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Introducing The Roar Rugby Project: Your turn to help forge a thriving sport for all

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Roar Rookie
3rd December, 2021
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2154 Reads

The Roar Rugby Project, which we’re launching today, is a forum, with a series of discussion articles intended to engage the numerous positive and productive minds of the Roar rugby community across the country at all levels of the game to enable the development of ideas from the “grassroots” up.

After today’s launch there will be five pieces, scheduled to land each Saturday, on the game’s finances, its constitution and governance, the challenges facing community and professional rugby respectively, and refereeing.

The concluding ambition of the RRP is for me to prove I can eat an elephant in one sitting, consolidating all the contributions to summarise the main problems, challenges and risks facing rugby in Australia, hopefully also with solutions.

The next time a former captain or disgruntled supporter knocks on the door of Rugby Australia (RA) they will at least have the basis for justifying the need for change.

It took a bit of work to get this far, and I couldn’t have done it without the assistance of editor Tony and a good solid kicking from Ken Catchpole’s Other Leg to push me over the line.

Welcome to the Roar Rugby Project.

Why me?

On The Roar you know me as Muglair. My father was a passionate rugby player and supporter from an early age. Like him, I don’t remember a time when rugby was not part of my life, and one of my earliest memories is the French Test at the SCG in 1968. Unlike Dad, I don’t want to die puzzled as to why I no longer loved the game.

I have been lucky enough to have the time and opportunity to play rugby and row after I left school. The impact on my life has been priceless and since retiring from active participation in those sports I have maintained involvement as a volunteer, committee member and financial supporter.

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Professionally, my main interest has been advising businesses and people dealing with dysfunction, disputes, and failure. Over three decades you find the same patterns emerging around environments, personalities, and behaviours.

Every time there is a press conference, media release, or news article that is not directly in relation to games, teams, and players, I am reminded just how dysfunctional the administration of rugby in this country is.

Why not the 10 Captains?

Unable to get any hearing with the board or management they published an open letter expressing their loss of confidence in the RA administration and the need for transformation of the governance and operations of Australian rugby.

The RA Board dealt with this in the finest rugby traditions of “playing the man” by:
1. Questioning the integrity of the captains, claiming that they had full access to the board and management at any time,
2. Wedging the rugby community by translating the captains’ concerns into a personal attack on Paul McLean, a widely respected former Wallaby captain, and
3. Dismissing the need for a game wide review as the Board was conducting its own.

The lack of transparency around the management of the game borders on paranoia. Whether they are jealous of their status and influence, or just terrified of controversy or criticism, there is no sharing of information with the rugby community.

The main stumbling block for the captains was not having a comprehensive knowledge of the wide range of issues facing rugby across the country and at all levels of the game. Without access to volunteers and supporters they were also unable to propose any solutions.

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Why should Roarers engage?

Inside a failing business I usually find the answers on the shop floor, no matter what industry or type of business. The further the employee from the head office, executive floor, or the boardroom, the less likely that directors and executives know about the problem, let alone care about it.

There have supposedly been many reviews and reports to the Board over the years, none of which have seen the light of day. The answers to rugby’s problems are out there in the clubs and their communities, not in some corporate boardroom.

I do not believe that anyone in authority at Rugby Australia knows what needs to be done, how to go about it, or the capability to do it. The total lack of transparency means supporters are not even aware of what RA thinks the problems are.

Conversely, I suspect that many Roar contributors are passionate volunteers and supporters of “grassroots” rugby and know exactly what the problems look like and will have some ideas about solutions.

The objective of the Roar Rugby Project is to catalogue the issues facing rugby across the country, at all levels of the game, together with possible solutions, either theoretical or implemented.

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Why are “grassroots” so important?

Sometimes it seems to me that “grassroots” is just a term of self-interested convenience, either for RA to reassure everybody that the game or their club will be looked after one day, or community rugby people claiming it means them, or their club.

