation of the go-to location for rugby players to become better trained and improve their skills.
This will create the opportunity for Australia to maintain its world standing and reputation for both men and women.
Australia is a resource for overseas clubs. One needs to embrace it. Protection barriers and walls don’t work, they can’t be defended in the long term. It is a mistake.
Australia is used to being mined – rugby players are just another resource. Australia has the skills to bring this strategy off.
This plan is how you defend yourself when you’re under attack from overseas and from local competition like AFL, football and rugby league.