The Wallabies ex-captains’ advance being checked last week by new board member Peter Wiggs shows how difficult it is to effect change in Australian rugby.
Firstly, because there is no mechanism that allows for a revolution, and secondly, because the reasons why frustration and self-interest push rugby people into silos rather than drawing them together are incredibly complex.
It seems remarkable that 157 years after the first rugby club was formed, and 25 years after the game turned professional, Australian rugby is unable to define and agree ‘what is our rugby?’ and ‘what do we want rugby to be?’
The Wallabies winning the World Cup? Healthy grassroots clubs? An attractive, popular, accessible TV sport? A safe, healthy sport for boys and girls to take up? A viable career option? All of the above?
Rugby in Australia does not operate in a vacuum. There are existing governing bodies, national and state, responsible for the administration of the game.
What are the rules of respectful engagement? It is nonsense to suggest that Rugby Australia and the state unions haven’t identified critical areas for improvement nor been implementing plans to that effect.
On the other hand, if thoughtful contributions from well-intentioned people have been batted away, how can all stakeholders be made to feel engaged? As the old saying goes, success has many fathers.
What is the environment that Australian rugby operates within? What factors can’t be changed or controlled and what can? For example, under an existing agreement, Australia remains committed to SANZAAR until 2025.
What is the process by which to identify and agree on the problems and a path forward?
There is already a raft of strategic plans and reviews on Australian rugby that have failed to be accepted, communicated or fully implemented. Some have been overtaken by time. Others lack context. But mostly, they haven’t been owned and embraced by the whole of the game.
There is no single idea, or new competition structure, that can fix Australian rugby. It is only through better understanding of the environment rugby exists in that appropriate structural and attitudinal change can occur.
The Environment/The Mechanism/The Detail
Under COVID-19 we are seeing nations turn inwards, and there is growing sentiment for Australian rugby to become more domestic-focused. However, for as long as rugby remains a global, professional sport, this must be done judiciously.
Let’s look at two diagrams outlining the basic structure of Australia’s leading football code, Australian rules football, let’s call this the circle of contentment, and rugby, the circle of discontent.
For the purposes of the discussion, women’s rugby can be considered to replicate men’s rugby for some but not all of the model.
What is immediately apparent is the stark contrast in simplicity. AFL is a wholly domestic game, played in a single, winter season, at four levels only. More so, while the junior and amateur levels are strong and healthy, the overwhelming majority of fan and commercial engagement occurs only at the professional, AFL level. The sport is not required to compete for talent, domestically or overseas.
The environment for rugby is significantly more complex, and is highly influenced by overseas factors. Being a global game is both a blessing (magnificent World Cups every four years), and a curse (a 12-month season and Australia’s domestic player market being influenced by overseas clubs).
Contained within the diagram are rugby’s two great conflicts: club versus country and north versus south. Rugby Australia is required to administer all of rugby, amateur and professional, domestic and global. It’s a massive and hugely complex task.
It is popular to tar rugby’s administrators, but there are any number of events and occurrences outside of Rugby Australia’s control that remain influential on the current state of Australian rugby and impede progress.
Try the failure of the national unions of England and France in 1995 to sign their players to professional contracts, which led to the rise of professional clubs, and the reason why some Australian players are offered huge sums of money to play in Australia.
Or the admission of Italy into the Six Nations in 2000 with full voting rights, gifting them power and status exceeding their contribution to rugby, and the ability to help scuttle the proposed Nations League. This was an initiative that would have provided Australia with a more substantial share of the global commercial pie.
The wash-up from the global pandemic will leave northern hemisphere unions and clubs severely damaged. But their game will remain relatively stronger than in Australia. Revenue disparities, being a function of market size, will still exist.
There is hope that the pandemic will result in a more accommodating calendar. But unless there is a major re-set of the sport at global level, and there is nothing to suggest that the French clubs will come to the party, changes will be at the margins, if they do occur.
Withdraw from Super Rugby and/or SANZAAR? What then becomes the pathway for Australia’s elite players? If it is the overseas leagues, thus replicating Australian football, is having Australia’s best players playing overseas something the Australian rugby public will genuinely accept? Note that the Socceroos have only once qualified for a World Cup knock-out stage and are currently ranked 41 in the world.