For the purposes of this series of articles I am assuming that “grassroots” means amateur community rugby, as opposed to elite professional rugby including Wallabies, Super Rugby and the NRC.

When Phil Kearns was interviewed after his RWC2027 appointment he was optimistic about the future, saying that because RA was now looking after the “grassroots”, the “grassroots” would look after Australian rugby.

Of course, that was based on what the new RA administration was saying and not, so far, what they’ve delivered. The solid gold fact is that the game is ultimately and totally reliant on its “grassroots” supporter base for its revenue and sustenance. Due to the relative complexity of the game, and its unique ethos, the “grassroots” predominantly comprise current and former players, close friends and family.

The financial failure of RA over the last 20 years is closely aligned with the erosion of this supporter base. The success of the 2003 RWC appears to have influenced RA to pursue the attention of the (large) majority of Australians who never have, and never will, pay to attend a domestic rugby match. In doing so they have alienated and disenfranchised their core supporter base.

Why rugby is a sport not a business

There is a continuing argument as to whether professional sports, like rugby, are in fact a business. Worse, proponents insist it is an “entertainment business”, with its consequent focus on “stars” resulting in their perceived value and importance overshadowing the sport of rugby.

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Rugby is a sport, it is about the game and player, its supporters have mostly been players, family, and friends. Supporters value the game for what it has given them, and the positive impacts they believe it has on the community. Volunteers continue to ‘give back’, or ‘pay forward’, in acknowledgement of the benefit to them and their desire to share that with the next generation.

Community rugby clubs know they are not a business, but a NFP that must operate with a cash surplus, be able to call on its members for financial support or close their doors.

It is critical to understand that RA is no different to a club, just bigger. Its objects do not include making a profit and there is no provision in its Constitution to make distributions to its members. The primary objects are the protection and promotion of rugby with the remaining objects being of an administrative rather than financial nature.

Deep knowledge, commitment and networks within rugby are less well regarded than ‘business expertise’, and the game has become dependent upon highly paid professional sporting administrators and prominent corporate directors. Even those with a grounding in rugby cannot possibly be across all the challenges of the game, they just know more than the other directors.

If Rugby was a business, embarrassment should be widespread, and resignations a monotonous occurrence. Not only is RA failing to meet its objectives, it has also gone from a RWC windfall in 2003 to the edge of insolvency in 2019.

Rob Leota of Australia celebrates after scoring their side's first try with Izaia Perese and team mates during the Autumn Nations Series match between Scotland and Australia at Murrayfield Stadium on November 07, 2021 in Edinburgh, Scotland. (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)

(Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)

Why Rugby Australia is failing

The primary objects of Rugby Australia are:
a) to act as “keeper of the code” of the Game of Rugby in Australia from the grassroots to the elite level; and
b) to foster, promote and arrange Rugby throughout Australia.

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Maybe it is just me, but everybody I know from my rugby life would not agree that these objectives are being achieved, or that there is any plan to do so. Instead of cash surpluses ploughed back into “grassroots” to sustain pathways and connect to its supporter/customer base, the continuing complaints are about the payment of levies, expensive but ineffective insurance and a lack of rugby coaching and development support.

A significant problem is that RA has no coherent strategic plan or any apparent intent of developing one. The absence of any vision or plan promotes discord and disillusion in the rugby supporter base and we are all left to speculate, promote our personal and parochial views, and furiously disagree with anyone who has a contrary point of view.

It is a chicken and egg riding on a cart, drawn by a horse walking in a circle:
• The professional game will die without the support of the “grassroots” rugby community
• Community rugby is in turn under threat from a lack of investment by RA
• RA must reconnect with its financial supporter base and deliver the rugby results, on and off the field, that its community demands.

How to turnaround a failing organisation like Rugby Australia?

There is no rocket science around formulating a turnaround strategy.

The immediate requirement for RA is to stabilise the situation, form an honest appraisal of why it is failing, precisely define the current situation, determine where it wants to be, and figure out what needs to be done to get there.

