The Roar
The Roar



Too big to fail: Why Rugby Australia must not make the same mistake again

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28th July, 2020
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“It’s greed that makes my bartender buy three houses with no money down. And it’s greed that makes the government in this country cut the interest rate to one per cent after 9/11 so that we can all go shopping again…

“When I was away, it seems like greed got greedier, with a little bit of envy mixed in. Hedge-funders were walking away with 50, 100 million bucks a year. So Mr Banker looks around, and he says, ‘Hey, my life looks pretty boring’. He starts leveraging up his interests to 40, or 50 to one. With your money – not his, yours. You’re supposed to be borrowing, not them.

“We move money around in circles. We take a buck, we shoot it full of steroids, we call it leverage. I call it steroid banking.

“The mother of all evils is speculation – leveraged debt. Bottom line – borrowing to the hilt.”

Those are the words of Gordon Gekko, the financial tycoon played by Michael Douglas in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.

The film was released in 2010, 23 years after the original masterpiece directed by Oliver Stone. It came hot on the trail of the global financial crisis two years earlier, which was epitomised by the phrase “too big to fail”.

Some institutions, like multinational banks, had become so integral to the wellbeing of the global economy that they could not be allowed to fail without imperilling the whole system around them. They had to be bailed out by government, and they knew it.

The same principles are still at work today. In June 2020, at the peak of the coronavirus crisis in the UK, the size of government debt exceeded the size of the economy (or gross domestic product) for the first time since 1963. The International Monetary Fund expects global public debt to reach 101 per cent of GDP by the end of 2020.


Negative interest rates are becoming the new normal, at zero or even below that. At one extreme, that means banks potentially offering customers financial incentives to take on the burden of more debt.

The story of Super Rugby is the story of expansion, as the competition has pumped itself up progressively to embrace the ‘too big to fail’ narrative. The original Super 6 teams back in 1992 had tripled in number to 18 by 2016, with three extra Australian franchises in Canberra (1996), Perth (2006) and Melbourne (2011).

The addition of the Western Force coincided with News Corp taking the lion’s share of the broadcasting pie in the UK, Australia and New Zealand. One year later, no Australian franchise reached the semi-finals for the first time in the tournament’s history.

Expansion has certainly failed to deliver the goods in Australia. It may have delivered development pathways and stimulated interest in the game, especially in Western Australia, but it has not delivered results on the field.

After providing six finalists in the tournament in the ten years between 1996-2006, Australia has only supplied four in the 14 years since. The Western Force’s win rate in Super Rugby was 35 per cent, and that of the Melbourne Rebels still languishes at under 32.

The dilution of the talent density in the original three franchises has also steadily eroded their performances:

Win rate: 1996-2005 Win rate: 2006-2019
NSW Waratahs 55% 53%
Queensland Reds 52% 43%
ACT Brumbies 61% 56%

Unsurprisingly, the performance of the Wallabies also deteriorated over the same time. Between 1996 and 2005, their win rate trotted along at a brisk 68 per cent. Since 2006, it has dropped to 57 per cent, and has been just 51 per cent in the last seven seasons.

At the same time, New Zealand has not changed its own format at all, maintaining the same five regional sides. The success of Aotearoa at both Super Rugby and international level during the expansion period for Australian rugby since 2006 hardly needs to be reiterated.

Now the same old story has returned in negotiations for the proposed trans-Tasman replacement for Super Rugby, and it looks like Rugby Australia is ready to leverage its debts all over again.

“I love New Zealand and its people and we have strong cultural ties and a rich rugby heritage, but it feels a bit master-servant at the moment,” new Rugby Australia chairman Hamish McLennan commented.

“If we’re building up to the [2023] World Cup and rebuilding Australian rugby we need the maximum amount of teams in the competition, including our friends at the Force.

“From what I’ve heard, the Super Rugby clubs on both sides of the Tasman have been speaking and I hear they want a full-blown trans-Tasman competition as well.”

It may be just a negotiating gambit of course, but in view of the overweening need for financial sustainability and the concentration of available Australian rugby talent into winning cultures, it is also quite disturbing. The basic requirement now must be to produce real substance and quality, not create markets out of thin air.


