On Saturday, 24 April, two of Sydney’s elite all-male private schools, Knox Grammar School and St Joseph’s College, ventured deep into what can’t exactly be called rugby heartland, Bankwest Stadium in Parramatta, to prove whose cashed-up rugby program for the teenage sons of Sydney’s upper class was in fact more cashed-up.
If the local western Sydney community wasn’t already sold, the match was only a curtain-raiser for the mighty NSW Waratahs Super Rugby fixture that evening. This came shortly after New South Wales Rugby Union innovatively tried yet another idea to grow the game: organising an open training session with Shute Shield Club the Manly Marlins.
Meanwhile, on the same sunny April afternoon, the Penrith Emus, who have long held the position of competition underdogs, remarkably scraped their first win in seven years – a hard-fought 11-7 grind over geographic rivals Western Sydney Two Blues.
Ironically it was the Two Blues whose name changed from Parramatta to Western Sydney to encapsulate the greater western Sydney area several years ago when the Penrith Emus were axed from the competition – only to be brought back last year.
The Two Blues themselves are not a particularly notable scalp in the competition. They have largely languished around the bottom of the table for years alongside Penrith – a far cry from the dominant Parramatta sides of the 1908s that thrived in rugby’s amateur era.
Nonetheless, the result of this match was huge for the Penrith rugby community, its players and its coaching staff led by rugby league legend John Muggleton, who has forged a cross-code coaching career since hanging up the boots himself. It is poetic that a win so crucial in the context of the history of both local sides occurred on the same day that the NSWRU scheduled a private schoolboy fixture in the local area at Bankwest as a precursor to the Waratahs match.
However, after the abrupt conclusion of the 2021 Shute Shield season due to COVID-19, a move by six of the competition’s most powerful clubs – Northern Suburbs, Gordon, Sydney University, Randwick, Eastern Suburbs and Manly – made an agreement that has left smaller sides like Western Sydney, Penrith, West Harbour and Newcastle-Hunter on their knees, with Penrith being forced out of the competition from 2022.
The agreement mandates that all clubs demonstrate a minimum turnover of $550,000 and must supply at least four grade teams, three colts teams, a women’s team and a full-time head coach and general manager.
John Murray, general manager of Eastern Suburbs, based in Woollahra, suggested that the three Western Sydney-based clubs should merge to form one team that would be more financially stable and competitive on game day. These recommendations were fiercely rejected by the three clubs, with West Harbour president John Meagher was quoted by the Sydney Morning Herald saying, “It’s not very pleasant being bullied by the stronger clubs”.
Within Australia’s premier club rugby competition, the Shute Shield, the top half of the competition ladder continues to remain mostly homogenised between clubs situated in Sydney’s glamorous east and north while the weaker clubs from the west struggle to not only win games but even field teams.
In fact Penrith field only one or two grade sides and one under-21 squad, similar to other competition table bottom dwellers Two Blues, West Harbour Pirates and new competition entrants Newcastle-Hunter Wildfires. During these rounds the stronger clubs arrange bye rounds for their lower grades or alternate fixtures.
Simultaneously in rugby league both Penrith and Parramatta have emerged as NRL powerhouses in recent years, demonstrating that the areas are certainly not short on talent but merely short on enthusiasm, which is arguably even more worrying.
From a sympathetic point of view it is understandable that a young footballer who enjoyed a strong junior career in rugby union may be reluctant to join an embattled club that may be lucky to win a game or two across the duration of a season, particularly when a genuine alternative is a far stronger pathway with rugby league.
Even despite any pride or loyalty for one’s local area, from an enjoyment point of view the season would potentially be an unpleasant experience at a club lacking guidance and resources. From a personal development point of view playing at a club without strong coaching personnel would also be a hard sell for up-and-coming local talent.
As a result competition rival clubs have been the beneficiaries of the western clubs’ inability to retain their local talent, with clubs such as Northern Suburbs and Sydney University regularly bolstering their ranks with disillusioned West Harbour, Parramatta or Penrith cattle.
The Gordon Highlanders’ meteoric rise in 2020 was highlighted by the strategic genius and charismatic leadership of head coach Darren Coleman, who has performed similar transformations on other struggling clubs, such as the Warringah Rats, several years prior. The influence of Coleman has been profound in these instances, with him leaving the clubs in improved states culturally and successfully even years after leaving.
