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A strengths-based plan for rugby in Australia

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24th October, 2019
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Rugby has strengths and weaknesses. We hear about the weaknesses all the time. So I would like to lay out a strengths-based analysis of the rugby environment in this country – our natural endowments that have nothing to do with exceptional individuals or nebulous ideas of culture.

The goal is to outline a plan that makes the most of, and builds on, what we have.

1. Rugby is a thriving global game
Rugby as a global game is only getting stronger. Two of its biggest Australian competitors in the winter sports market do not, and will never have, the kind of global exposure that rugby has. If you’re under any delusions about rugby league’s prospects for global growth, do attempt the mission impossible that is explaining to a foreigner – or even someone from Melbourne – that league is in fact a separate sport. International rules struggles to transcend novelty status.

How to take advantage of this?
In many ways we already do. So much of the money currently in the game comes from international matches and global TV rights. This is of course why getting the national coaching set-up right is so important. We need a successful Wallabies team. But I want to advocate for creating a structure that leans into the global nature of rugby, by allowing overseas-based players to be selected for the Wallabies.

We have seen many players come back to Australia much improved, not to mention coaches. It is to our advantage to allow other countries to contribute to our player development. The reason why this has so far been resisted so sternly is protecting Super Rugby, but what if there was no Super Rugby to protect? Do read on.

2. Pacific Islander community
I do get the sensitivity around certain players whose citizenship came down in the last shower, but plenty of Islanders are born here, or move here as children. They are just as worthy of the gold jersey as anyone else. They may play league instead of rugby when those are the only professional contracts available, but rugby is a true cultural passion. If rugby can get its act together, that talent pool is ever ready and waiting to propel us to glory.

Marika Koroibete celebrates scoring a try

(Photo by David Ramos – World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)

How to take advantage of this?
We need to consider those areas and schools with high Islander populations to be the absolute priority for junior player development. This is leaning in to a strength.

On the flip side though, I am a strong advocate for going back to weight classes in rugby all the way up to premier grade. There are many skinny runts with ability, who if placed in a professional weights program could put on the requisite bulk and size to be professional players. We need to see them in action in high-level competition to make that assessment. We also need their parents to let them keep playing during that crucial period where some boys are turning into men before everyone else.


3. National footprint
Melbourne and Perth are genuine international cities, with huge communities of people from rugby-playing nations like South Africa, New Zealand, the Pacific Islands, and the UK. As rugby grows globally, this will help it further improve its national footprint in Australia, too. Increasing numbers of locals will want to be involved.

How to take advantage of this?
Get teams from Perth, Melbourne and Canberra playing at the right level of competition, which is the NRC. Super Rugby expansion into these cities was never the right thing to do. The money would have been better spent closer to the ground.

The biggest challenge of the NRC is NSW and Queensland. The NRC would need two teams each from those places, and thus far administrators have failed to get the model right. I certainly don’t have the answer. Quite simply, they need to keep trying. City-country is not a bad place to start. To truly take advantage of rugby’s national footprint, we need the NRC to work, and replace Super Rugby for player development.

4. The Waratahs and Reds
If the Wallabies are the golden egg of Australian rugby, the Waratahs and Reds should be next. Look only to the crowds and interest they have drawn at certain points in their history to see their potential. It should never have been be OK for them to be anything other than a tier unto themselves.

Bernard Foley

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

How to take advantage of this?
Super Rugby has and is slowly but surely killing the Waratahs and Reds through overexposure, and diluted player quality. This needs to be reversed. They are potentially massive brands and revenue-earners in Sydney and Brisbane if used correctly.

For their potential to be fully realised, the Waratahs and Reds need to once again be true representative teams sitting above a fully professional NRC. They need to play only limited number of matches against other well recognised teams designed to be showpiece events filling stadiums and generating free-to-air TV revenue. These matches would also help select the Wallabies from a mix of NRC and overseas-based players.

5. Parochial local support
I can’t speak with the same authority about Brisbane, but when it comes to Sydney, there exists a passionate rugby fan base as committed to the game as any around the world, confined though it may be to certain limited areas and demographics. You only need to look at fixtures like Manly versus Warringah in the Shute Shield to see the potential.


How to take advantage of this?
Someway, somehow, and with patience that has thus far eluded us, try and feed some of this parochial, grassroots energy into the NRC. This is clearly a challenge that nevertheless must be persevered with.

6. The contrast and variety
Rugby is the most multifaceted and as has the most variety in terms of game play of the four winter codes in Australia. Goal scores in AFL do net get truly exciting until the end. Football has too few scores. Rugby league is more fluid, but so often lacks variety in terms of its shape, both of game play and of bodies. Rugby is at its best when it strikes a wonderful balance of dynamism, variety, contrast, athleticism, and strategy.

How to take advantage of this?
Rugby needs to keep its eye on this wonderful balance in every rule change it makes. Rugby does not need massive scorelines to be riveting, but if games are dominated by penalties, it will struggle outside of the home nations. Stoppages need to be reduced, but rugby is not rugby league, and should ensure it stays that way. We need the big scrumming guys on the field because they are spectacular. And so on and so forth. The point being that rugby must at all times lean into its uniqueness.

7. Sevens and the women’s game
Honourable mention. But on these matters, I know a lot less.