True to their traditions, the Western Force have proven stubborn, gritty and well-coached in their three outings so far. But there were distinct signs that the things were beginning to unravel against the Brumbies on Saturday evening.

The average age of the Force team is four years older than the Reds and Waratahs, and the average age of their tight five forwards is between 29 and 30.

The Brumbies targeted the short side in attack, and the reasons for their choice of play became clearer as the game wore on:

The first target is scrumhalf Nick Frisby, who is a better defensive organiser than he is a tackler. Frisby misses his attempt on Brumbies number 8 Pete Samu at the base of the scrum, and veteran flyhalf Jono Lance is too slow to plug the gap. With his winger playing off against the likelihood of a kick, Lance has to fill in as an extra short-side defender:

Force defensive set-up from scrum

It wasn’t the only occasion in the match when Samu showed excellent quick feet once the tackler planted his feet:


Moments like that will only bolster his claim for a spot in Dave Rennie’s first choice Wallaby back-row.

As the game developed, the Brumbies made a point of attacking short-sides where they could exploit some of the Force’s older players, especially among the tight five forwards:

In the first example it was 30-year-old Lance, here it is 35-year-old second-rower Jeremy Thrush who is being asked to cover more ground in defence than he can comfortably manage:

Jeremy Thrush defensive positioning

If it seems like a harsh call on Thrush, who proved throughout the game that he has no quit in him, remember some of the requirements of a modern lock from this article.

The next short-side attack from a lineout found Thrush and his fellow thirty-something forward, tighthead prop Kieran Longbottom, struggling to get back into the defensive line on the following phase:


This is what the picture looked as the ball reached first receiver on the next Brumbies play:

Force defensive positioning

The ball is already in play, but Thrush and Longbottom are well on the wrong side of it.

The Brumbies should have added to their try total when Tom Wright was presented with a relatively easy short-side overlap close to the Force goal-line:

In this case, Thrush makes a good tackle, dislodging the ball. He would never have had the chance to make it if Wright had passed immediately:

Force defensive line

Because of Thrush’s limited mobility, the Force back outside him has to stay tight and that gives up a lot of room to Tom Banks and Samu in the wider channels.


Wright did a much better job when offered a similar opportunity in the second half:

This time it is Force right winger Byron Ralston who has to bodyguard the slow tight forward inside him (Longbottom), and Wright is able to take both of them out before delivering the pass to Will Miller:

Force defensive line

The final example was far more straightforward. Joe Powell simply passes the ball to the blindside winger straight from the lineout, and he penetrates the gap between the Force hooker and tighthead prop with ease:

Force defensive line

There is no way Longbottom can accelerate to fill the gap at 34 years of age and make the tackle on Wright!


Both Kieran Longbottom and Jeremy Thrush can still do a yeoman job for the Force at the set piece, when the play becomes tight and technical. Now in their mid-30s, both inevitably suffer when they are required to operate in the wide-open spaces.

If that seems unfair, imagine how much more brutal the experience would become if both found themselves exposed to similar situations against one of the New Zealand Super Rugby franchises.

Therein lies the rub. Five Australian regions in the same competition with the same number of rivals from across the Tasman would not be an even contest. It would be as lacking in substance as the dying embers of expansion in Super Rugby fuelled by SANZAAR, and its hot flush of meaningless matches.

While Australia expanded its footprint westwards and southwards and traded up despite a significant emigration of key playing and coaching personnel, New Zealand consolidated and built winning cultures in Super Rugby which provided the springboard for an unprecedented run of success with the All Blacks.


(Photo by Martin Hunter/Getty Images)

One was an exercise in marketing and speculation based on broadcasting revenues, the other an organic nurturing of existing values. While stimulating the growth of the game in Western Australia (especially) and Victoria is a desirable aim, it cannot be achieved by creating a professional model beyond Australia’s current means. Post-COVID rugby life has to be sustainable.

Super Rugby is not too big fail. It already has failed. Australia has to fight back by resisting the urge to double down and trade up on its losses all over again.

As Gordon Gekko would say: “How are we going to do that?… Three words. Buy [Geoff’s] book!”