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RA's target of a third tier in 2024 raises a whole heap of questions in desperate need of answers

21st August, 2023
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21st August, 2023
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The Rugby World Cup is about to consume all the Australian rugby attention, but it has been nice to see a little bit of commentary over the last week or so around the crucial void that is the third tier of rugby in this country.

And it’s nice to see it, because important conversations need to happen around this still desperately needed level of rugby right now, despite what’s about to start happening in France for the next two months.

There’s been plenty of reaction to Rugby Australia CEO Phil Waugh’s appearance on The Roar Rugby Podcast last week, and there’s been plenty of reaction because Waugh answered everything Harry Jones and I threw at him. He told us before we got going that nothing was off limits, and we asked questions on every topic we wanted to cover.

On the third tier, it was no surprise at all that he’s still of the belief that existing clubs can form the basis of a domestic competition. He didn’t offer up a particular format, only that the existing clubs – and existing clubs in Sydney and Brisbane is really what is meant here – would be the best way to reconnect the rugby community at suburban level back to the professional teams. In Brisbane and Sydney, that is, obviously.

“I don’t think we need to necessarily fabricate teams to bring it into a national competition, it’s more around how do we ensure that we leverage that level of tribalism and get the appropriate competition,” Waugh said to us.

And I get that. Working in sport administration as I now do, ‘community’ and ‘connection’ are the common pillars in building a strong pathway to the elite game. It doesn’t even matter what sport; if your connections are strong, your pathways can provide the required flow of playing talent.

“Is it a club competition? Is it something whereby we bring clubs together and create regions? I think we really need to work that solution out,” he said.

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“Clearly, we’re not playing enough games across the system, and everyone recognises that. The geography isn’t easy… but we need to nut that out in the next few weeks, because time is getting away from us.”

This was where Waugh gave the first of two answers that did surprise me.

“Have you got a timeframe on this? What’s realistic?” I followed his well-made point about time running out.

“Is 2024 for a third tier on the radar, is it doable?”

“Yeah, I think it has to be on the radar,” he replied. “We need to be ambitious.” If what we’re talking about is another level of rugby being played in Australia this time next year – and it doesn’t even matter what that level looks like – if a new layer of domestic rugby is going to be played in 2024, the discussions and debate and the decisions need to happen now.

I’ve mentioned several times in recent years that I know that state CEOs have been discussing the idea of a Super Rugby AU-type of competition being played minus the Wallabies. I know those discussions have continued, too.

(Photo by Tracey Nearmy/Getty Images)

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And Western Force CEO Tony Lewis made the point to Paul Cully in a Sydney Morning Herald column last week, that the states are spending that kind of money now out of necessity anyway.

The Force will play four matches against South African outfit the Cheetahs on either side of the Indian Ocean in a few weeks’ time, while the Brumbies and Rebels are both embarking on short tours of Japan. Queensland did something similar with Robbie Deans’ Saitama Wild Knights last year.

Citing the money side of the argument as “an investment” rather than a cost, Lewis says, “It’s not just about players, it’s about coaches, about analysts, about physios. If you’re not preparing them for the next level, the jump is horrendous. The first time you do economics, they do needs and wants.

“This is not a want, it’s a need … we’ve all probably got to bite the bullet and see what it looks like,” he said.

Lewis’ preferred model looks awfully bloody similar to how the National Rugby Championship looked just prior to the addition of the Fijian Drua: “In a perfect model, you’d want two teams out of Queensland and three teams out of NSW. Then you’ve got one for the Brumbies, one for the Rebels, one from the Force.

“That’s… probably the perfect model if you think that 70 per cent of players really come from two states.”

It’s a not uncommon view. But is that actually achievable? And importantly, can the game afford it?

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Waugh’s former Wallabies teammate and now RA board member, Daniel Herbert, laid that case out pretty clearly in the most recent episode of The Rugby Wrap podcast, with Perth-based commentator and host Mick Colliss.

“It’s not something we can afford to put a lot of money into, or a lot of investment into. And I take the point, that you can take the view that you can’t afford not to,” Herbert said, of Lewis’ eight-team model.

“It certainly plays a part. Some of the coaches and players that got opportunities from [the NRC] and went on to represent. I take all of that on board, and I was close to it at the time, but in all reality it’s not something that we can invest in at this time.”

