What should Australia’s rugby structure look like?
Rugby Australia is at the crossroads, incurring record losses on the field and in the financial statements. The code faces enormous debt while the carrot of private equity is being dangled.
We face growing challenges to keep our strongest players on-shore as increasingly cashed-up competitions abroad seek to recruit our talent.
I’ve previously advocated for a purely domestic solution to our professional rugby but am no longer convinced it’s our best option.
What if we decide the majority of our teams in Australia can only be at a rookie professional level? The key is having the footprint and the pathways for local rugby players to achieve as high as they can.
What if we could offer a $45,000 minimum wage to a squad of 35 players in each city that hosts a premier rugby competition?
The goal would be to have teams taking the place of our current Super AU sides. Yes, they would not be as strong as the current teams but bear with me.
We are looking for these teams to provide the pathway out of the local premier and country competitions into the first steps of professionalism.
If we add South Australia beyond our current Queensland, NSW, ACT, Victoria and WA footprint, this would enable us to contract 210 players around the country and play them in a version of Super AU concurrently with our amateur club competitions.
Player salaries would cost $9.5 million, a far cry from our $20.5 million player wages bill today.
I can already hear keyboards thundering to say it won’t provide a high enough level of competition to maintain the Wallabies and that all our best players will move off-shore as soon as they show any promise. I agree.
That’s why I want RA to form a rugby club or buy into an existing one in England with the goal of gaining access to the Premiership. This would give our players a home in the north that can pay northern hemisphere salaries off the back of northern hemisphere club incomes.
The average Aviva Premiership side loses about £4.4 million ($8.1 million) per year but Exeter have shown that you can be a top club and stay in the black. So bring on the London Drop Bears RUFC.
With the backing of a national union and the ability to pay Wallabies top-ups, we could have 50-plus players contracted to the London Drop Bears and give some of our best players the chance to both compete in Europe and still play for the Wallabies.
Don’t like the Drop Bears name? That’s okay, I’m not wedded to it. We’ll just use it as a place holder for our elite pro rugby sides below the Wallabies for the purposes of this article.
Not all of our players will want to go off-shore you say? I agree again.
If New Zealand will have us, we could maintain a Super team based in Australia to compete against the Super Aotearoa, Fiji and Moana Pasifika sides.
The Super Drop Bears would play their home matches all around Australia, in each of the cities that hosts a premier rugby competition and a Super AU state team.
When the Super Drop Bears play at home the local club teams and Super AU sides would have a bye scheduled so that the entire rugby community can get in to support the Aussie side and witness higher grade rugby played in Australia.
This side would contract 35-odd players as Super AU teams do today. Currently our teams operate under a $5.5 million per annum salary cap but that is a rule set by RA. Even if we budgeted $7 million for our Super Drop Bears, our total wages bill would still be less than our current $20.5 million.
I’d love it if we could have L’ours Tombant competing in the French Top 14 as well but I am not sure if a team can operate at break even and survive in that competition.
If we could, then we’d have 50 elite contracts to the London Drop Bears in England, 50 elite contracts for L’ours Tombant in France, 35 in the Super Drop Bears playing the New Zealand, Fiji and Pasifika teams and our 210 rookie Super AU contracts all around the country.
Below that are our amateur premier club competitions and country competitions.
Is this a pipe dream? Possibly. Are there holes in this plan you could drive a truck through? Please tell me.
Got any other out-of-the-box ideas that deliver opportunity for players all around the country? That also deliver high quality competitions for Australia’s elite rugby players to ply their trade in? I’d love to hear them.
In the mean time, up premier rugby, up country rugby, up the Drop Bears and up the Wallabies!