The planning process must deliver a vision and objectives that resonate with its “grassroots” supporter base to regain their financial and emotional support. The plan needs to be developed in sufficient detail that performance can be monitored and reviewed, and remedial action or changes in strategy implemented.

Based on its historical performance RA faces several obstacles:
1. The brutal fact in insolvent businesses is that owners and directors will never take action to face up to the failure of the business. Nobody likes to have their failures scrutinised by strangers and broadcast to the world, and the RA directors are probably no different to the rest of us.
2. The 2016-2020 “Strategic Plan” was not fit for purpose, a glossy and vague brochure promoting the supposed good health of the game, and setting big growth goals, without any detailed analysis or plans as to how the objectives would be achieved.
3. There was then zero reporting in the annual reports against these vague objectives, instead reporting achievement of goals not previously announced. In hindsight, apparently giving themselves the pass marks required to justify the payment of executive bonuses.
4. There is an established pattern of failure, with a focus on spinning success through its media cheerleaders, effectively suppressing any challenges to its performance or the provision of relevant information to its supporter base.

What will the Roar Rugby Project achieve?

I don’t think RA directors will risk looking stupid by asking basic questions, maybe they don’t even know what questions to ask. With its breadth of knowledge of rugby at all levels across the country, I am hoping the Roar of the Crowd will identify what needs to be done and how to go about it.

There have apparently been numerous reviews of various aspects of Australian rugby over the last 20 years, none of which have been published. Over the next 5 weeks I will be publishing the following articles each Saturday, detailing my own narrow perspective of the major issues facing the future of our game and the best I can come up with as possible solutions.
1. Finance – How Rugby pays its way.
2. Governance – Who owns and controls Australian rugby?
3. Community Rugby – Why Rugby Australia must support it, and how.
4. Professional Rugby – Should it survive? How the “grassroots” can save it.
5. Refereeing – No referee, no game.

These articles will be a little different from usual, where authors attempt to articulate a complete case for civilised comment or discussion. What I am hoping to achieve is to draw on all the knowledge on this site, and that contributors will build on good ideas or offer alternatives to others.

“Your time is better spent championing good ideas than tearing down bad ones.
The best thing that can happen to a bad idea is that it is forgotten. The best thing that can happen to a good idea is that it is shared.
Feed the good ideas and let bad ideas die of starvation.” – James Clear

We can all speak with some authority on our own experiences and the problems and solutions found in our own clubs. The problems and solutions are systemic, not related to geographic location, individuals, or the type of club they support. If your club has a problem, or has solved one, then that is useful information for at least 500 other clubs in similar situations and should inform the umbrella organisation of its priorities.

While I would consider my thinking to be original, I also do not have to go far find others who are thought of it all before. I think this article by Geoff Parkes provides some detailed analysis of the difficulties that the inevitable emergence of professional rugby has had on the amateur community game. It is a very useful perspective of some of the origins of our current difficulties.

The ball boy wearing a Giteau number 10 shirt watches on during the round 17 third division NSW Suburban Rugby Union match between Balmain and Epping at Blackmore Park on August 14, 2010 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

As an overview this first article today covers a lot of the ground, and I hope it has not proved too lengthy. Future articles will be shorter and more specific, but I think the initial reactions and comments today will inform (with acknowledgement) the remaining articles in the series.

The framework of next week’s article on finances argues that there is fundamentally no difference between community rugby and professional rugby with the main revenue drivers being membership, match attendance and sponsorship, largely supported by a common customer, the “grassroots” rugby supporter.

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The one large and significant difference is the financial deficiency in the Rugby Australia Balance Sheet, any other rugby club would have closed. There are several alternatives available to the RA directors, and thankfully the recently secured 2027 RWC, together with the 2025 Lions tour, should have kicked the sale of commercial rights to private equity into touch.

However, the suggested approach of investing the RWC proceeds into a commercial vehicle to sustain the game into the future does require further analysis.

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