The current Australian rugby calendar is a mess. Rather than having a clear and logical structure, it’s a patchwork of competitions overlapping throughout the year and overwhelming all but the most committed fans.
My proposed alternative is built around four guiding principles:
1. Emphasise quality over quantity
2. Eliminate overlap between competitions
3. Build logically throughout the year, starting with club footy and culminating with the Wallabies
4. Accept the reality of northern hemisphere club competitions and work around them rather than competing with them
The primary change to the calendar is the increased emphasis on club rugby with Super Rugby being scrapped and replaced with a dramatically shortened provincial competition.
While transitioning to a national club competition makes sense over the medium term, the city-based club competitions (i.e. Shute Shield and Hospital Cup) have been going well in the past couple of years so there’s a risk in ripping them up. My proposed format would be a 13-week season running from the middle of March through until early June.
This would consist of 11 round-robin games followed by a four-team, two-week finals series. Ideally, you would also force alignment between the premier and sub-districts competitions in each city to enable promotion-relegation to first division subbies and then all the way down from there.
Shortening the season and introducing promotion and relegation would ensure that every game mattered and putting the finals in June, which is otherwise a relatively quiet part of the year for sport, would mean more attention.
The bigger change though would be playing club rugby in clear air and sending all 50 centrally contracted players to play for their clubs. This will both elevate the profile of the competitions and create a really interesting dynamic of amateurs turning up on a weekly basis to test themselves against the best. Sure, Samu Kerevi might tear up the Brisbane club competition on a weekly basis but that would still be pretty fun to watch.
It would also make the Wallabies the most accessible elite sportsmen in Australia. Rather than playing behind a wall of security guards on cavernous stadiums, there would now be 25 Wallabies running around each week on suburban grounds that have kids on the field at halftime. This would do wonders for the players’ profiles and fans’ feeling of connection with the professional game.
Unlike current model where Super Rugby is the core professional product, I would return provincial rugby to its representative roots with five teams representing the rugby playing states (NSW, Queensland, ACT, Victoria and Western Australia), and a Barbarians team made up of overseas-based players and any players left over from NSW and Queensland.
The tournament would run from mid-June to mid-July, which is important because it commences after the completion of the European club season and would enable foreign-based players to play. Each domestic team would host three games with the Barbarians effectively on the road for five weeks. As with the Six Nations, there would be no final — first past the post.
Unlike Super Rugby, this streamlined format would ensure a consistent viewing experience with three games each weekend (Friday night, Saturday afternoon, Saturday night), a really simple competition format and the guarantee of an Australian winner. The timing in the calendar and the presence of overseas-based players would also make it a de facto competition for Wallabies jerseys, which would provide additional interest.
This is similar to the 2020 model with a couple of key differences. It’s much more condensed, with 15 games in five weeks rather than 20 in ten. And there is no final — it’s first past the post.
The biggest difference is that these players won’t be contracted by provincial franchises. Instead, as with State of Origin, they would be representative teams, with players (and coaches) picked from their relevant competitions with the players reimbursed through match fees ($5000 per game would equate to $25,000 for a month’s work).
An alternative option would be to condense ACT, Victoria and WA into the one team and condense the tournament down from five weeks to three, which would improve the standard of play and reduce the competitive imbalance but this risks further alienating the already estranged WA rugby fans (and their wealthy patrons) so it is probably best to leave them in. If they get towelled up, so be it — that could form part of a transition to a national club competition.
The mere existence of international rugby is our biggest competitive advantage relative to other Australian winter sports. Internationals should be rugby’s core product and the focus of the annual calendar.
This is the case in Europe with the Six Nations being the focal point of the calendar but not so in the southern hemisphere where the Rugby Championship has largely failed to engage fans.
My proposed international calendar would run for four months and have three elements:
• Incoming tour
• Lomu Cup
• End-of-season European tour
This would be largely unchanged from the current model, which gives exposure to the northern hemisphere teams who we only play rarely, provides a warm-up to the Lomu Cup and generates a positive financial return.
The Lomu Cup
Everyone talks about the flaws of Super Rugby, but the Rugby Championship is just as bad. Twelve games over eight weeks is not enough to sustain interest. Few games are close contests so the outcome is predictable. And the home-and-away format almost invariably leaves a heap of dead rubbers towards the end. It should be scrapped, and replaced with the Lomu Cup, which will run from August to October and become rugby’s marquee competition outside Europe.
Unlike the Rugby Championship, which only has four teams, the Lomu Cup will have 12, split across two tiers with promotion and relegation of two teams every year.
• Tier 1 (Lomu Cup) — New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, Argentina, Japan and Fiji
• Tier 2 (Campese Shield) — USA, Tonga, Samoa, Canada, Brazil and Uruguay
Each tier will play a round-robin tournament (five rounds of six games played each weekend) followed by a finals weekend held at a pre-determined neutral location. Lomu Cup matches will be hosted in competing countries while the Campese Shield will follow a travelling model with each round hosted in a different location (i.e. Round 1 has three games in Canada, Round 2 has three games in the USA, etc.).
At the completion of the round-robin phase, the last-placed finisher in the Lomu Cup is relegated while the top-placed finisher in the Campese Shield is promoted.
The finals weekend would have four games as follows:
• Lomu Cup final: LC1 versus LC2
• Lomu Cup relegation: LC4 versus LC5
• Campese Shield promotion: CS2 versus CS3
• Exhibition: LC3 and LC6 versus CS1, CS4, CS5 and CS6
This new format would triple the number of games played each week, make it less predictable, ensure every game had meaningful stakes, give more variety in opponent and ensure a climactic outcome. It would also bring the Pacific Islands into the fold and provide a realistic pathway for the continued growth of rugby in Japan and the USA.
If the tournament was a success (and why wouldn’t it be?), the finals would pretty quickly become the biggest weekend on the rugby calendar, generate huge crowds and could be auctioned off like the Super Bowl, the Sevens World Series final and the Champions League final to provide additional revenue.
As with the incoming tour, this would be largely unchanged from the current format and provides a good chance to give younger players experience in European conditions. I would make selection only eligible to Australian-based players, which would allow the overseas-based players to return to their clubs.
The only other addition to the calendar is an annual Anzac Day fixture with New Zealand. I have seen others suggesting we should play a Bledisloe here but that would be totally out of sync with the rest of the calendar and doesn’t make a lot of sense.
Instead, we should give a high-profile platform for our other national teams that currently lack a spotlight. I’d play five games at a single venue starting at lunchtime and concluding in the evening with hosting switching back and forth between the two countries each year.
The games would be:
• Classic Wallabies versus classic All Blacks
• Women’s sevens
• Junior Wallabies versus junior All Blacks (under-20s)
• Men’s sevens
• Wallaroos versus Black Ferns
It wouldn’t necessarily pack out a stadium but it would draw a pretty good crowd (for example at North Sydney Oval) and it would be perfect public-holiday background TV content because it would go all day.
In summary, this calendar would deliver on the strategy of less is more, show clearer linkages between the different competitions and put as much focus as possible on the international game — all of which would improve both fan engagement and commercial returns, all the more if the guys in gold jerseys can start winning some more games.