Last week, I wrote an article suggesting that Australian rugby go it alone.
The need for a national club rugby competition similar to the NRL but with more than a hint of the NPC or Curry Cup about it can no longer be put in the too hard basket.
We have reached a point in rugby union where if radical change is not implemented, the game will die a horrible death in Australia. That is not overdramatising the situation.
The new competition would consist of 16 club sides drawn from NSW (six), Queensland (six), WA (two), ACT (one) and Victoria (one). Those sides would not be 2020 Frankenstein creations but drawn from the existing competitions. Sydney University would play Brothers, Tuggeranong would play Randwick, Cottesloe would play GPS and so on.
Many Kiwis took that as a ‘Make Australian Rugby Great Again’ moment. Some Australians were excited, some laughed and some both laughed and cried. There was a lot of self doubt, self loathing and an equal measure of defeatism too.
Generally, the excitement and worry seemed to boil down to four main concerns.
There aren’t enough players
Japan’s Top League has 16 sides consisting of professional and semi-professional players. There is no reason why Australia can’t have the same.
Effectively, 16 sides consisting of 30-man squads equates to 480 contracted players. Each side would be able to sign seven overseas players meaning 112 would be running around bolstering the competition, a similar quota to in Japan.
That leaves 368 spots for young Wallabies-eligible players to take up. We already have 120 playing Super Rugby. There are another 248 waiting in the wings whether in the established club competitions or on the periphery of rugby league clubs. In fact, it is these types of peripheral players who are usually lost to our game because there is no pathway for them.
There isn’t enough money
Let’s assume that very loosely, the average salary for all players across the new competition was $100,000 with a minimum wage of $50,000 and a maximum of $750,000. That equates to an annual wage bill of $48 million and a salary cap of $3 million per team (the NRL’s is $9 million). Way too much, I hear you say?
The broadcast deal for Super Rugby between 2016 and 2020 was $285 million or $57 million per season. Australian Super Rugby expenditure including player costs is roughly $20 million per annum.
Even before you get to Twiggy’s billions and the wealth already circulating in some club circles, there is the money.
The competition would be mostly free to air and sold to the highest bidders. The NRL’s television deal is worth $2 billion or very roughly $250 million a year. Why could rugby union not achieve ten per cent of that?
And of course that $25 million a year is before savings from Super Rugby, before sponsorship deals and before any money from benefactors like Twiggy. Hell, Alan Jones may even finally put his money where his mouth is. Qantas could even throw in some free flights!
What about the traditional clubs?
This is not a hard question but it is the most complicated.
There is a clear imbalance of power, both on and off the field in club rugby. In the Shute Shield for example, Sydney University and others regularly put 50 points on opposition. Gordon beat Two Blues 64-nil. Norths beat Penrith 53-3. Randwick beat NHRU Wildfires 50-7. These aren’t unusual scores – they all occurred this year and within seven days of each other.
Lopsided games like that do nothing for anybody, especially when they are a regular occurrence. Penrith and the Two Blues would be much better off dropping down to play second XVs while the others played Brothers in Brisbane or Tuggeranong in Canberra.
Could there be promotion and relegation battles from the new 16-team competition? Sure, but not to begin with. Supporting the 16 clubs chosen is far more important than trying to placate those who drop down to reserve grade or that are stuck in the past with no vision for the future.
And how would the 16 clubs be chosen? This is the hardest question. Put simply it must be a rigorous process where on-field performance over the past ten years, associations with schools, financial support, facilities and membership numbers are weighed. There will be those disappointed but it is a process that must be undertaken for the health of Australian Rugby.
Many of the bigger clubs already have traditional feeder programmes with schools and regions which must be seized upon. This will finally begin a joined up approach to skills coaching, talent identification and fitness.
Our version of the NPC or Curry Cup?
The new club competition will be our version of the NPC or Curry Cup. That is not to say that there is no room for provincial games anymore. Just the opposite.
As young players flourish, they will aspire to play for their state of origin. Just because rugby league does it, that is not a good enough reason to not do it. Playing for your state needs to mean something again.
And as Western Australia grows wouldn’t it be amazing to see it become the ACT Brumbies of the 2020s? It was no coincidence that the golden era of Aussie rugby was between 1995 and 2005 when the chippy and highly motivated Brumbies came along and competed.
One thing is for certain: 480 young go-getters having a crack in a competition that means something will be imminently more viewable and popular than the drivel that we have seen dished out at empty stadiums over the past four to five years.