When sifting through rugby news in recent times, it’s hard to not hum the Bob Dylan classic The Times They Are A-Changin’.
In our little corner of the globe, it looks like the last nail has been hammered into the Sunwolves coffin, the Jaguares are having their first couple belted in, while a claw has mysteriously risen from the ground beneath a tombstone that has ‘Western Force’ chiselled into it.
In among all of the movements in rugby’s births (or re-births) and deaths columns, most of the SANZAAR partners have been busy pulling together their response to a Covid-impacted world.
Interestingly, it appears as though there has been an eye cast to the other side of the pandemic with some using this as an opportunity to revisit the drawing board to come up with something that provides a better fit for the long-term health of the game.
New Zealand rugby was the first cab off the rank to blaze a trail into the covid headwind with the inception of Super Rugby Aotearoa. Barely before a ball was kicked, discussions quickly shifted to New Zealand’s long-term plans for domestic rugby which prompted the launch of the Aratipu review.
Following the completion of the review, there appeared to be a desire to move towards a Trans-Tasman arrangement, but some early whispers suggested it would come with the strings attached of narrowing down Australia’s elite footprint to just two or three teams.
Mark Robinson fronted the press on Friday and effectively confirmed that not all of the five Super Rugby AU clubs will be offered a spot. The NZR wants to add a team for the Pacific to their 5, along with another two to four teams from an ‘Expressions of Interest’ process.
This would suggest that the best case scenario for RA is that four clubs get the sign off from the NZR.
Rugby Australia has been upfront about their desire to proceed with our existing Super Rugby clubs and a Twiggy-backed Force, so the scene is set for showdown at the negotiations table. Early in the timeline of the pandemic, RA used Covid-19 to shout even louder for our long-desired Trans-Tasman model that no doubt represents our best interests moving forward.
The issue for us appears to be that significant compromises will need to be made to maintain the partnership at this level. RA has to proceed with caution because it’s the significant compromises for the interests of external stakeholders that has effectively dropped in the position we find ourselves (eg. not a good one).
On the positives; while the global pandemic has presented the opportunity to scrap the mess we’ve aligned ourselves to and push a more favourable agenda with our partners, it’s also presented an environment that’s as good as it’s going to get for taking the brave plunge and going it alone.
It’s no secret that the driving force behind hitching our wagon to Super Rugby is the financial windfall it provides us in order to keep most of our talent on our shores. Many believe that any pivot from a model that’s topped up by external stakeholders would result in a mass-exodus of players to northern hemisphere clubs.
While there’s little doubting this logic, there have been factors at play that suggest it might be overstated, while there’s also little consideration for the fact that an unattractive model (which Super Rugby has been for some time) goes no way towards maximising the revenue we’re able to generate locally.
Furthermore, the onset of Covid-19 seems to have brought forward a ‘correction’ in northern hemisphere club rugby that many have been predicting for some time.
Clubs living well beyond their means has been a hot topic in Europe for the last number of seasons and now there’s evidence to suggest the purse strings are tightening among clubs in the notoriously big spending Top 14. Meanwhile, over the Channel, clubs are bleeding out at an accelerated pace with the current predicament resulting in the salary cap for the Premierships 2021-22 season being cut by £2m (with many expressing the desire to make this more permanent).
Considering the great ‘leveller’ that this global pandemic has been, Rugby Australia has the opportunity to build something in an environment where the ‘haves’ of world rugby aren’t in that perceived position of power that they may have been in earlier.
So the question becomes; what does an ongoing ‘Super Rugby AU’ product look like? For starters, five teams isn’t going to cut it so I would suggest the following 8-team structure (with home grounds in brackets):
Brisbane Buccaneers (Suncorp Stadium)
South Queensland Cyclones (new boutique venue on Brisbane’s Southside)
North Shore Mariners (revamped Brookvale Oval)
Sydney Steelers (new SFS)
Wester Sydney Rangers (Bank West Parramatta Stadium)
Canberra Brumbies (GIO Stadium)
Melbourne Rebels (AAMI Park)
Western Force (HBF Park)
Firstly, let’s not get too caught up on the monikers. They’re just quick ideas that are by no means at the bedrock of this proposal.
On the stadiums, six of the eight are built or under construction. If Peter V’Landy’s gets his way (and so far in his NRL tenure, it looks like he usually does), Brookvale should get a much-needed lick of paint for a team based north of the harbour in arguably the game’s most significant heartland in Australia.
Then there’s certainly a case for a new boutique stadium in Brisbane for soccer and potentially a second rugby league side in the River City. A new rugby entity would serve to add some weight to this claim.