If SANZAAR folds or regresses to Rugby Championships only, how does Australia – a net beneficiary from New Zealand and South Africa’s contribution – replace the revenue?
Start a professional competition with New Zealand? By necessity, COVID-19-related travel restrictions could force this option upon both national unions. Does NZ Rugby have its heart in this?
The Pacific Islands? Asia? Japan? All long-term, desirable objectives, but for now – without money and planes, and Japan still to determine its own post-World Cup professional structure – what precisely are we talking about?
A new domestic competition built around existing clubs in Sydney and Brisbane, thus capturing an existing tribal supporter base? Or a hybrid NRC/club model that satisfies both national development and the Sydney clubs? Or neither, if the professional teams stay at home?
Which clubs would be winners and which ones would be losers? How big are their supporter bases? Do these clubs contain people with the experience and commercial acumen to operate a professional sports organisation? Or should all club rugby be strictly amateur?
Is the commercial market for domestic rugby in Australia – the number of people prepared to pay to watch rugby live or on TV – large enough to generate enough revenue to keep the best players and coaches in Australia?
That’s a rhetorical question, it isn’t. And if any competition was semi-professional, how would players and coaches remain competitive with those in professional programs overseas? They wouldn’t.
Players will soon discover the unfairness of the temporary salary reduction they signed up for becoming permanent, and deeper. That’s the harsh reality of the two main determinants of salaries being the open global market, and the ability of their employer to pay. It will also make it more difficult to keep league scouts from poaching young talent.
If more funding is to be directed into grassroots rugby, where does that money come from, if it isn’t from player salaries? To what extent is lack of money the problem? Are affiliation fees and insurances a real or perceived obstacle? Would more money provide more coaching expertise? Is there sufficient drive from the state bodies?
What the diagram demonstrates is that far too much is asked of rugby people. There is too much rugby, at too many different levels, for people to meaningfully engage with.
As a result, support for the game has become fragmented. There is a lack of common focus from which to generate fellowship and funds. It is the fundamental reason the divide has developed between the professional and amateur parts of the game.
Add to this societal and economic changes that impact on all communities – particularly in the country – and lead to diminishing participation and volunteerism, and loss of traditional values, thus making life difficult for clubs.
Add also the ability of AFL, rugby league and cricket behemoths to command the commercial sponsorship market and to suck oxygen out of the media, leaving rugby little free media space, other than to air its dirty laundry.
These are inherent pressures on the game that manifest themselves socially, financially and in performance.
None of this is anybody’s fault. It is how rugby is. How, then, can outcomes be improved?
The Environment/The Mechanism/The Detail
The trouble with a people’s revolution is that the people might agree broadly on what is wrong, but they will never agree on what is right.
In the short term, events will play out with respect to determining the full extent of the damage from COVID-19, a playing schedule for the rest of the year will be determined, and a revised financial model will be adopted.
The leadership vacuum will be filled by the appointment of an interim CEO – someone like Rob Clarke, who can step straight in, with no time for familiarisation. After that, a new chairman will replace the retiring Paul McLean.
Looking further ahead, a new CEO will be found, broadcasting rights and the future of SANZAAR will be determined, along with a new professional competition structure and – whatever the quantum – the budget forecast extended out further and an operating model set in place.
Governance is at the heart of the current discontent. The point of this exercise is not to argue if the Rugby Australia board is undemocratic and unaccountable to rugby’s stakeholders or not, but to ask if the constitution is not working for all of rugby in Australia, then can and should it be changed again to deliver an optimal governance structure?
This report from The Daily Telegraph in April 2012, which cites board member retired General Peter Cosgrove, is telling. The article announced a constitutional review to be conducted by Mark Arbib.
“We want to be the best rugby nation in the world, but as a community game, we can’t circle the wagons,” Cosgrove said.
“We have to be as creative and as energetic as we expect our players to be. This is not a time for old men in blazers to say not on my watch. Quite the reverse.”
