Yet again we find ourselves talking about challenges in rugby. Is anyone feeling some sense of deja vu?
Super Rugby Trans-Tasman has Australian teams 1-14 after three rounds.
The Waratahs, from the great rugby nursery of Sydney, are creating history with their worst on-field results ever.
Sydney rugby union, with its group of seven powerful presidents, is pushing through a new participation agreement that would see the Hunter Wildfires, Western Sydney Two Blues, West Harbour Pirates and Penrith Emus forced out or forced to amalgamate, dropping the Shute Shield from 13 clubs to potentially eight or nine, which poses the risk of losing Western Sydney to rugby altogether.
How did we get here and why are we not surprised?
Rugby has deep structural challenges in Australia, and the articles, comments and frustrations shared on The Roar and other forums for years are ample evidence of this, let alone the on-field results.
There are always bright spots. There is always cause of optimism and hope. What we need is for the vested interests and politics to stop and for genuine leadership to emerge. Even the Spider-Man comics understood that with great power comes great responsibility, and yet rugby administrators here in NSW and Australia spend more time following the words of Sir Walter Scott: “What a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive”.
How do we find the right path?
History can help guide us. Rugby grew in Sydney and in other locations in Australia off the back of the district model. It was so successful that rugby league went down the same path. The evidence of district teams is right in front of us in both rugby and rugby league.
When professionalism hit rugby union the game followed the path set by rugby league with its inflated salaries, high-performance teams and unfortunately a lack of in-built sustainability.
A recent article in the Nine press by Michael Chammas headed ‘Is rugby league dying?‘ highlighted some alarming trends about junior participation. One key element was the drop-off in teenage participation, with player safety concerns a significant factor, specifically head injuries and concussion. This is also a prevalent issue in rugby, closely linked with ongoing angst on size for age considerations in junior rugby.
Shute Shield clubs and the Waratahs sit high up the rugby playing pyramid with the foundation built on widespread junior participation that carries through to players in teenage years through club or school, into colts or subbies programs and further to the Shute Shield and the professional game.
Rugby faces an adaptive challenge
This pathway at face value seems simple, but a quick look at the pathways published by NSW Junior Rugby Union suggests the older the child, the more complex the path.
There is no silver bullet to save rugby. If this were a business, the CEO and board would identify that the business faces an adaptive challenge. An adaptive challenge is a situation where there is no known solution to the problem or where there are too many solutions but no clear choices.
Instead the leadership of rugby is still trying to tackle these issues as a technical challenge. A technical challenge is one that can be resolved using available knowledge and expertise. They are easy to identify and define, and there is a simple choice for a solution.
The Shute Shield participation agreement is a technical solution to an adaptive challenge.
The district model can be reimagined for 2021 and beyond
The best pathway to tackle adaptive challenges is to run controlled experiments and test and monitor results. NSW Rugby needs to start experimenting as a code and a game and then monitor the results. These are long-term challenges needing a long-term approach.
The district model can be reimagined. Considering the complex under-16s pathway, children are coming from school competitions, Sydney junior competitions or country competitions. At present the link to districts exists on paper for Sydney and the country but not for schools. The schools attract some of the best and brightest, including through sending scouts to the NSW junior state championships, so once a child joins the school pathway they will drop out of the district pathway unless still playing club rugby. These kids end up at clubs or academies unrelated to the local club or district where they grew up.
If NSW Rugby strengthened and enforced a district pathway across the entire junior rugby ecosystem, what would the result be? What if a player who plays junior rugby at Blacktown has a clear pathway to the Western Sydney Two Blues, the same pathway as a player in the first XV at Kings? Another child has a junior club pathway through Seaforth Raiders to Manly Marlins, with another child from the first XV at St Augustine’s also on a pathway to the Marlins.
What would an experiment like this accomplish? It would change the distribution model of junior talent. It would mean Shute Shield (district) clubs that developed their junior pathways across both club and school would benefit from strengthened numbers and capability. It would mean a player from Penrith would not end up playing at Sydney University unless they went to a school designated to that pathway.
Each week the Waratahs publish their squad list on social media with the club and school backgrounds of each player. It is an attempt to reinforce a pathway that should be simple and clear but has become muddied. This is an opportunity to improve.
This is only one idea and one experiment, but I encourage Paul Doorn and Tony Crawford to look at rugby’s adaptive challenges and to start experimenting. The answer is not Sydney rugby union participation agreements that reduce the number of Shute Shield clubs. This is a short-term technical solution to an adaptive problem.
There is another quote from Sir Walter Scott better suited to the current issues facing rugby, and one I would leave for Paul and Tony: “The will to do, the soul to dare”.