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The coaches want it, and now it seems RA’s appetite for the NRC might be growing

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14th June, 2021
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It didn’t get much traction on the east coast, but comments from Western Force coach Tim Sampson in a Nick Taylor article in The West Australian last week added yet more weight to a growing sentiment in Australian rugby.

“We had seen enough of Ollie over the last year or so to back him, but without a second-tier competition there is an element of risk for some players jumping from club rugby to Super Rugby with nothing in between,” Sampson said of young backrower Ollie Callan, who earned his first starts for the Force in the final games of Super Rugby trans-Tasman.

“Certainly, there is a bit of the unknown and it’s a huge step for some players who might be thrown into the deep end when they might not be quite ready.

“Without a two-tier competition there is a gaping hole. It is an extremely important stage in a player’s development,” Sampson said.

It’s a pretty obvious statement based on plenty of evidence just this year alone. Callan has made a pretty good fist of Super Rugby so far, and so has someone like Isaac Henry with the Queensland Reds.

But for every Callan and Henry, there’s someone like young Brumbies prop Archer Holz, and Waratahs winger James Turner, hugely talented players both of them, but they quickly learned just how big a step it now is from club rugby to the professional level.

Holz, at least, had been training with the Brumbies squad as a rookie pro; Turner and several other Waratahs call-ups in this season of injury hell were just plucked straight from first grade.

Tim Sampson’s comments were accurate, but the accuracy was only part of it. More significant was the fact that he was now the third current Australian Super Rugby coach – of five – to publicly lament the loss of the National Rugby Championship last year.

Now, the reasons for the NRC’s demise are obvious: Rugby Australia simply couldn’t afford to run the competition in the face of brutal and necessary cost-cutting. Even if they wanted to play the NRC last season, there were simply much higher financial priorities.

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In many ways and to many people, it was a convenient casualty of a pandemic that impacted the governing body’s finances like they’d never been hit before.

But while the reasoning for discontinuing the NRC were understandable, the impact of not having that vital development bridge between Premier Rugby around the country and the Super Rugby programs hit home far quicker than was perhaps anticipated.

All five states were hit by injuries at different times, forcing them to call in injury replacements and granting hurried opportunities to academy and club players well before they would normally be declared ready. The Brumbies used 37 players through Super Rugby, and the Waratahs’ tally is quite likely higher.

Only a week before Tim Sampson had his say, Reds coach Brad Thorn had already made his view clear.

“The thing I’ll say is, my concern, is not having the NRC, this is the second year now,” Thorn said a few days after the Reds beat the Chiefs in Townsville.

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“And you look at the Crusaders, they’ve got Tasman and they’ve got Canterbury, two of the strongest teams in the NPC, plus the academy.

“And for us we had (Queensland) Country and (Brisbane) City and you look at all our players who have come through that middle ground between club and Super.

“So not having the NRC, to me, it’s a tough one. Something has to be done.”

Brad Thorn

Brad Thorn. Down with N-P-C. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

McKellar has been on this same page for some time, though takes a view that whether it’s something like the NRC or something that brings existing clubs together on the national stage, it doesn’t matter. But something is still needed to bridge the ever-increasing gap.

Back in late April, he again raised the idea of an FA Cup-style national knockout competition that was first raised more than a year ago as the broadcast negotiations heated up.

“Having that next tier of competition is important moving forward. I think that [Cup-style tournament] is fair, then everyone is involved and the best survive,” the new Wallabies forwards coach said at the time.

“You’ll get your upsets which will create a whole lot of interest, like we see in soccer both overseas and in Australia. We see who the best of the best is.”

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When three of the five coaches are saying player development is now harder without an NRC or some other competition in its place, you’d like to think their concerns were being heard at head office. But there hadn’t been much evidence that that was the case.

You can imagine my surprise, then, when RA CEO Andy Marinos was suddenly and enthusiastically agreeing with Thorn and the other coaches, even lamenting the fact that without that next tier competition, Australia will only continue to drop further behind New Zealand, South Africa, and even England and France.

“He’s (Thorn) not wrong, he’s not wrong,” Marinos told Christy Doran for an article on the Fox Sports site.

“If you look at any great structure in the world, there are those competitions and it’s a part of what I’ve been saying since I’ve come in. We’ve got to have a bottom-up approach, not a top-down approach to the game in this country if we’re going to be sustainable.

“As we start embarking on a new strategic plan and a new strategic direction, the competition structure of having a second-tier competition – for want of a better word – that underpins what’s happening at Super Rugby level is going to become even more important because we have a group of players who play Super Rugby and can drop back into the Shute Shield and Hospital Cup but then after those competitions finish there’s very little rugby for them.”

Marinos went on to say that competition structures were being floated and determined, and that “I’d like to look at getting a second-tier structure underway in 2022 at least, so we can start building momentum”.

Getting Australia’s rugby structures right were also going to play an important role in building toward RA’s bid to host the 2027 Rugby World Cup and, you could safely assume, cashing in on and benefiting from the event thereafter.

“If we can have that by the time we have the World Cup in 2027 and we have a flourishing first, second and third-tier domestic rugby competition structure, I think that would be a really big statement for the game,” he said.

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Well, colour me shocked.

This was the first public utterances I’d seen from anyone with the highest levels of Rugby Australia over the last year that were different to the very public position that utilising and strengthening existing Premier Rugby clubs around the country was the best way forward.

Marinos’ comment, that “it’s a part of what I’ve been saying since I’ve come in” made my ears prick up too.

Because that wasn’t the vibe I got when I raised the future of the NRC during a meet-and-greet discussion with Marinos I was part of in Canberra back in February.

Promoting the game at the community and club level around the country, strengthening club comps in Canberra, Melbourne, and Perth so that they were not too dissimilar to the levels in Brisbane and Sydney, and looking at ways of bringing existing clubs together on a national stage was very much the plan, Marinos told us, which was consistent with what Chairman Hamish McLennan had been saying since he’d come in earlier last year.

So, if Marinos had been talking about implementing – or reinstating, more accurately – a next tier competition in between club and Super Rugby, he’d not been saying it much. Because no-one from Rugby Australia had been.

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Hence my surprise at his comments now.

I’ve maintained ever since the demise of the NRC that I would be pleasantly surprised if it ever returned, and that remains the case.

Even with Marinos now seemingly putting it back on the agenda, I remain hopeful rather than encouraged, and still a long way short of confident.

But the fact it is back on the agenda and up for discussion again, at least, is a very welcome development, for fans, players, and coaches alike.

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