Australian rugby has hit lean financial times in recent years, with a deficit of $7.5 million for 2011 announced yesterday. It was put down to the hugely reduced revenues due to the World Cup, but sponsorship was also down and the ARU’s belt-tightening at all levels of the game has left many at club, subbies and junior levels feeling disenfranchised.
As well intentioned and necessary as constitutional change was, hindsight has underscored fundamental flaws.
• Voting rights are held by state unions, Super Rugby franchises and RUPA, all of whom are dependent on Rugby Australia for their funding.
• It doesn’t reflect today’s actual structure, the different and conflicting demands of four states with professional sides, one with a professional side in a different competition, four states without professional sides, plus RUPA.
• A board made up of members who are independent rather than state delegates reflects tension between a national body looking enviously at New Zealand’s centralised model, states protecting a federalised model, and participants feeling removed from the people running the game.
• Lack of accountability between Rugby Australia and state unions leads to misalignment and outcomes like the costly NRC not being universally supported, or Rugby Australia having to bail out financial commitments made for televising of the Shute Shield.
• The nominations process for new board members is widely viewed as a closed shop.
Ideally, all states should have the same structure, with the Victorian model – where community rugby (junior and club), and professional rugby (Rising and the Rebels) and the Victorian Rugby Union operate under a single umbrella – appealing as best practice.
It would be difficult to achieve the same alignment in New South Wales, which contains clubs with longer histories and high ambitions. But without solving this piece – satisfying the needs of juniors, schools, subbies, Shute Shield clubs, the Waratahs and the NSW Rugby Union in a coherent way that aligns to the national objectives – lasting, harmonious and effective change in Australian rugby is probably impossible.
One suggestion is to carve out the professional franchises to an independent commission. Perhaps, but the professional franchises are not independent clubs like in the AFL and NRL. They are effectively owned or underwritten by Rugby Australia.
And apart from Andrew Forrest, where are there private investors keen to take on an Australian rugby franchise in the current environment? And how would that deliver an improved outcome for grassroots rugby?
Board competency and balance is also an issue. If it’s too corporate, criticisms emerge about people running the game who don’t know the game. If there’s too many old boys, and rugby in Australia finds itself back in 1984, and too Sydney-centric.
McLean is right to say that board transformation and renewal is already well underway. He is the only board member whose tenure predates 2017. In that sense, calls to spill the board and start again are aimed at who exactly?
Also key is the emergence of an individual to lead change and unite the game.
After years in the doldrums, South African rugby found their binding force in coach/director of rugby, Rassie Erasmus.
New Zealand’s change post their 2007 World Cup exit was not driven by an individual, but a consensus that parochial self-interest needed to be set aside. With little in recent history to suggest that approach will work here, an influential leader must emerge.
Wiggs has been touted as chairman, and clearly has sharp business acumen and passion for rugby. But he was also described last week in The Australian as showing “reluctance for the spotlight”.
If he is not to be the charismatic, public face of the game, then a different chairman – perhaps Hamish McLennan or Brett Godfrey – should be appointed. If not, then the new CEO must be that person.
The Environment/The Mechanism/The Detail
1. There would seem to be little option other than to conduct another constitutional review, by two eminently qualified people in both a legal and rugby sense, one from Sydney rugby and one from another state, who would consult widely with the rugby community.
2. Continue to improve community, grassroots outcomes through streamlined state structures that provide for effective implementation of national strategies, where the states are truly accountable for delivery.
3. Truly align rugby in New South Wales with the national body. The issue is not one of power, but to eliminate situations where separate governing bodies can work at cross-purposes.
4. Determine, once and for all, the true place of club rugby. Either it is truly amateur, or it becomes the only semi-professional domestic level. One or the other.
5. In any healthy sport or organisation there must always be a place for robust debate and mechanisms for change. However, once policy is determined, governance structures must be respected.
6. Rugby Australia must strive to find a balance between reliance on revenue from broadcasting and independent operation. Media partners are crucially important, but too often their commercial interests override the interests of the sport.
7. Technology readiness and the financial tipping point will determine the timing, but with the current subscription TV model on its last legs, Rugby Australia should seek ways to retain ownership of content, potentially enabling pieces to be carved out in a way that maximises reach and revenue.
