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Opinion

The Roar Rugby Project Part 6: Tiers or Tears? Competition structures for professional rugby

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Roar Rookie
7th January, 2022
330
2014 Reads

The Roar Rugby Project aims to document the challenges and opportunities facing rugby at all levels across the nation in the following articles.

We are looking to Roarers’ experience as players, officials and supporters to find new solutions for the problems that have dogged the game over the last twenty-five years.

1. Introductory launch – an overview of the challenges facing the game
2. Financing rugby- revenue challenges all community and professional rugby
3. Debt, Windfalls, Lessons Learned, and Other Myths – Refinancing RA losses
4. Governance – The need for constitutional change
5. Supporting community rugby
6. Tiers or Tears – competition structures for Professional Rugby
7. Losing money made easy – Professional Rugby must be profitable
8. Women and 7s – Ground Floor and Blue Sky
9. Improving refereeing

This week I am addressing competition structures rather than the financial and administrative issues.

It would be hard to argue that Rugby Australia is successfully managing elite rugby:

1. No clarity on competition structures
2. International or domestic competition?
3. Apparent player skill deficiencies
4. No development pipeline for Australian coaches
5. Falling crowds and ratings
6. Loss-making
7. Losing rugby

Probably one thing we can agree on, rugby has failed the transition to professionalism.

As a passionate Waratahs supporter, nothing much appeared to change in 1996 when the 1995 Waratahs turned out again. I assume in the early years new players were just naturally drawn into the culture of the NSW Waratahs.

As fans, we continued to try and get to every game, whether at the ground or on TV. Every game was an occasion to be shared with mates. Even better, there was more rugby, better rugby, and a level of exposure to New Zealand and South Africa that we hadn’t had before. Overnight games in South Africa were still special events reminiscent of previous Wallaby tour games away.

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I can’t remember when it all started to wear off.

Maybe we were just getting too old to celebrate every game, or the passage of life gradually drew us away. At the same time, the Waratahs morphed from a representative team into its own club comprising the tightknit professional players and staff.

From my perspective, NSW administration has done nothing to bridge the gap growing between ‘the club’ and its supporters.

I can only see how the changes happened in NSW, but maybe it was different in Queensland, a far more parochial rugby community?

As a new team in town, significantly based on imported players, was it also different in ACT?

From a distance, the Force and Rebels look more to me like old school teams built onto the rugby community. Imports are welcomed into the fold, and do not displace locals, who are being brought into the team as more become available at that level. Is this the case?

Like its constitutional structures, and support of community rugby, my question would be whether professional rugby is properly structured for the 21st century, or just a tarted-up legacy of how things used to be done.

The Waratahs after conceding a try

(Photo by Mark Evans/Getty Images)

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Objectives of professional rugby
Is it as simple as win and make money? Given that losing games, and losing money, has put the game at risk, it probably is.

As is often pointed out on these pages, winning will fix most of the problems. There certainly would appear to be a correlation, the more games that are won, the more money that can be reinvested, increasing the likelihood of winning more games.

How professional rugby is structured and run, will significantly affect the likelihood of winning, as well as the certainty of generating profits from those wins.

Tears and the elusive third Tier
Historically NZ and SA have had a broadly based second tier structure whereas Australia had only drawn on NSW and QLD. With the advent of super rugby, both countries were able to insert a new tier below the national teams.

With a lack of player numbers Australia instead added more teams to its existing second tier. There have been several failed attempts to establish a third tier ARC/NRC above club rugby.

Whatever the structure, the system must enable players to step up to the next level as they develop. Apart from my long-held belief that we need three tiers above club rugby, I think 2021 demonstrated that a single five team domestic competition in Australia was like Tier 2.5.

The step up from premier club rugby to domestic super rugby was OK, but there was too big a gap when stepping up to Trans-Tasman and International Rugby.

However, there will be substantial challenges in creating an effective 2nd tier as, due to the expansion of the game nationally, reducing the number of geographically based teams alienates supporters and reduces the market footprint.

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Less obvious, and not so well understood by me, is the development of coaches where in any season there seem to be only two or three Australian coaches considered ready to coach at the second tier.

Tribalism
This must be the most overused, and least useful, word bandied around rugby today.

A “tribe” is a separate grouping within society based on its common interest, culture, or origin. From a commercial perspective the value of rugby is in the size of the tribe that supports rugby, a region, a club, or team.

Tribalism has become a mantra off the back of the success of NRL and AFL clubs building value through fanatical club support. Nowhere better is this seen than in the NRL’s State of Origin. It has transcended the sport itself and drawn in an audience that mainly identifies as being from New South Wales or Queensland. Even those that are not from either, are happy to support the state they hate least.

A significant problem for elite rugby is that significant parts of the rugby community no longer feel an affinity with the Wallabies or the super rugby franchises. It has proved presumptuous that there will automatically be “tribalism” based only on a geographic identity.

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The eight-team domestic competition
While this has previously been run as a 3rd tier NRC, many Roarers have advocated that such a domestic competition should be played in preference to a Trans-Tasman 2nd tier.

2022 may prove me wrong, but I do not believe that a domestic competition can be a 2nd tier, from either a rugby, or financial, perspective.

Given the shallow player pool the standard must fall, impacting on the development of current and future international players. I also question the commercial value of such a competition with its domestic focus and lower quality unlikely to be of international interest.

It would be my preference that an eight team NRC be reintroduced. Initially, there would only be seven teams with a Western Sydney team to be added as soon as possible.

