Club rugby, in particular the Shute Shield, has been thrust into the teeth of the current broadcast saga currently being undertaken by Rugby Australia.
RA is likely to announce in the coming days that it has secured the rights to the Shute Shield, a good thing given the financially unsustainable nature of the current agreement with Club Rugby TV that sees the clubs having to come up with $300,000 a year.
In the search for valuable content, RA has confirmed media reports in an official statement that they have “investigated the establishment of a national club competition ahead of its media rights negotiations”.
While it is an attractive proposition, as a former Shute Shield president (Manly 2017-2019), I cannot comprehend how anyone can expect it to work long term.
Pure and simple, the clubs are amateur, not semi-pro, and they are supported by a core volunteer and player base who are there not for financial incentive but for a love of the game and a deeper connection to their community.
They are there because they have a deep affection for their clubs. That affection may be generational, it may be because they moved to the area from the bush or it may be because it seems like a bloody fun afternoon to be a part of.
But understand that livelihoods are spawned out of these clubs, people get jobs, meet future wives and make life-long friends. Clubs are what we fall back on when life’s giving you the shit sandwich. Every winter weekend at clubs in Sydney, Brisbane and Canberra, life – not just rugby – happens.
It’s this very ethos that spawns the magic potion that RA are desperately craving: tribalism.
But it’s fools gold to think that amateur clubs can solve professional rugby’s problems.
One of the major issues with the NRC was that we were asking amateur players to train and behave like professionals. Regular first-graders have to miss time off work to meet training commitments and whole weekends are blocked out for interstate travel.
You can’t have two divisions of clubs sides as proposed in Jamie Pandaram’s article in the Daily Telegraph without a large component of amateur players. There are simply not enough players available.
Then there are the costs associated: travel, accommodation, match payments, staff, match day, the list goes on and on.
The Shute Shield’s strength has also been overstated. Is it passionate, tribal and broadly followed? Absolutely.
CRTV have done an excellent job with the coverage of the competition on free-to-air. They have also ensured consistent mainstream media attention and overseen a progressive social media strategy.
But what has captured the imagination of the Australian rugby public more than anything has been these three factors.
1. The move to North Sydney Oval for the grand final.
2. Two watershed grand final wins by Norths in 2016 and Warringah in 2017.
3. The local derby between Manly and Warringah, which generates a huge crowd of passionate locals twice a year.
Outside of these events, attendances are regularly overstated and the move to Bankwest Stadium this year saw a grand final crowd by 3pm of no more than 5000 people.
Participation in general remains a constant battle, Colts programmes are highly volatile and many of the club finances are equally so.
The last thing the clubs need is to be thrown into more instability but even more concerning is being forced to be something that we are not to appease a broadcast deal.
You see, 3pm Saturday is, was and will always be us. The match-day committee is there before dark and the players shake hands at 4.30pm, we pack up and we go to the club, have a beer and listen to a few speeches.
Our girlfriends, mothers, fathers, wives, grandparents or our friends will be waiting and for one reason or another the room is always warm.
I suspect that getting the red-eye back to Sydney will start to wear thin pretty quickly.