8. The AFL is relentless in the way it influences the amount and tenor of its coverage. Australian rugby, meanwhile, subjects itself to weekly tearing down of the sport in Australia’s only national newspaper by one of its own. Put extra resources into lobbying mainstream media providers to ensure greater visibility and control of the media narrative.
9. Rugby Australia and its partners (SANZAAR and/or New Zealand) must market the game in a way that honours and connects with traditional supporters of rugby (many of them dormant) but that also engages new generation audiences. Rugby has to get much better at hero-making and connecting young fans with rugby’s star players.
10. Super Rugby (or its replacement) must be promoted as an exciting offering in its own right, not rolled into Rugby Australia’s general marketing effort. It is criminal that star players like Beauden Barrett, Ardie Savea, Cheslin Kolbe, Siya Kolisi, Pablo Matera and others pass through our rugby cities virtually unnoticed.
11. Reconsider the role of the rugby.com.au website. The site is professional and performs a valuable function, but it is passive, serving already rusted-ons. Use this for in-house promotion of the Wallabies, Wallaroos, Sevens and community rugby, but don’t believe that it serves as an effective external marketing tool.
12. Elevate the director of rugby’s presence to enable the CEO to fully focus on the non-rugby elements of the game.
13. Coaching development has lagged behind for years in Australia. Rugby Australia should more readily communicate where progress is being made, and where gaps remain by region and level to ensure that standards continue to be raised.
14. With the Western Force to come back into this year’s domestic competition, and Global Rapid Rugby still to come to fruition as a proper competition, there is an opportunity to examine the benefits of full reconciliation.
15. A new competition must deliver more scheduling predictability for franchises and fans. More regular home games – more of them on weekend afternoons perhaps – are essential. One of the successes of Super Rugby is that fans are conditioned to a 5.35pm (changed this season to 5.05pm) match on a Friday night from New Zealand that always delivers.
16. A ten-team franchise competition using Australia and New Zealand’s existing sides has undeniable merit in terms of readiness and tribalism. Japan could be added, still keeping the competition within the same time zone and providing for a regular home game schedule. The competition could be improved further by equalisation from allowing a player draft across countries, effectively mirroring the NRL. New Zealand has long resisted this. Lobby them hard under the banner of bad times and a broken model require bold initiative. But if they refuse, accept it as their right and move on.
17. Nobody wants a return to a top-heavy approach, but there can be no argument that when the Wallabies are winning, many problems disappear. Everything possible – resources, alignment through franchise coaches, fan support – should be geared to the success of Dave Rennie and his coaching team.
18. The time taken to set scrums and the frequency of re-sets remains a problem, but the pandemic allowing for a scroll through old tapes shows how rugby today is not as unattractive as many make out. Rugby remains hugely popular around the world, and we all saw the enthusiasm for the game in Japan last year. By all means continue to experiment in appropriate leagues, with World Rugby’s oversight, and lobby hard for law changes where there are obvious improvements to be had. For what it’s worth, I enjoy the nine-point Super Try, a 40-20 or 50-20 rule is worth exploring further, and shortening the game to 70 minutes makes no sense at all. But it is wrong to think that Australia alone can fix rugby’s laws, and even if it could, that it would solve anything.
19. A reason why the game is so popular in Japan is that they play – under the same laws – an instantly recognisable style of physical, dynamic, fast, attacking rugby. Unlike South Africa and New Zealand, Australia lacks an identifiable style of play that is inherently understood by juniors and carried right through the game. If Australian rugby truly committed to defining and developing its own brand of distinctive attacking rugby – yes, it is a long-term objective – would this better capture the imagination of fans? Absolutely.
20. Thirty-five thousand Wallabies fans attended last year’s World Cup in Japan and enjoyed a wonderful experience. How about everybody in the game accepting some responsibility for its well being? Go to a game, any game. Put a few dollars over a club bar. Be part of the solution.
Over the next few weeks I will publish articles on the Cauliflower Club and the newly formed Over-35s Rugby Alliance, a group co-ordinating various masters teams and competitions across Australia and New Zealand.
These are but two examples of rugby people getting on with enjoying the fellowship that this great game offers, without the need to concern themselves with politics. The game is still there to be enjoyed.