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Opinion

QRU’s centralisation poison - denial and delusion that fails the pub test

Roar Rookie
12th October, 2023
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Jake Upfield of the Reds celebrates after scoring a try during the round 14 Super Rugby Pacific match between Highlanders and Queensland Reds at Forsyth Barr Stadium, on May 26, 2023, in Dunedin, New Zealand. (Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)
Roar Rookie
12th October, 2023
66
1933 Reads

As a proud Queenslander, I was saddened by the QRU’s ‘centralisation position‘ – but not surprised.

It is a stark reminder of the parochialism that unfortunately divides rugby in Australia rather than unites it.

Particularly striking was one Roarer’s response to the announcement which essentially said ‘centralisation is overrated, we have state governments to avoid it.’

It was hard to know whether to laugh or cry. After all, so many state governments in this country have been extremely effective at mismanaging resources and scaring the daylights out of local populations.

And effective at making neighboring states public enemy number one.

The current impasse with the QRU in fact reminds me of the Annastacia Palaszczuk incident where the Queensland Premier declared ‘People living in NSW, they have NSW hospitals. In Queensland, we have Queensland hospitals for our people.’

Yet I digress.

It is more than ironic that Irish Rugby, sectarian history and all, can convince Ulster and Leinster to unite under one banner but Australian Rugby is failed by distrust between Brisbane and Sydney along with a sprinkling of insecurity from Canberra too.

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Jake Upfield of the Reds celebrates after scoring a try during the round 14 Super Rugby Pacific match between Highlanders and Queensland Reds at Forsyth Barr Stadium, on May 26, 2023, in Dunedin, New Zealand. (Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

Queensland’s position that it won’t agree to the centralisation of commercial operations and assets because the ‘right people’ aren’t in place at Rugby Australia stinks. It fails the pub test.

The QRU has resisted such a course of action for 30 years. John O’Neill, David Nucifora and Rod Macqueen weren’t ‘the right people’ either according to the ‘good old boys’ at Ballymore.

It is also a case of ‘throwing rocks in glass houses’.

The QRU has had a decade, arguably two, of exceptional underperformance where the only certainty for fans was Ballymore appointing the wrong people.

Secondly, the idea that Queensland Rugby knows the local market best is worth scrutinizing. After all David Hanham the CEO has stated “the very strength of our State unions is the expertise they bring in their own markets.”

On what basis does the QRU have the hide to suggest they know their market? What is the evidence of their expertise?

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It can’t be winning the battle for grassroots engagement and participation.

Across community Rugby League in Queensland, a total of 64,566 players signed on to play the game in 2022. In 2023 alone, Rugby League registrations in the state surged 14%.

In August 2023, the AFL announced that “Aussie Rules in Queensland continues to soar to new heights, with the all-time community football participation record surpassed. More than 68,000 people are now registered to play Australia’s game in the sunshine state.” That was 10,000 more than the year before or almost an 18% increase.

What about Queensland Rugby’s figures? It’s not easy to find them, that’s for sure.

Curiously, Wikipedia notes that the QRU “has been reluctant to publish participation figures in recent years and has been focused on rebuilding the code.”

The closest I could find was a reference by Hanham himself, in a document dated June 2020 to 27000 players being registered in Queensland and a 7% participation increase nationally between 2017 and 2020. That’s 7% over 3 years pre-Covid, a stark failure when compared to the other codes.

How can Hanham say with a straight face that “We have also overseen continued growth of rugby in Queensland schools with 257 schools – many of them State schools – playing rugby this year.”

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Where are the participation figures, without spin, for Queensland Rugby in 2022-23?

Are they even better than the KPIs for the professional game?

Let’s hope so.

According to Austadiums stats, average crowd figures for Reds’ games have plummeted from 31,848 in 2013 to 12,108 at Suncorp in 2023.

In the past 10 years, the Reds have fallen so far behind the Broncos in every respect that it is now a fantasy to believe they will ever catch up.

The Brisbane Lions have also long surpassed the Reds in terms of grassroots community engagement and success on the field as well as off.

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And let’s not talk about the Titans, Dolphins and even the Brisbane Roar who have solidified new franchises all while the Reds’ brand declined.

Make no mistake. The trajectory of Queensland Rugby since John Connolly was forced out in the late 90s has been one directional with the brief exception of Ewen McKenzie’s tenure.

The QRU is quite simply delusional.

No man is an island and the same can be said for the state unions. Hanham seemed to admit that things weren’t as rosy as he might like to make out when he said that $ 1.7 million in annual funding from Rugby Australia was “crucial to many State unions being able to support the national program.”

Sounds to me like “we are doing just fine but can you help put food on the table for the kids next week.”

The idea that the game will survive outside of a dozen ‘parochial’ clubs, let alone flourish, in any union, without very significant cash injections from private equity is absolute fantasy.

Other codes are not standing still and even if they were, Rugby isn’t even in the rearview mirror. “The first rule in business is that you always buy an asset, not a liability,” said ARL boss Peter V’landys last month when asked whether league would ever entertain a tie up. Ouch.

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Without the centralisation of assets and commercial departments, Rugby in Australia becomes an even less attractive investment.

On a granular level, bureaucracy is duplicated across the board. Too much money is spent on people behind desks spinning media releases. Too much money is spent on chief executives in corporate boxes and business class.

Big picture, sure, rugby can enhance cooperation across coaching and high-performance departments but if you have 2, 3 or even 5 different visions commercially, performance is undermined.

Let’s be clear.

High-performance environments are not democracies. Boards make decisions after consultation with local arms or subsidiaries and a clearly articulated strategy is set out unequivocally.

No such strategy exists in Australian Rugby. Arguably, even within state unions, there are too many pulling in different directions.

There is no hope for Australian Rugby as long as those who lead it at the state level are in denial.

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It is now or never for the game in this country. It’s increasingly looking like never.

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