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Opinion

Here’s a shopping list for Rugby Australia, and there’s not a single NRL player on it

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Roar Rookie
24th May, 2022
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8185 Reads

It has to be a record. Not even three days after Australia was announced as the host of not one but two Rugby World Cups, talk had turned to the NRL talent Australian rugby might splash cash on for the 2027 edition.

Perhaps Rugby Australia was caught on the hop by the media when it waded into the debate last week. However, it really it shouldn’t have been given the events of two decades ago.

For those too young to remember, a looming 2003 Rugby World Cup at home saw the governing body raid Australia’s dominant rugby code for a handful of its most marketable figures. Within a few years those plundered players had fled back from whence they came.

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Meanwhile, Australia’s neglected scrum was a laughing stock, cultural issues had infected the team and the Wallabies were in the midst of a two-decade slump.

You may think Rugby Australia’s investment in big-bucks NRL talent to date has been worthwhile, a colossal waste of money or a bit of both. However, it should’ve been clear that for many committed players and supporters who’ve stoically continued to support rugby through its low period, this was a touchy subject. Certainly a wiser approach would’ve been to avoid it during a week that should’ve been reserved for celebrating the winning RWC bids.

Nevertheless, the prospect of some financial breathing space courtesy of a golden decade of rugby – with a British and Irish Lions tour in 2025, Brisbane Olympics in 2032 and the two RWCs in between – is surely welcome. Even after paying off heavy debts and sensibly stashing some away for a rainy day, there should be money to spend, but on what?

Michael Hooper (R) and Shannon Parry (L) pose for a photo in front of The Sydney Harbour Bridge, lit in support of Rugby Australia's 2027 & 2029 Rugby World Cup Bids, on May 12, 2022 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Brett Hemmings/Getty Images for Rugby Australia)

(Photo by Brett Hemmings/Getty Images for Rugby Australia)

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Start at the beginning

A common concern in recent years has been a perceived failure to engage with public schools and increasing competition for hearts and minds in traditional rugby schools. Changing student demographics means the once great rugby powerhouse of Sydney Boys High School hasn’t produced a Wallaby since Chris Whitaker in the 1990s, while Queensland rugby stronghold Nudgee College is forming an alliance with a new NRL club.

Of course things may not be as grim as they sometimes sound. The production line at Brisbane State High continues to churn out internationals of the quality of Samu Kerevi and Charlotte Caslick, and there are encouraging stories of rugby breaking new ground.

Who can forget Geoff Parkes’s article for The Roar about Mr Orange’s rugby program at Melbourne’s Fountain Gate Secondary College? What’s not in question is that every child should have the opportunity to experience rugby – especially hard-to-reach kids, because they may need rugby most – and that Australia’s leading clubs, Super squads and national teams need the best of them.

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Investing in initiatives that engage with non-traditional rugby schools, revitalise rugby in faltering strongholds and optimise successful schools and junior programs have to be a priority.

Samu Kerevi makes a break

(Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

Girls, girls, girls!

In a difficult decade for rugby in Australia, the Wallabies’ stirring run to the 2015 RWC final was a bright light in the gloom. However, the glowing beacon was our champion women’s rugby sevens team, which won gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

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Women’s rugby is simmering nicely in Australia, but there’s a sense that it could explode with a little more investment. After a hiccup at the Tokyo Olympics, player renewal has seen the sevens women crowned world series champions this season, an achievement deserving of far greater accolades than it received.

There’s no reason to think that the Super W teams and Wallaroos can’t make similar strides with more time to devote to core and advanced skills. Genuine semi-professional programs with strength and conditioning and health and medical support to rival the men’s programs – along with a plan to progress to full professionalism by 2029 – is a reasonable expectation.

For those curmudgeons who resent women’s rugby, you’re welcome to remain in the last century while the rest of us embrace the exciting opportunities that will come with integrating women fully into our sport.

Iliseva Batibasaga of the Wallaroos is tackled during the Women's International Test match between the Australia Wallaroos and Fijiana at Suncorp Stadium on May 06, 2022 in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Matt Roberts/Getty Images)

(Photo by Matt Roberts/Getty Images)

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A-okay

Confirmation of the Australia A program, which will see a team participate in the Pacific Nations Cup in July, came while this piece was in the works – great timing and a tremendous initiative.

In the past, for those on the fringe of Wallabies selection, the options following the conclusion of Super Rugby have been limited to club rugby or a short-term contract overseas. While many welcome the opportunity to reconnect with their clubs, it’s not ideal for the development of players such as Andy Muirhead, Feleti Kaitu’u or Will Harris should they miss out on the Wallabies squad.

An Australia A program gives encouragement and elite opportunities to coaches too. However, Rugby Australia needs to raid the piggy bank to establish the A program in the long term, to ensure the benefit is ongoing. While they’re at it, why not explore the potential of a more substantial and structured A program for our Super Rugby teams?

Ill-timed injuries this season, most especially at the Melbourne Rebels and Queensland Reds, have exposed the lack of depth in our squads. An A program that helps squad members step up with confidence could be the missing link that assists Australian Super Rugby teams to be more consistently competitive.

Even more Super

The little gem that was Super AU was borne of the pandemic and proved a surprise hit. Who can forget 40,000 screaming spectators at Ballymore for the finale of the 2021 vintage? In the absence of the eight-team National Rugby Championship (NRC) – which suffered from a lack of support, tribalism and marketing – Rugby Australia could do worse than invest in a late-year Super Rugby AU tournament as a prelude to Super Rugby Pacific.

It would have access to existing cohorts of Super Rugby players with the opportunity to draft ambitious club stars for a closer look. The supporter base is inbuilt too, which overcomes a key drawback of the NRC.

Would provincial coaches be prepared to start preseason earlier to accommodate Super Rugby AU as a reward for all the hours sweating through gym sessions and on-field drills? It would certainly provide more meaningful game time, give players a chance to shine while the Wallabies are away on spring tour and offer rugby nuts a last taste of nirvana before the long, empty weeks of summer begin.

Sharing the story

Rugby Australia’s marketing pigeon has had a busy time of late. From launching the England series to confirming a brace of Rugby World Cups and announcing a succession of player re-signings, there’s been no shortage of good news. As a consequence, the mood in and around rugby in Australia has improved dramatically.

But there’s still something missing. Much of the activity has been around the ‘what’, but there’s still a gap when it comes to the ‘why’, especially the ‘why everyone should care’.

Something many of us would like to see is a vision for the future, an image of what the Australian rugby landscape could look like in ten, 20 or even 50 years. For mine, the willy-waving at other codes is juvenile, tedious and entirely unnecessary.

Is it hopelessly idealistic to believe that Australian rugby simply needs to be the best version of itself? If that means rugby thrives as an exciting and welcoming boutique sport, all well and good. Small can be beautiful.

There’s a sensational story to share with or without RWCs about the unique qualities of our game, the people who play it and its international profile. Too often those stories don’t resonate as they should. Expert media and communications can identify the narratives that will bring Australian rugby’s vision to life for today’s rugby supporters and, most importantly, for those still to come.

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