Geoff Parkes’ article last week suggesting the game was entering ‘Chinese Water Torture Territory’ was one of the best-written pieces of 2023 regarding the plight of the game in Australia – but it still fell short.
Geoff’s suggestions for taking the game forward, while admirable, were unfortunately fantasy.
Without centralisation, the product is flawed. Without a good product, there is no money. Without money, there is no possibility to implement Geoff’s plan.
Increasing participation, funnelling resources to grassroots, clearing pathways and free-to-air coverage are all fantasy land without serious financial investment.
Hunter Fujak, a university lecturer and the author of Code Wars, highlighted the problem recently in the Sydney Morning Herald:
“After turning professional in 1996, it was about $21 million [in revenue] for rugby, versus about $85 million for AFL… now it is about $130 million versus $940 million-odd. And that’s a huge challenge. Especially with AFL about to have a $650 million turn in broadcast rights in 2025, at the same time rugby has a $30 million, or sub-$30 million deal. People say, ‘You have to invest in grassroots’, but with what money?”
Australian rugby must be the subject of a hostile takeover where no quarter is given to those who wish to obstruct centralisation.
The takeover can and should be led by Andrew Forrest, a man who has shown a genuine love of the game as well as a passion for resurrecting Australian Institutions.
Twiggy has the wherewithal to lead a corporate decapitation of the unions that can’t or won’t centralise.
I believe he would have grassroots support too.
Before I presume to tell Australia’s richest man how to save our game, I want to be clear about the need for the Australian rugby community to avoid distractions.
Eddie Jones, rugby league, Fiji and the future of Quade Cooper are dead-end discussions.
We were one bad refereeing decision away from being eliminated by Scotland in the quarterfinals in 2015. We were perhaps one 35yo, mercurial fly-half away from losing to England in a quarterfinal in 2023.
We must get real now.
Those who dwell on these matters, these peripheral distractions, do so because it is easy to, and because grappling with the real issues causes sleepless nights.
And that’s fair enough. Thinking about the 3-0 whitewash Cheika’s Wallabies suffered against England in 2016 is almost as painful as the quarterfinal thrashing in 2019 or the series loss at home to the same opponent last year.
It’s also no fun to remember the 40 straight losses to Kiwi Super Rugby sides or the crucifixion of good men, good coaches like Rob Penney.
Isn’t it ironic that Penney was deemed not good enough for the Waratahs but is the heir to Scott Robertson’s dynasty in Christchurch?
Just think about what that says for a moment.
For too long, we have all accepted the disconnect between the states and the national body. Accepted the constitutional voting structure that was supposedly revolutionary in 2012 but only encourages Sydney and Brisbane to discourage growth elsewhere.
We have allowed ourselves to be distracted from what matters.
New South Wales, having caused many of the problems in Australian rugby is now a financial basket case that is both distrusted and maligned by other unions.
There has been little indication that the state unions are prepared to cooperate without being forced to. All statements on the topic have been wishy-washy and say little of substance.
An agreement in principle by the five unions to pursue a model that would give RA oversight of high-performance programs and key personnel changes is a bit like a fire brigade agreeing to think about fighting a fire while one is raging.
“Everyone is screaming out, and we probably said it before the World Cup, even: if not now, then when?” Melbourne Rebels chief executive Baden Stephenson said.
We all share that sentiment in one way or another. Yet there is dithering and deliberate obfuscation by decision-makers.
It is ironic that so many see Hamish McLennan’s removal as some sort of panacea or cathartic gesture when he is one of the few advocating for centralisation.
John O’Neill desperately tried to centralise the game in 2012 with David Nucifora but both were obstructed.
Why are we not as angry with the board of the NSWRU? Why are we not marching on Ballymore or conducting a sit-in in the nation’s capital?
Wedges must now be driven, divide and conquer should be employed where necessary to break what is an unsatisfactory status quo.
The first thing Twiggy should do is approach the clubs in all major competitions and propose a funding arrangement that severs them from the state unions. One they can’t say no to.
Secondly, a national club competition, one that is semi-professional, owned by Tatterang, Forrest’s private investment group would create a centralised competition capable of stoking the types of tribal rivalries and cross-state border animosity that drives all Australian professional sport.
For that very reason, it is also capable of drawing substantial free-to-air interest if properly funded and marketed from inception.
It is also the type of third-tier competition that could mirror a Currie Cup or NPC as well as lead into a State of Origin type series or even a playoff series against foreign rivals.
Third, such a nursery would lend itself not just to a draft by the five Super Rugby franchises but also the creation of high-performance pathways for school boys.
Partial tertiary scholarships tied to semi-professional contracts of say $50,000 per year for the nation’s top 50 schoolboys would cost about $ 2.5 million annually or the equivalent of about 4750 pairs of R M Williams boots. Almost nothing in the world of Andrew Forrest.
This is not pie-in-the-sky stuff.
Tribalism, grassroot club sausage sizzles, mate against mate. All the things our code competitors harness so well and our state unions squander.
We also know that Tatterang met with Rugby Australia just last month and that it is likely the game’s $ 2 billion valuation was considered unrealistic.
CVC Partners, who have invested in La Liga as well as Silver Lake were also sniffing around but are no longer.
An astute businessman like Forrest will know exactly where the pressure points are, exactly what his leverage is with Rugby Australia. Exactly the time to strike.
But to truly succeed, to make the reforms necessary, he needs to wrench the game away from the states once and for all.
A Rugby Revolution.