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Opinion

The Wrap: It’s time for rugby’s loose ends to start to come together

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30th August, 2020
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Nobody should be too hard on rugby for taking as long as it needs to navigate a way out of the mess the sport currently finds itself in.

Now entering the eighth week of a second Victorian lockdown, with no roadmap out apparent, other state premiers keen to ride the parochialism wave all the way to their next elections, COVID Aoteroa back in business, and global leaders in various stages of denial and confusion, there are any number of genuine brick walls for rugby’s administrators to run into.

It is true of course, that most of rugby’s ails pre-date COVID-19, but out of crisis comes opportunity and there remains hope that, out of the rubble, there will emerge better outcomes for the game – globally and in Australasia.

SANZAAR CEO Andy Marinos is in the ‘glass half-full’ camp, making a rare public appearance last week to spruik hope that an alignment of nations will still occur, that will allow for a new global season.

To borrow an oft-used quote from a famous movie, (I’m told it’s ‘The Castle’, but it could have been Sharon Stone sitting across the interrogation room from Wayne ‘Newman’ Knight, in ‘Basic Instinct’), French and English club owners will no doubt say of Marinos, “Tell him he’s dreamin’.”

With everyone on their knees, clubs and national unions alike, it’s hard to imagine circumstances being any more conducive to fixing up the mess that has become rugby’s calendar.

But with an opportunity to inject fresh leadership into World Rugby recently spurned, self-interest never far from the surface, and private equity being funnelled into discrete portions of the game instead of providing an overarching solution, the best the game can hope for, in all likelihood, is to shore up regional and local outcomes.

It’s not that Australian rugby isn’t in need of that. And despite all of the unknowns and what ifs, the time is fast approaching when some of those blocks need to start falling into place.

This Friday marks the closing date for Rugby Australia’s broadcast rights tender, a document that is no doubt full of holes.

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Without a broadcast deal for 2021 and beyond, Rugby Australia has offered a suite of competitions that range from the dependable banker (Bledisloe Cup), to the still to be figured out (Super Rugby), to the downright loopy but might just be insane enough to work (State of the Union).

With Cricket Australia’s massive TV deal with the Seven Network in the process of disintegrating, it’s a crazy time for anyone – on both sides of the table – trying to sell or buy sports broadcasting rights.

Nobody knows quite how much these things are worth anymore, except to say that wherever there’s a seller who has no money trying to flog something to a buyer who has no money, it’s probably best not to get too excited.

Seven’s beef with Cricket Australia largely centres around a diminished product offering. The competitions and fixtures are in place, but Australia’s best players – the reason fans switch on to watch – will not be involved in large chunks of it.

It’s a situation familiar to rugby fans. A ridiculously crowded calendar, players stretched across multiple tiers of the sport, more lucrative competitions elsewhere, and a requirement for them to fit in some rest and rotation, serve to push Australia’s domestic product down towards the bottom of the food chain.

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Arrangements for Wallabies captain Michael Hooper to play in Japan for the first six months of next year make sense on a number of levels – but not to the TV networks who want to know they are paying for filet mignon, not chump chops.

At least Rugby Australia will still be able to offer Hooper to their broadcast partner in some form, although Sydney readers who woke last week to a Daily Telegraph headline, “Real reason Hooper walked away from Australian rugby”, would have been excused thinking otherwise.

“Walked away”? What was this? Had Dave Rennie told Hooper that his services weren’t required as Wallabies captain? Or even as a player?

Not so. It was only three paragraphs in, where it was acknowledged that, as part of an arrangement for Hooper to take a six-month sabbatical in Japan, under retired All Blacks coach Steve Hansen, “Hooper won’t miss any Wallabies Tests.”

It is disturbingly comforting to know that in times of upheaval and change for rugby in Australia, one constant is the ability of many in the mainstream media to serve up sludge masquerading as rugby coverage.

Michael Hooper runs with the ball

(Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

And while we’re on that topic, astute observers will recall how, when Rugby Australia first took their broadcasting rights to tender, hell and damnation rained down via a concerted News Corporation media campaign designed to extract retribution on then-CEO Raelene Castle, for spurning Fox Sports’ original offer, to test the value of the rights on the open market.

In the end, the hit squad got their woman and, with the pandemic chiming in, millions of dollars were wiped from the revenue base of the professional game. Money that won’t be coming back any time soon.

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Cue new leadership at Moore Park, a financial restructure, and time enough for personal relationships built around a mutual love of sailing on Sydney harbour, to flow into a truce of sorts between Fox Sports and Rugby Australia.

Until here we are again, at tender mark II, only this time with a bit of ‘State of the Union’ lipstick applied to the rugby pig, and nary a squeak out of the same media hatchet brigade. So, why the different reaction this time around?

One answer is that it really was personal. Castle took on the status quo in a manner that was deemed to warrant a ‘whatever it takes’ response, not unlike how NRL CEO David Smith was hounded out of his position in 2015, for having the temerity to do a deal with the Nine network.

Another reason is that this battle has already been fought. Neither side can pretend the original tender process didn’t happen, and it would be pointless to continue to deny that the model is in the process of changing, and – whatever the final value – that there aren’t other parties interested in broadcasting rugby.