The season will kick off in early to mid-February and involve each team playing the others home-and-away for a 14-week regular season. Mid to late May will see the top half of the competition break away into a four-team finals series played over a two-week period.
Then ‘alignment’ must be front of mind in the design of something new for the game in this country. That is establishing a clear line between grassroots to clubs to elite rugby to representative rugby and through to the Wallabies. Therefore, each of these teams needs to represent a patch of dirt that encompasses their immediate surrounds while stretching further into other regions to engage and take the folk from these areas on the rugby journey.
They need to provide a pathway while being responsible for tailored strategies that provide the required growth in their space. These teams/district unions will represent the following areas:
Brisbane Buccaneers: North Brisbane, Sunshine Coast, Central Queensland, North Queensland.
South Queensland Cyclones: South Brisbane, Gold Coast, Darling Downs.
North Shore Mariners: North Sydney, Northern Beaches, Central Coast, Hunter region, North Coast.
Sydney Steelers: City and Eastern suburbs, Southern Sydney, Illawarra/South Coast.
Western Sydney Rangers: Western Sydney, Central West NSW, New England.
Canberra Brumbies: ACT, Riverina and Southern NSW.
Melbourne Rebels: Victoria, Tasmania.
Western Force: Western Australia, South Australia, Northern Territory.
To reinforce this connection, those five teams in Brisbane and Sydney where there will be more than seven home games of content for local fans, will take one of their games ‘on the road’ to another centre in their region. Brisbane will play a game in Townsville’s new Queensland Country Bank Stadium. South Queensland will take a game to Cbus Stadium on the Gold Coast.
North Shore will go to McDonald Jones Stadium in Newcastle. Sydney will nip down to the Gong for a game at WIN Stadium. While there are no major regional centres with large stadium infrastructure in Western Sydney’s patch, they’ll take on the Western Force in Adelaide.
Also in the vein of alignment, these eight teams are aligned to one of three ‘State Unions’. The two Brisbane teams are aligned to the Queensland State Union. The three Sydney teams are aligned to the New South Wales State Union and the remaining three teams are aligned to an Allied States Union.
Following the 16-week domestic competition, these ‘Unions’ come to life with a three-week series where players have the opportunity to represent their ‘home union’ in a concept following the ‘origin’ format. This gives RA an engaging product to sell to TV while also funnelling the competitions best players into three teams to have them competing at a higher standard to prepare for the rigours of Test rugby.
It also provides Wallaby selectors with an effective platform to pick their squad from. This three-week window would occupy June before the three inbound Tests which are said to be moved to July under a global calendar.
Players are the final piece of this puzzle. As mentioned, those northern raids have always presented a barrier for pursuing such a model and there’s no doubt that implementing something along these lines would result in some more players heading off shore, even with the compromised systems that Covid will leave behind in Europe.
What RA would need to do as a result is centrally contract the top 35 to 40 players in the country and distribute them across the eight teams to avoid a couple of clubs being stacked with all of the talent. This will ensure that those household names remain in our local news cycle and available for Wallaby selection.
We can then expect to have a good chunk of those ‘middle tier’ players head off shore as many already do with the current trend. With a sustainable salary cap of around $3m per team (outside Wallaby wages), we should be able to hold onto some of those ‘fringe’ Wallaby squad hopefuls while providing plenty of opportunities for young up and coming players to nab a professional contract and develop their talents in this league.
This is certainly a more favourable environment than the status quo where many promising young players are ‘shut out’ of opportunities locally and turn their back on the sport or head overseas as a result.
In disconnecting from Super Rugby, it should still remain our goal to maintain our relationship with the SANZAAR partners to keep our spot in the Rugby Championship. Depending on what each partner does following the dismantling of Super Rugby, a Champions League-style concept should be explored for the window between the end of TRC and the beginning of the northern hemisphere tour.
If not with the existing partners, then certainly with emerging nations like Japan and the US. Any extra dollars we can accumulate through these means will be valuable in ensuring the success of a more domestically focused approach.
That said, this approach should also pay dividends with more money being able to be drawn out locally as a result of a product that hasn’t been compromised by the needs and wants of external stakeholders.
The number of clubs and their locations are important pieces of the national competition puzzle, but these elements are by no means the core focus of this piece. This simply explores the possibilities of standing alone and the opportunities that could present themselves with a calendar that is our own.
It unpacks a somewhat turbulent and murky landscape that represents a unique opportunity to stick our neck out to begin a rebuild alone while the pre-existing threats are vulnerable. And finally it’s an acknowledgment of the limitations and changes of thinking required around what we want professional rugby to offer in designing something specific to our needs.