Hence the thinking around existing clubs, that their structures already have the community connection and even the support base. But using existing clubs also raises a whole heap of questions in desperate need of answers.

Like how many existing clubs could actually take this next step into a national competition? And I don’t mean how many would want to, I mean how many actually have the means, and the ability, and the resources to do it?

If it’s X-number of existing clubs from Brisbane and Sydney, then how many existing clubs from Canberra, Perth and Melbourne? If it’s none, why doesn’t the existing clubs argument still apply? If it’s rep teams from the latter three, is three squads full of contracted players going up against club players really the desired outcome? And is that fair?

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And if it’s X-number of Brisbane and Sydney clubs, which ones? The supposedly strong clubs, or the top handful each season? What’s the flow-on for the local competition in promoting the haves and have-nots? Is a stronger club inevitably enticing players from a weaker club with the carrot of national competition an acceptable outcome?

Hamish Roberts in action for Bond University (Image Credit: Queensland Premier Rugby)

What happens to contracted players aligned to clubs who either don’t qualify or aren’t selected? If the answer is a loan system to clubs that do make the grade, you’ve just undermined the whole registration process straight away.

But this is serious question to address, and a significant hurdle to overcome.

In Brisbane, University of Queensland missed the Hospital Challenge Cup finals this season after finishing seventh with six wins. You have to go back to 2015 to find the last Brisbane Grand Final to not feature UQ. They won three of those seven Grand Finals and won three of the five Grand Finals between 2010 and 2014. They’re clearly a strong club, but on merit could miss out next year.

And what would that mean? It would mean contracted Reds Josh Nasser, Connor Vest, Jock Campbell, Mac Grealy, Tom Lynagh, Tate McDermott, and Kalani Thomas would still be looking for a game this time next year. Thomas linked up with Auckland in the NPC over the ditch this season, such was his desire for more rugby.

In Sydney, at least one of Sydney University and Warringah have played Grand Finals in five of the last six completed seasons, including two against each other. They have four of those six Premierships between them. Uni missed the finals this year after finishing eighth, while the Rats finished 11th of 12 teams in the Shute Shield.

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Warringah don’t have any contracted NSW Waratahs this season, but Uni had Angus Bell, Harry Johnson-Holmes, Tom Lambert, Tolu Latu, Zac von Appen, Lachie Swinton, and Jake Gordon.

Lachlan Swinton of the Waratahs runs with the ball during the round five Super Rugby Pacific match between NSW Waratahs and Chiefs at Allianz Stadium, on March 24, 2023, in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

Eastern Suburbs are another great example. Their ‘Tahs contingent – Archer Holz, Zane Marolt, Western Force-bound Will Harris, Charlie Gamble, Teddy Wilson, Jack Bowen and Mosese Tuipulotu – are exactly what this extra development level is made for, but Easts finishing 10th this season potentially wouldn’t allow that. So then what?

The existing clubs might provide a lot of desirable elements for a domestic competition, but do the benefits outweigh some very obvious deficiencies? And I’d argue that if Australian rugby can’t currently afford investment in an NRC resurrection, then an eight-10-12-team competition based on existing clubs isn’t going to be cheaper.

So, here’s where Phil Waugh’s second surprising answer last week comes in.

“Tell me why the five states playing each other at this back end of the year, is not the cheapest, quickest, easiest, most effective, least offensive way of getting this job done?” I deliberately loaded up in a question, a position I’ve held and have often shared over the past few years.

“The answer to that is ‘it could be’,” Waugh said, before reiterating his view that connection with the community via the existing systems is important.

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And I wasn’t quite ready for that answer, I must admit. A lot of responses to the pod online and via the socials saw Waugh’s response as dismissive of the state/Super Rugby AU idea, but I didn’t see that way. To me, his answer suggested that all ideas remain on the table and worth discussing.

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“What you’re suggesting may be the answer,” Waugh said. “But then you’ve got to ensure that we’re connecting with the community and it’s relevant and meaningful to our supporter base.”

What is possible, what can the game afford, what gives the best value for the investment, what will most resonate with fans, what might the broadcasters want – they’re all really important, fundamental points that need resolution if some kind of national competition is going to be played in 2024.

That’s why these discussions are so important, and why it’s crucial they continue happening now.

Because time certainly is getting away.

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