With the introduction of a genuinely centralised structure, Australian Rugby Union is about to go through its biggest structural change since professionalism was introduced a quarter of a century ago. But how could it make things better for players and fans of the sport?
Rugby Australia Chairman Hamish McLennan, with the support of RA CEO Andy Marinos and the board which includes the likes of former Wallabies Daniel Herbert and Phil Waugh, told foxsports.com.au on Monday that the sport is in the final stages of agreeing a new centralised operating model for rugby in Australia.
The new approach will see RA play a key role in the appointments at the five Super Rugby teams including those of head coaches, strength and conditioning coaches and player signings. RA will also have much more involvement in the commercial running and growth of the clubs.
RA believes this will allow them to stop the loss of talent to overseas leagues as well as ensure that key talent is given as much game time as possible by moving them around the clubs and not letting them get stuck on the bench because of head coaches preferring other options.
Fans will immediately think of the players who have been lost to overseas teams or have fallen out with their clubs and missed out on game time. Quade Cooper, Izack Rodda, Will Skelton and Samu Kerevi to name just four, have all headed overseas for varying periods and for different reasons – reasons that the RA are hoping that a centralised approach will help to avoid in the future.
With the new commercial involvement, RA will also have more control over aspects such as advertising and general club finance. It is hoped that this oversight combined with a reduction in duplication of efforts and costs will allow the sport to rectify its precarious financial position.
In 2020, RA declared a $9.4million loss for the previous year which was then dwarfed in 2021 when they shared that the organisation had made a loss of over $27million in the previous 12 months. McLennan shared that the losses had hit the sport so hard that there had even been conversations about whether returning to being an amateur code was required.
The concept of centralisation has been spoken about for a long time with the examples of the Irish RFU and New Zealand Rugby Union held up as clear evidence that it can be a highly effective model.
When Scott Johnson joined Rugby Australia as Director of Rugby in 2018 he moved the topic to the bottom of the filing cabinet though.
“I don’t think we can as a country be centralised,” said Johnson early in his tenure, but he did make it clear that bringing the Super Rugby sides closer together had a lot of potential benefits. “I do believe we should have an aligned system. I think we have four really good provincial teams, and if we start working and working together, we can be pretty strong and formidable.”
This time though, it looks like McLennan and RA have found a way to get everyone they need on board. Crucially this includes the Super Rugby clubs themselves who historically have always been resistant to such a change.
“For the good of the game, we’re absolutely committed to doing it,” McLennan told Fox Sports on Monday.
It seems the harsh past 12 months has been an important catalyst for this change with one RA official, quoted anonymously by Fox Sports about the new sense of openness and alignment between all parties that “There’s nothing hidden. There’s a sense we need to change. We’ve suffered a lot as a code. We’re committed to fixing the problems.”
It is unclear yet how the new model will benefit the lower grades and pathways of the sport. For those on the sidelines of the local field on a Saturday morning or those searching for a way to bridge the gap up to Super Rugby level, there are still plenty of questions that they’d like answered.
Will the new approach mean more funding for all grades of the sport or is it purely focused on the Super Rugby and Wallabies? Will the involvement of the RA in Super Rugby clubs also mean that there will be a more effective national competition connecting the more junior grades with the upper levels of the sport? How will the women’s side of the sport be able to benefit?
But if the predicted financial savings are realised and commercial growth achieved then that’s definitely a positive step forward.
The exact details of the model are still being finalised but with the Super Rugby competition welcoming teams from Fiji and Samoa in 2022 and the suggestion that the new centralised model will be agreed by the end of this year, it looks like the next 12 months are going to be full of excitement for the sport of rugby in Australia.