Wherever you stand on whether the National Rugby Championship should remain in 2021 and beyond, and how feasible the idea of a national club competition is, one thing I’m genuinely happy about is that we’re having the conversation in the first place.
The national club competition has existed as a concept forever. Most recently, it’s re-emerged as something worth pursuing at pretty much the same time the NRC started doing the very job it was created for: bridging the ever-increasing gap between club rugby and the professional game.
The number of players to graduate from the NRC to Super Rugby over its six seasons is upward of a hundred. It’s taken a while for all the cogs to roll into place around the country, but the eventual takeover of the NSW teams by the Waratahs last season has completed the national pathway.
But NSW – and Sydney in particular – has always been the NRC’s biggest hurdle, and for reasons everyone is well aware of in Australian rugby. The fact that hurdle still exists is the reason the national club competition concept is being discussed so heavily again.
Indeed, it has suddenly become a major plank in Rugby Australia’s negotiations for the broadcast rights from next season.
Many of you will know my advocacy for the NRC has been there since day dot, and I make no apology for that. It’s been a level of rugby missing in Australia too long, and it should never have been killed off back in 2007.
But this has also been mistaken as me being anti-club rugby, and specifically having some sort of vendetta against Sydney club rugby. Considering I’ve never had any attachment or involvement to the club scene in Sydney in any way, and have attended maybe a couple of Shute Shield games in my life, it’s consistently the most bizarre barb thrown my way.
For the removal of all doubt, I love club rugby. I love everything that everyone loves about club rugby. The pride, the passion, the irrational hate of the neighbours. I love beer in cans and steak sandwiches that only fools try to tackle one-handed.
Calling the last couple of ACT grand finals has been a genuine career highlight.
And to clarify further, my only issue with Sydney club rugby is limited to those who have sought to undermine the NRC since day one, and for the same reason they undermined the Australian Rugby Championship more than a decade ago: they don’t want to accept that their place in the rugby landscape is not as high as it used to be.
So when discussions and News Limited’s incredibly partisan reporting of the exclusive negation period between Fox Sports and Rugby Australia began, the emergence of club rugby as a bargaining tool on both sides of the negotiating table showed that all those years of undermining was about to pay off: the future of the NRC was well and truly in doubt.
Though initial reporting centred only on the Shute Shield competition, the Hospitals Cup competition in Brisbane soon appeared alongside, with the respective competitions’ 19 teams listed as the basis of a two-division competition comprising 22 clubs in all and with promotion and relegation. It had way too much detail to be just a thought bubble.
The national part of the concept name came with token inclusions of single teams from Canberra and Melbourne, listed right next to the Penrith clubs that the remaining Sydney clubs chose to jettison a few years back.
The concept rightly divided the rugby community several ways.
The Sydney die-hards loved the idea. The Brisbane die-hards were intrigued but sceptical. The Canberra die-hards were re-checking their email inboxes for unread invitations, while Melbourne was happy with the recognition but wondered if they were ready. Perth’s die-hards rightly shrugged their shoulders again and walked away muttering something about east coast elites.
Initially lost in translation but eventually realised was that the NRC was indeed set to be replaced for this silver-bullet behemoth.
Rugby Australia ultimately put out a statement that said the whole thing was just a thought bubble, and neither the two-division format nor the demise of the NRC was confirmed.
But over the weekend, widely regarded rugby writer Wayne Smith – known to visit these pages, it’s worth remembering – outlined in The Australian that while the national club competition was being discussed as a concept, if was far from a done deal.
It was one of 17 options, in fact. But so was the main thrust of his article: that Rugby Australia also has in its pocket the idea of national FA Cup style club knockout competition run in conjunction with the NRC from 2021.
“So while RA is endeavouring to reorganise its rugby calendar to take in a national club competition of some description, it also has an ongoing responsibility to the entire game to ensure that NRC’s proven capacity to develop players for Test and Super Rugby is not lost,” Smith wrote.
“That explains why RA has chosen not to go to broadcasters with a neat, signed-off package of club football.”
And for the first time in this whole episode, I saw a solution that might just be the best way for everyone involved to have their rugby cake and eat it.
A national cup competition could genuinely tick so many of the important boxes.
It would certainly latch onto the aforementioned pride, passion and tribalism of club rugby, but more importantly, it would do it on a proper national level, not just Sydney-and-Brisbane national.
Running the early qualifying stages in the states and regions could allow country and sub-district clubs to enter. Clubs could choose to compete or not, and not just be excluded. Interstate travel wouldn’t really be needed right up until the pointy end of competition.
It would allow for the romantic magic of the cup narratives to develop organically if a club well down the pecking order went on a run. This is one of the great highlights of football’s cup competitions, even Australia’s own FFA Cup.
More importantly, the existing Premier Rugby competitions in Sydney and Brisbane and Canberra and Melbourne wouldn’t be compromised.
Broadcasters could still get their piece of club rugby action.
And the bridge between the club scene and the professional game – the NRC – would carry on readying players for the top levels.
But of course, like the two-division, 22-team concept, the cup competition is just a thought bubble as well. And there are 15 more of them, apparently.
It is, however, one that stands out as a concept that might be financially and logistically and feasibly easier to make work. That alone makes it worthy of discussion.
There’s no doubting that the broadcaster will ultimately decide what they’re interested in.
But I’ll repeat the point I made right back at the start: rugby fans are having their say on what they do and don’t like about any club rugby idea that has been and will be floated is an incredibly important way for the broadcasters to realise what might appeal.
The cup competition is one concept I could certainly get behind.