As myriad vested interests came to the fore over the past couple of weeks, all claiming they would bring unity to rugby union, it became obvious that this game with less than 90,000 registered players across Australia is vastly over-governed.
With the game facing unprecedented challenges, focus has shifted to rationalising the competition while tinkering with governance and corporate structure, but I propose wholesale change to how rugby operates in this country.
Divide amateur from professional
Like all modern sporting competitions, talent is identified in children and nurtured through professional pathways into elite teams.
Those who cannot or will not join the professional talent pool can still enjoy the amateur stream – and perhaps professional teams can find a bargain talent in that stream – but these competitions are social, and it is largely incumbent upon the local communities to support them.
As a result, ‘grassroots’ funding should be aimed squarely at getting rugby into schools – and keeping it there.
A constant complaint by lovers and haters of rugby alike is the technical and sometimes seemingly arbitrary way the laws are written and applied. This is rarely a problem with the laws themselves, which I would argue can be generally be appreciated with a little knowledge and understanding, but I would be hard pressed to name anyone who developed that knowledge and love for the game as an adult, and suspect those who did had a child playing the game.
Any strategy aimed at growing the adult spectator base rather than preparing the next generation of players and spectators is a waste of money.
Professional players should be centrally contracted
The Australian governing body should pay a base rate for all players, depending on the level of competition they are participating in, and the ability to negotiate their contract with the governing body at the top levels.
If, for example, the top tier competition was Super Rugby, a club could attract talent by supplementing these central contracts with income from match attendance, sponsorship, etc.
This adds incentive for clubs to successfully market themselves, but places the bulk of income, expenditure and negotiations squarely in the domain of the governing body, who would also hold responsibility for match-day expenditure in line with retaining and allotting broadcast and major sponsorship revenue.
While we all wait to see what form Super Rugby actually takes when it returns to our screens, and what obligations Australian rugby will have to the negotiated deals of other SANZAAR nations, the current landscape cannot support both the NRC and insurgent state-based club competitions of the Shute Shield and Premier Rugby.
Sadly, the club competitions have won the broader support of the rugby community, even if this creates an imperfect pathway to the top tiers.
This success would come at a cost under the new structure, with Australian rugby installing a bottom-tier professional program for club rugby, with promotion and relegation groupings for eligible clubs who apply and submit their willing first-grade players to centralised contracting.
Schools could then become geographical feeders. The clubs who are able to participate in the professional competitions would obviously benefit at the amateur levels from increased support, attendance and participation, but that is not to say that the clubs who remain amateur would be left out in the cold.
The amateur arm would receive a proportionate budget and have responsibility not only for managing local area competitions in conjunction with local clubs but also, vitally, community engagement.
While I don’t doubt the state unions currently perform a variety of important administrative tasks, a sport with so few registered players – more than half of whom are children – can surely be successfully run by a single body with the support of localised clubs.
Furthermore, the additional layer of governance has to be draining rugby’s scarce resources to service goals that don’t always align with the national strategy or international obligations. Now, more than ever, Australian rugby needs to be lean and streamlined.
Perhaps my plan has more holes than a sieve and you can suggest a better model, or perhaps you can champion the necessity of the state unions. Either way, right now I would love a better understanding of how the game I love is run, and why it’s been run into the ground.
This was never the fault of individuals – the framework was always broken.