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Rugby is facing a civil war unless Cameron Clyne goes now

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24th November, 2019
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This is serious. Rugby in Australia is facing a civil war that threatens to replicate the Great Split the code endured when 14 of the 1909 Wallabies signed up to play three matches of the rugby league in Sydney.

Peter Jenkins in his masterful history of the Wallabies, ‘Wallaby Gold,’ noted that this mass signing of its best players to a new rival rugby code destroyed rugby’s dominance in Sydney: “The breakaway code was up and off the canvas, it was suddenly throwing big punches. From near extinction to domination, Rugby league, with the signing of the first Wallabies ensured it would be the number one winter attraction.”

In the red corner of this looming civil war, 110 years after rugby’s first code war, are the chairman of Rugby Australia, Cameron Clyne, the chief executive Raelene Castle, and an embattled board.

In the blue corner is a galaxy of rugby stars, coaches and supporters, all of whom are deeply disillusioned with the mediocre performance of Australia Rugby, its chairman, its board and its chief executive in the last couple of years.

This galaxy, among many others, includes Alan Jones, the second most successful Wallabies coach; Geoff Stooke, a former Rugby Australian director; Wallaby star and coaching expert, Dick Marks; mining billionaire and rugby lover, Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest; Wallaby captain Nick Farr-Jones, Wallaby and businessman John Welborn.

The chairman, chief executive and the board of Rugby Australia have been accused by the blue corner battlers of failing their fundamental task of successfully promoting the interests of rugby in Australia across every aspect of the code.

Moreover, rather than admitting their mistakes and bringing in the board and managerial experience and expertise to bring in needed change, the red corner has doubled down on its agenda that has created all the problems that are afflicting the rugby code in Australia.

In the interests of transparency, I must state that I am not impartial in this matter.

I agree with all the many complaints that the blue corner advocates level against a Rugby Australia organisation that has created an existential crisis for the code in this country.

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All these matters came to a head a week or so ago when the chairman of Rugby Australia, Cameron Clyne, announced he would not seek re-election in March when his tenure expires.

Cameron Clyne also announced, and this is the lethal part of his announcement, that he would remain head of the nominating committee for a new board and chairman before finally stepping down as chairman.

With his head firmly stuck deep in the ground, Clyne noted: “Unfortunately, recently, much of the focus of the media has been directed at myself, which has over-shadowed a lot of the great work that has been done, at the community level through to the national level by our volunteers, administrators, players, coaches and match officials across the country.”

As Sam Phillips in the Sydney Morning Herald noted in his report: “Clyne was elected chairman in January 2016, overseeing the Israel Folau saga, which continues to shake the sport and the Wallabies failed run at the 2019 World Cup under coach Michael Cheika.

“He was chairman during RA’s decision to cut the Western Force from Super Rugby.

“Clyne brushed over these points before looking at positives.”

Cameron Clyne

(AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)

Geoff Stooke, a former director who resigned over the axing of the Western Force, noted that Clyne, in remaining chairman and head of the nominations committee, was actually in contradiction of Sports Australia’s governance principle 3.9 – ‘the chair of the nominations committee should be independent of the board.’

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The red corner fear is that Clyne intends to stack the board with people who know a lot about woke policies and other sports and not so much, if anything, about rugby.

Something that should strike fear in the hearts of rugby supporters, for instance, is that the former AFL boss, Andrew Demetriou, has been mentioned as a potential chairman of Rugby Australia, if Clyne stays on as head of the nominations committee.

Moreover, there is little likelihood that there will be significant cultural changes within the board, if Clyne controls the nomination process.

Wayne Smith reported in The Australian that “Clyne only just stopped short of telling a meeting of state delegates last week who the nominations committee had chosen to fill the other board vacancies.”

This fear that Clyne will clone the old failed board and chairman in March brought out a call from Alan Jones that the chairman should leave immediately to “let Australian rugby make a fresh start.”

Jones pointed out the Bledisloe Cup attendances have fallen from 109,000 in 2000 to 66,000 last year.

That the Wallabies have not won a Bledisloe Cup since 2002.

That the cash-strapped Rugby Australia, on Clyne’s watch, paid David Pocock $600,000 in 2017 to take a year off from playing rugby.

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That Rugby Australia turned its back on Andrew Forrest’s $50m and that the Melbourne Rebels were backed over the Western Force at an undisclosed but possible cost of “more than $30m in the past five years.”

That clubs, with their RA grants now removed, have to pay a levy per player.

That too many Super Rugby/Wallabies coaches are not Australian.

And he asked these telling questions that get to the heart of the matter about the board and executive of Rugby Australia:

“Who is responsible for the management structure that makes the Rugby Australia executive and board, unaccountable?

“Why is the voice of the grassroots unheard?

“Why don’t we have a centralised player contracting system based on the New Zealand model?

“Is there a national or state strategic plan for the next five years?”

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Dick Marks, a Wallaby and Australia’s former National Director of Coaching, a coaching guru widely respected for creating the coaching system that produced Alan Jones, Bob Dwyer and Rod Macqueen, wants the RA board dismissed and a ‘war cabinet’ created to revive rugby in Australia.

Marks told the noted rugby journalist Jim Tucker: “We have declined over the last two decades because we have had the wrong people running the game.”

He is so dismayed about what was happening to rugby that he and a prominent former Wallaby had set up a letsfixaustralianrugby.com.au.website.

This theme has been taken up, also, by Michael Lynagh, who warned Rugby Australia that it had to engage a lost generation of players and fans that had been ‘neglected’ over the past decade.

Last week, when making these comments, Lynagh launched the International Rugby Academy of Australia, a private, non-profit organisation devoted to developing elite players and coaches.

The initiative was supported Wallabies greats, John Eales, Nick-Farr-Jones, George Gregan, Phil Kearns, and Matt Burke.

Lynagh suggested that the four vacancies on the Rugby Australia board and the selection of a new chairman offered “a welcome chance for renewal.”

It is quite clear that there is a growing consensus that Clyne must give up any ambitions of ensuring the new board and chairman of Rugby Australia merely continue the failed policies of his current board.

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The opposition to his reign of error in charge of Rugby Australia has been informed and determined.

But if Clyne does not show the same civility as his opponents, if he continues to push ahead to consolidate his capture of Rugby Australia with a board and a chairman determined to ignore the mounting resistance to the failed policies and practices of his administration, then there could be a damaging uncivil war.

The mining billionaire Andrew Forrest has foreshadowed a massive retaliation if the new board and chairman do not “properly engage with WA rugby.”

He would consider, he threatens, fielding a stand-alone West Australian team playing at the international level the way England, Wales and Scotland do within their Great Britain structure.

Twiggy Forrest

(Photo by Daniel Carson/Getty Images)

Nick Farr-Jones, one of the great captains of the Wallabies, and someone who has become ‘disillusioned’ with rugby in recent years, says Clyne had been ‘crazy’ not to embrace Forrest and his ideas.

For his part Andrew Forrest has had enough of Rugby Australia’s failure to embrace his plans to overhaul Australian rugby.

Here is the Forrest threat if Rugby Australia did not engage properly with Western Australia Rugby: “It would be devastating if the states began to explore other options, such as the creation of an alternative union, but if pushed into a corner I believe this something the rugby community and the state would get behind.”

Some journalists have likened this threat to the rugby league split in the 1990s.

But those of us who know our rugby history would liken the Andrew Forrest threat of a breakaway Western Australia national rugby side to the Great Split of 1909 when the Labor politician and entrepreneur, James Joynton Smith, signed up those 14 Wallabies.

Can rugby in Australia survive another Great Split?

Over to you Cameron Clyne.

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