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The Wrap: A great new broadcast deal for rugby? Depends on who’s telling the story

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15th November, 2020
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There’s an age-old saying that tackling wins matches. More on Argentina’s famous and inspirational 25-15 win over the All Blacks later.

In the meantime, another piece of the trans-Tasman rugby jigsaw fell into place last week, with respective Australian and New Zealand rugby CEO’s Rob Clarke and Mark Robinson flipping off their shoes to lob gentle passes to each other on picturesque Manly beach.

After each party had green-lit re-runs of Super Rugby’s AU and Aoteoroa iterations for early 2021, and SANZAAR confirmed continuation of the Rugby Championships until 2030 – including South Africa, Argentina and hopefully soon to be added Japan and Fiji – all that was left was to agree to a six-week long, crossover finale to Super Rugby.

This announcement, and its collegial beachside feel, was a definite advance from the grenades that were being hurled in both directions not four months ago, as both administrations struggled to hack their way out of a suffocating, COVID-induced fog.

Perhaps Clarke and Robinson may not have thought so, but their eventual coming together – as welcome as it was – was entirely predictable.

NZ Rugby’s Aratipu report was flawed in the way it focused entirely on outcomes from New Zealand’s perspective. It failed to recognise and respect how the two nations are, if not dependent on each other, stronger as partners.

Just like a husband who, in the week that school fees and uniforms are due, empties the joint household account for a shiny new jet ski and trailer, then wonders why he finds his clothes on the lawn and the locks changed, there are lessons to be learned around consulting one’s partner and working through things together, before going off gung-ho.

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Australia’s hand was always far stronger than what New Zealand gave them credit for, particularly compared to when Cameron Clyne and Bill Pulver were forced to bow to pressure and cut a Super Rugby franchise in 2016.

As this column wrote back in July: “The worth of Australia and New Zealand to each other is not simply a current, on-field, franchise-versus-franchise measure. It is a holistic, broader ranging concern.”

“If it all comes down to brinkmanship, (Rugby Australia Chairman) McLennan holds two potent aces. No matter how powerful the New Zealand rugby bubble, he knows that they still need Australia. He also has a juicy carrot in the form of a potential pool of 2027 World Cup matches to dangle in front of his counterpart.”

What is important at this juncture is not who ‘won’ and who ‘lost’, but the fact that there is accord, and a better outcome for the game, as a result. We have a new, exciting schedule in place for 2021, one which lays a foundation and will also inform where we are headed for 2022 and beyond.

And now, to complete the picture for Rugby Australia, there is a degree of financial security assured from finalisation of the broadcasting rights process, and the introduction of a new broadcast partner in Nine Entertainment Co.

That this is a win or loss for rugby in Australia very much depends on how and where one’s bread is buttered. Unsurprisingly, coverage across Nine’s mastheads, including the Sydney Morning Herald, has been upbeat, its rugby, business and media writers grasping the wide-ranging implications.

Rugby is boosted by a revenue continuing at current levels and Super Rugby taking a prominent free-to-air slot on Saturday nights, while the broadcaster acquires an important plank with which to expand its streaming platform, Stan.

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Folau Fainga'a celebrates with the Wallabies

Folau Fainga’a. (Photo by Jono Searle/Getty Images)

Unsurprisingly, coverage from the News Corp press offers a different perspective. The Australian’s Jessica Halloran, on a mission in 2020 to paint rugby as a sport in perpetual chaos, marked the rights announcement with a piece entitled, “Ailing code misses chance to reset as rugby fans evacuate”.

According to Halloran, “there is growing speculation that Andrew Forrest’s Western Force isn’t completely committed to the next Super Rugby season”; a spoiler that proved to have a shelf-life of just one day, before the 2021 fixture was confirmed; including of course, the Force.

Even more curious was her argument that Rugby Australia has somehow missed an opportunity to reset or restart the game by spurning Foxtel (and its declining legacy Pay TV product) for an expanding free-to-air/streaming service alternative.

Legacy product himself, Alan Jones, joined in on Friday, stating, “one can only wonder why Rugby Australia would dump Fox Sports after 25 years in partnership?”, also querying why rugby fans would stump an extra $250 a year to watch rugby on Stan.

It is important to recognise the contribution Foxtel has made to Australian rugby over that period. Super Rugby would not have been possible without their investment.

But Jones is a presenter on the Fox News channel and, perhaps for that reason, doesn’t seem to have grasped how many rugby fans will be prepared to forgo the opportunity to watch his show, happily cancel their Foxtel subscriptions, and migrate to watching rugby on Nine/Stan, thus becoming net savers from the exercise.

Things got even stranger on Saturday, with the Daily Telegraph’s Jamie Pandaram consolidating a grab-bag of issues in an effort to continue the ‘rugby in chaos’ narrative.

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Michael Hooper of the Wallabies talks with Filipo Daugunu

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Wallabies star Marika Koroibete was said to be “disgruntled”, backed by a group of players via a #Justice4Marika chat group. The reason? Koroibete is reported to have received an offer from Japan said to be worth $200,000 a year more than his current deal, which he is unable to accept due to the inconvenient nature of his existing contract with Rugby Australia.

Good luck winning the PR battle with that one.

Pandaram also highlighted the “grave concern” of Sydney club rugby officials that Shute Shield matches will now be behind a paywall on Stan Sport, no longer accessible free-to-air. In doing so he failed to clarify how those matches were never ‘free’ to air, but paid for by Rugby Australia, via a deal to bail out an organisation whose ambition exceeded reality.

In a post-COVID world, with Rugby Australia’s total budget significantly reduced, the idea that cash might continue to be diverted to ensure that Warringah and Sydney University find a free-to-air TV niche, is laughable. Anyhow, with Stan set to become the ‘home of rugby’ for fans Australia-wide, there is potential for the audience for club rugby to increase, not diminish.