It also seems likely that Fox Sports is at peace with its position. It either genuinely doesn’t care anymore, its production already pared back to the bare essentials, to the point where, just like its coverage of football in Australia, it makes more commercial sense to walk away.

Or else it cares just enough to place a value on the pieces it does want – enough rugby that can entice enough rusted-ons to maintain their subscriptions, yet be delivered at a low enough production cost to make it viable – and be done with the rest of it.

Whatever the financial outcome for Rugby Australia, and whether or not any shortfall might ultimately be boosted by an injection of private equity funding, the timing is about to become acute. Agreement with New Zealand Rugby, a roadmap for 2021 and certainty over broadcasting is needed to allow player salaries to be set in the face of a looming September 30th deadline.

In such an uncertain landscape, Rugby Australia has done well in recent weeks to shift the narrative from a position of chaos, where player agents and advisors were actively encouraging players to desert the sinking ship, to offering a vision for the future and (to anyone whose name isn’t Alan Jones) presenting Dave Rennie and his team, as a credible reason to stick around.

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Wallabies coach Dave Rennie

Wallabies coach Dave Rennie. (Photo by Henry Browne/Getty Images)

In the process they have re-signed players like Jordan Uelese, Tom Wright, Cameron Orr, Hunter Paisami and more, while Dane Haylett-Petty and Matt To’omua, who have options to pursue a stint in Japan as Hooper has chosen, waiting to assess just what the damage to their hip pockets will be if they stay.

Hamish McLennan and Rob Clarke have commendably led from the front in their insistence that Australia retains five professional franchises. But despite leading players knowing in their heart of hearts that there are multiple and real factors pressing their salaries downwards, it will take some doing to convince the majority of them to accept diminished contracts and recommit to Australian rugby.

It would indeed be ironic if the required blocks don’t fall into place, and fall quickly enough, for Rugby Australia to prevent a player exodus, in turn justifying New Zealand’s position about Australia’s playing depth.

One thing that has been rightly cast adrift is the nonsensical proposal to play a hybrid match between the All Blacks and the Kangaroos, later this year. With rugby’s international calendar for 2020 still to be determined, the logistical hurdles proved insurmountable, but in reality, the match was never a goer anyway, on the grounds of common sense.

If you’ll excuse the oxymoron, the match was the brainchild of ex-Kiwi international Dean Lonergan, a man interestingly described by Anthony Mundine as “a despicable human being”, and was to have been 14-a-side, minus line-outs, with de-powered scrums and a limit of eight tackles/mauls for each side.

In other words… something suspiciously resembling rugby league.

Also resembling rugby league was the circus at Leichhardt Oval on Saturday night which saw the Waratahs’ Lachie Swinton apply a shoulder charge to the head of Rebels’ Isi Naisarani, forcing Naisarani from the field concussed, without any sanction other than a penalty.

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While there has been inconsistency across the refereeing ranks in Super Rugby AU, officials have by and large done a good job. And certainly, Amy Perrett’s debut on Friday night was full of merit.

But coming on top of Ryan Lonergan last week somehow becoming invisible to TMO Ian Smith, and Naisarani this week being awarded his second try despite Billy Meakes clearly being in touch, this was a sorry night for the officials.

Perhaps referee Graham Cooper and TMO James Leckie will have reflected later on how the Rebels’ Matt Philip could be sent to the sin bin for what was nothing more than minimal contact at a lineout, yet Swinton be allowed to stay on for an action which met the threshold for a red card.

Rugby has come a long way in protecting players against dangerous high contact. This was a regrettable step backwards and – with no malice intended towards Swinton – one that needs to be rectified this week.

That aside, this was a meritorious win for the Waratahs, a developing side that has clearly made progress this year under Rob Penney. It is probable that they will sit out the finals, and certainly, Michael Hooper played as if this was his last game in blue for a while.

Reds Waratahs

(Photo by Patrick Hamilton/AFP via Getty Images)

But with the Force likely to leave nothing in the tank in their final hurrah, and the Rebels still prone to long periods of frustrating inaction, nothing is assured come next Saturday afternoon.

Red flags were raised early when Naisarani, after a period where the Rebels had little ball and no continuity in attack, showed no inclination to tap and run from a scrum free kick, opting instead for the lottery of another scrum.

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When Matt To’omua’s ninth-minute penalty attempt struck the right upright, the ball bounced into no-man’s land, presenting an opportunity for a fast-following player to pounce and score. The fact that To’omua himself was the first Rebels’ player on the scene was an indictment on their collective lack of situational awareness and enthusiasm.

Rugby has changed profoundly in the professional era. But some basics – like always following up shots at goal – never change.

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It was that same lack of urgency that allowed the Waratahs three tries on a soft edge of their defensive ruck. If the Rebels are to progress further in the competition, they will need to address this, plus get more authority and cohesiveness from their 8-9-10 axis.

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Contrast this with the arrival of Nic White during the second half of the Brumbies’ 31-14 win against the Force on Friday night. The tempo of the Brumbies’ effort lifted and viewers were left in no doubt as to who was running the show.

This win means that a Canberra final is assured. By the time the other finalist is found, and a line is ruled under Super Rugby for 2020, the pressure for Rugby Australia to reveal all for 2021 will be intense.