I believe that the competition must have the following features, rather than being considered selection trials for super rugby contracts. I have no visibility on other states, and this may appear NSW centric, but I think if the competition is to be successful, it must find support in Sydney. Is the NRC as unloved in other states? How does it work effectively for the NSW and QLD Country teams?

1. While the NRC is the entry-level for professional rugby it will be the pinnacle for community rugby, and where the two come together. There can be no point of friction.

2. Teams must be drawn from the local community competition eg. Sydney from the Shute Shield only. Sydney and Brisbane based players wanting to play NRC elsewhere, must relocate to play in that local competition.

3. Encouraging young ambitious players to relocate will broaden their horizons and hopefully lift standards of Rugby across the country.

4. The competition should be on a home and away basis and played during the normal club season. In my opinion it is difficult to generate substantial interest in a competition that starts after the rugby season is finished. It certainly hasn’t to date.

5. Squads will need to be large enough to accommodate significant rotation of players back to their clubs through the season, there may need to be minimum numbers of games to be played for your local club.

6. As part of establishing development paths for coaches, NRC appointments will be a steppingstone from community rugby. Appointments should be made from a national development perspective but also recognise local coaches, at the least in the role of assistants.

7. Games should be played on a day, or at a time, which does not affect the local competition, and makes it convenient for the local rugby community to attend.

8. While the natural geographic base creates a tribal element, this cannot be relied upon to generate interest. Games must be promoted with a view to attracting local rugby groups which are most easily found in local clubs. Clubs should receive a substantial share of the ticket price from promoting NRC games at their club games and functions.

It is in the interests of both professional and community rugby to make this competition work. There should be support from local clubs for their players stepping up to the next level and the quality of rugby should be good.

If it doesn’t work, consideration should still be given to playing a certain number of these representative games each season. While it would be a further opportunity to impress professional scouts, there is also value for community players to aspire to a next level, like games played between Sydney and Brisbane subdistricts.

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I do not see value in propping up the Penrith Emus and shoehorning them into a Sydney or Canberra competition. Aligning with the Penrith Panthers, even if they considered it, would only result in being a neglected subsidiary and a potential feeder for the best players into the Panthers system.

What Western Sydney needs is a competition including the many long-established clubs spread through the area. Apart from the latent support for rugby, there are large numbers of talented rugby league players falling off the ladder to the NRL every year. Ambitious players with ties to the western suburbs will see the competition as a pathway to the NRC.

There are now numerous pathways from the NRC, not only to 2nd tier, but also overseas as seen by the interest in Sydney University players this year.

Michael Moloney

(Photo by Daniel Pockett/Getty Images)

A new second tier
2022 does provide another chance to prove that we can create a successful and profitable five-team second tier. That would be a blessing, avoiding a very difficult problem, and laying a fantastic foundation for 2023.

Otherwise designing a successful and profitable second tier will become necessary and the challenge lies somewhere between difficult and impossible. It is however imperative, both to maximise the success of the Wallabies, and maximise revenues by participating in an international competition that will attract global viewing interest.

Poor results in 2022 will preclude inclusion of all five Australian teams. I would expect two teams to be very successful in a competition that includes the five New Zealand teams and others. Three teams might also work, but at the risk of lower success and significantly decreasing the quality of the player pool for a NRC.

This creates a problem given the legacy of five geographically based franchises. Simple solutions such as cutting back to the biggest markets (NSW and QLD), promotion and relegation, top two teams in a domestic competition etc will have substantial negative impacts. These include alienation of neglected supporter bases, and problems ensuring the best players are playing in the top competition.

It is impossible to know without substantially more information what might work. I would favour two teams selected from our top 60 players. Effectively these teams represent the collective NRC teams, and we want support for them around Australia.

This is the hard part, and what follows is the best I can come up with. There will be other equally worthy ideas, but will probably suffer from the same perspective, how do you build support and market the games successfully.

Having selected the top 60 players, a decision will need to be made each year as to where the teams will be located for their training base. Squads should be picked, and coaches allocated, on a geographic base with a view to concentrating players locally. In 2021 such an approach would have produced a Brumbies dominated squad based in Canberra, and a Reds based squad in Brisbane.

Games would be played around the country, although selection of squads would need to be made following the end of year tour to allow players time to make arrangements to move. Early selection may enable the scheduling of games in a way that builds geographic support.

Pending better ideas emerging from you all, it might also be a better option to select these teams after a one round NRC for a Trans-Tasman starting later in the season. In some respects, this could be like how 2022 will play out with travel restrictions.

Isaac Henry celebrates after scoring a try.

(Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

The professional player role
Marketing will be key, and not having a geographic tribe will be a problem. Players will need to be more available, even though this is sub-optimal from a performance perspective. Currently, they are well paid, even though they are not drawing crowds or ratings. Like Anthony Mundine, they need to get out there, rattle the box, and bring in the punters.

There are few people more self-absorbed than the elite athlete. For many of them maximum performance is helped by excluding as many distractions as possible, especially leading up to competition, or dealing with fluctuations in form, or injury. Winning competitions is high-stakes for the local management and coaches, as well as the players.

As the years have gone on, Waratah players have become more isolated from the rugby community, settled within their “club” environment. The players could have been born, or learned their rugby, anywhere in the world and there is no natural affinity with the NSW community.

It does not mean that they have no interest in the community, there is just no interaction. Mostly it is staged events where players are noticeably uncomfortable, outnumbered and out of their environment. Equally, there is limited opportunity for supporters to become part of the “club”.

I have written many times of my enjoyable experience at a rare Waratah open training session. While staged as a “be nice to members day” there was an enormous difference mixing with the players, comfortable in their environment and with the support of the entire team.

How would you build tribal support without the benefit of geographic ties?

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