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Alongside, Julian Linden wrote disparagingly of the new Super Rugby competitions, insisting that “Australian and New Zealand officials are still at odds over how to fix the mess the game has fallen into.” The tab from a chummy dinner and drinks at a Manly seaside restaurant suggests otherwise.

All of this from an organisation that insisted that rugby was so on the nose it was no longer interested in holding the broadcast rights, at any price. This reaction belies a different truth.

A strategy to drive down the rights value and pick them up at a bargain-basement price works only when there are no other buyers interested. What News Corporation didn’t see was that if it hadn’t been Optus/Ten, or Nine/Stan at the table, it would have been another telco or new media player.

It may have taken a global pandemic to trigger things, but only the churlish, perpetually pessimistic, or commercially conflicted, could insist that Australian rugby is in a worse position today than it was six months ago.

Previous CEO Raelene Castle’s decision to take the broadcast rights to tender has been vindicated, and the new management – provided clearer air – has projected calm and clarity in its decision making and communication.

Australian rugby remains challenged but it is patently not ‘broke’ nor ‘dead’. Fans need only tune in to single Dave Rennie press conference to know that the Wallabies are in astute hands. There are now professional competitions in place that are secure and appealing – which include all five Australian franchises.

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While forward sponsorships are yet to be confirmed, this has all been achieved without the need to sell off the game to private investors.

And with COVID having put a halt to community sport in 2020, Rugby Australia will be able to again turn attention to shoring up participation at junior and club levels, and in women’s rugby.

It will be a shame if a large section of Australia’s media continue to report on rugby, not on its merits, but within a frame of payback to Rugby Australia, or as a commercial tactic against a competitor in Stan/Nine.

Concerns around cross-media ownership are a whole topic for another day, but we have seen enough evidence this year to know that little good comes from any media company using its weight in one area of media to advance its commercial interests in another.

Rather than conflicted media, a better gauge is to be found from feedback in fan forums and independent websites like The Roar. There are naysayers to be sure, but the overwhelming sense is one of cautious positivity.

And, after the year from hell that 2020 has been, that is surely a very good place to be.

Hunter Paisami of the Wallabies

Hunter Paisami. (Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)

If 2020 shaped as the year from hell for Argentine rugby, it is now the year from heaven, the Pumas scoring their first ever win against New Zealand, 25-15, in Parramatta. That this was a victory forged away from home against a pronounced disparity in preparation makes it all the more special.

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With no disrespect meant to the Australia ‘A’ selection, no side coming into Test match rugby so cold has any right to play as well as the Pumas did. That they would bring passion and intensity was a given; that they could play with such cohesion and accuracy, and hold things together for eighty minutes, was another thing altogether.

The Pumas dictated terms throughout, playing with pace and purpose when in possession, then slowing things down, taking chunks of time out of the game, when not. What allowed them to do that was the almost total absence of errors; loose forwards Pablo Matera and Marcos Kremer were imposing, Tomas Cubelli was given an armchair ride behind a disciplined and powerful pack, and the handling was sure and certain right across the park.

The main act however was a defensive exhibition of the highest quality. Not only did the Pumas make their tackles but, time after time, runners in black were chopped down with powerful intent and stunning accuracy.

Flyhalf Nico Sanchez may have enjoyed a stellar career already, but nothing will top this effort – all 25 points in Argentina’s greatest ever win. Perhaps the only thing that didn’t quite feel right was that ex-skipper and lion-hearted hooker in so many tough losses to the All Blacks, Agustin Creevy, wasn’t on the park to share in the moment.

For the second consecutive match, the All Blacks were niggled out of their comfort zone and failed to find an adequate response.

Two factors jump out. Their much-vaunted scoring power was neutered by a combination of the Puma’s conditioning, defensive prowess, exceptional handling, and a disciplined kicking game, not providing cheap opportunities on the counter-attack.

Jaguares head coach Mario Ledesma during the Super Rugby match in 2018.

Mario Ledesma has lifted the Pumas. (Photo by Steve Haag/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

It’s the same template offered up by England at last year’s’ World Cup, now followed to a tee by Australia and Argentina, and one which will demand a convincing response by Ian Foster and his coaching team.

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The second factor points to a soft underbelly. Not in the sense that forwards like Sam Cane, Ardie Savea, Sam Whitelock, Patrick Tuipolotu, Dane Coles and so on are in any way soft, but in the way their collective decision-making and composure has been found wanting under pressure.

Examples abound; Dane Coles’ pointless, reactionary slap, Richie Mo’unga’s awful miss to touch in the 39th minute, Codie Taylor missing two attacking lineout throws after his injection, were all points gifted or points spurned.

Caleb Clarke’s inexplicable decision to mark a ball under no pressure, against the sideline, instead of using Beauden Barrett to clear or run from a better position, spoke to a lack of connectedness and clear thinking. And when a loose offload from Sam Whitelock fell equidistant to Rieko Ioane and Julian Montoya, offering both an equal play at it, it was Montoya who was the more desperate, putting his body on the line for the ball.

Coach Ian Foster is a thoroughly decent bloke who has been a significant contributor to the All Blacks’ long run of success. His challenge won’t be made any easier by the fact that many have already passed judgment on him.

The real issue is that his is a side in transition, exposed for its over-reliance on Brodie Retallick, and with its supply of opposition mistakes to feed off, now limited by sides who have closed the gap with respect to physical preparation.

There will have to be a new way found to wrest back the initiative, starting with the pack. If not, there is no reason to expect that there won’t be more glory days ahead for the Pumas.