However, make no mistake that a large recruitment drive was a crucial part of Coleman’s Gordon rebuild, with many players from western Sydney and with professional experience playing key roles in the first-grade side’s premiership.
The lesson is that the problem for the western Sydney-based clubs is not a lack of talent. The catchment is home to 2.5 million people, and to further neglect the three rugby clubs situated in the area would be at a great long-term cost to rugby in New South Wales and Australia.
In Sydney’s inner west the Drummoyne Dirty Reds, former Shute Shield participants themselves, are yearly competition favourites in the suburban Division 1, fielding at least five grades each round and regularly strong colts. Simultaneously their supposed Shute Shield feeder West Harbour, with whom they’ve been sharing facilities during the rebuild of Concord Oval, struggle to field two competitive grades.
Alongside them the Blue Mountains hold a spot in Division 1 and are also fielding five grades and competitive colts, while at the same time their geographically correspondent Shute Shield club, Penrith, has also struggled to field two teams and has now been removed from the competitions.
Of course the level of rugby in the Shute Shield is by all counts superior to the standard in subbies, but evidently the strength of the rugby communities in these areas are not reflected by the Shute Shield clubs from the areas.
To become stronger, Australian rugby must grow. And to grow, Australian rugby, and New South Wales Rugby Union in this case, must go outside their comfort zone, potentially at an inconvenience to themselves, to make some long-term investments in the game.
What’s most disheartening about Penrith’s withdrawal from the competition moving forwards is not that they were outplayed by better-resourced and stronger teams but that their fellow competitors effectively forced them out. The entire situation is reflective of the current state of the game. It’s no secret that rugby has an image problem in Australia, and unfortunately selfishness has reared its ugly head in the form of the core Shute Shield clubs.
Penrith president Gary McColl, who has now joined Two Blues as an advisor, believes that the Penrith playing group will largely be lost to the game forever.
“Where do you think the hundreds of thousands – soon to be millions – of people are going to go?” he said, per the Sydney Morning Herald. “Rugby league, obviously.
“They’re not interested in soccer, they’re not interested in Aussie rules. They’ll either play rugby or rugby league.”
The Sydney Rugby Union has expressed its desire to strengthen the Two Blues club by ousting Penrith, albeit acknowledging the success of the Penrith juniors program. However, McColl highlighted their naivety and disregard, saying “They see Parramatta as the enemy now. They won’t be playing there”.
It’s remarkable that the educated white-collar people in charge of the game, many of whom have esteemed backgrounds in business, can make such short-sighted decisions. It is reflective of their selfishness at the cost of the very sport they have been entrusted with the leadership of.
Rugby is a rapidly growing global code undergoing an interesting transitional period due to COVID-19, which has seen a rise in the number of domestic competitions around the world. Super Rugby AU has recaptured the interests of Australian fans, while Major League Rugby in the US and South America’s Super Liga competitions continue to gain momentum. Even without crowds this year’s Six Nations competition has arguably been the greatest rugby action since the World Cup, with a refreshing changing of the guard and tightly contested spectacles.
The Wallabies slipping down the world rankings may be painful for local fans, but it is symptomatic of an increasingly competitive international rugby landscape. Some other evidence of this is the decreasing margins between Tier 1 and Tier 2 nations at the Rugby World Cup and the upsets of strong teams by historically weaker and smaller sides internationally at both the senior and the under-20s level, most notably wins by Japan at the 2019 World Cup and Italy at the under-20s Six Nations.
All teams were new teams at some stage. Champions are temporary and power and form are cyclical, and a team can only upset another team once before a victory over them is no longer an upset.
Earlier in the year Rugby Australia hosted a party for the old boys of Australian rugby to pick the colour of the Wallabies jersey. Why couldn’t the colour have been chosen over a Zoom call and the money instead used to provide resources for the Penrith Emus?
If rugby in New South Wales and Australia wants to come full circle and shrivel up into an archaic game played within the walls of Sydney University by only the richest college students, it should continue to allow its expansion teams to weaken and falter only to be kicked out of the competition by the eastern and northern sides.
However, the reason the game grew out of the walls of Sydney University in the first place was that new teams appeared in new locations and people who didn’t play the game before suddenly took it up.
Now, with the commercialisation of the game, new clubs need financial support to stand on their own two feet and compete with older, stronger clubs. Give them this support or watch rugby crumble further in this country.