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'Destroyed the soul of rugby': Ex-NZR boss delivers damning verdict of Super direction - and his plan to fix it

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20th February, 2024
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Rugby union in Australia and New Zealand is in danger of becoming irrelevant unless it reconnects to the community game and prioritises “quality over quantity”, according to former NZR chief David Moffett.

While the Super Rugby Pacific competition will get underway this weekend, the tournament has been dogged by the Melbourne Rebels’ fall into voluntary administration.

The Super Rugby franchise’s $20 million black hole has not only cast a dark cloud over the Rebels’ future but made the competition’s decision-makers sit up and have some uncomfortable conversations.

The Rebels aren’t the only side who are struggling financially, with Moana Pasifika’s future in the competition also on shaky ground.

It meant that last week’s Super Rugby Pacific launch was dominated by questions over the future of the competition and whether the tournament might return to Super 10 in 2025.

The difficult conversations come as Rugby Australia and New Zealand Rugby try to reignite interest in the flagging Super Rugby competition and, at the same time, nut out their next broadcast deals.

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Nor has the player drain overseas, with half of the All Blacks’ starting side from last year’s World Cup final heading offshore, helped.

David Moffett says rugby in Australia and New Zealand needs to get back into the community game. (Photo by Scott Barbour/ALLSPORT)

Moffett, the former New Zealand Rugby and National Rugby League boss, delivered the current administrations a reality check on the eve of the Super Rugby Pacific competition, which starts this weekend.

“It needs provoking, doesn’t it?” Moffett told The Roar.

“Any sports organisation that’s relying on broadcasting revenues for their future is completely misinformed as to what’s happening around them. They’ve got to have multiple opportunities in that area, not just a Stan broadcasting deal.”

He also questioned how Rugby Australia had allowed the Rebels to slump to the position they find themselves in.

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“Didn’t they know that the Rebels were in trouble?” Moffett asked. “Of course they did. The media has been telling Rugby Australia that the Rebels are in trouble for a long time. What did they do about it? Nothing. Nothing. Zero.

“What did the Rugby Football Union do about those clubs that went broke up in England? Nothing.”

In particular, Moffett was scathing about the direction rugby has gone since the game turned professional in the mid-1990s.

“Professional rugby has got a lot to answer for,” he said.

“It has destroyed the soul of rugby. The soul of rugby still exists in the community. I don’t like the term grassroots. It’s the community game. It still exists there. But it doesn’t exist in professional rugby.

“All they’re after is money, and the worst of that is World Rugby. And then followed closely by the national governing bodies.

“It’s only about the money and it’s only about money to pay players. Hardly any of the money gets down to the community game. So what are they doing with it? They’re increasing the number of people who work for them.”

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Waratahs captain Jake Gordon, Brumbies captain Allan Alaalatoa, Rebels captain Rob Leota, Force captain Michael Wells and Reds captain Tate McDermott at the 2024 Super Rugby Pacific Season Launch on February 14, 2024 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Dave Rowland/Getty Images for Rugby Australia)

Moffett, who ran NZR when Super Rugby first got up and running, said Australia and New Zealand needed to focus their attention on reconnecting with the community.

“I think Australia and New Zealand should be looking after their own backyard before they try and solve the problems of World Rugby because their own backyards are in trouble,” he said.

In particular, he advocated for a national club competition and a rapid-fire nine-round Super Rugby tournament.

“What I think needs to happen is that Australia and New Zealand need to sort out their own domestic competitions first,” Moffett said.

“That’s why I’m suggesting that the club competition in Australia should start the season. And guess what? All of the international players will play for their clubs.

“If you put all the Australian players into the club competition, where they can hone their skills, and then you pick the best for Queensland, New South Wales and the ACT to play in the Super Rugby competition, then you are going to start to see us really getting back to where we were at the beginning of professional rugby.

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“The most successful period of Australian Rugby in the professional era is when they had three teams.”

Scott Barrett holds the Super Rugby Pacific trophy as the Crusaders celebrate after winning the Super Rugby Pacific Final match between Chiefs and Crusaders at FMG Stadium Waikato, on June 24, 2023, in Hamilton, New Zealand. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

The Crusaders have dominated the Super Rugby competition since 2017. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

The various broadcasters, as well as the Super Rugby franchises, would likely wince at that proposal given it would provide them less content and fewer opportunities to bring in money from gate takings.

But Moffett said audiences would value “quality over quantity”.

“No, no you’re looking at it from the wrong way,” he said.

“They would increase their gate takings because at the moment their gate takings are crap.

“But because it’s a shorter period where people are not going to get bored with it, they’re only gone four home games one year and five the next, their gate takings will go up, and it will more than makeup for a longer tournament.”

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Rugby Australia chief executive Phil Waugh has previously said the gap had widened too far between the professional and amateur levels of the game.

“I’ve got a very strong affiliation to club rugby and see the connection with the community is a massive part of my role leading the game in Australia,” Waugh said in his opening remarks as RA CEO.

“We’ve seen a really big gap evolve and get widened between the professional game and the amateur game over the last decade or so. How do we bring that back together? How do we ensure that we’re all working together to beat other teams in the world rather than compete against each other? I think that’s really important.”

Moffett, who has reached out to Waugh and RA chairman Daniel Herbert, also said the respective national unions needed to do more to capture its audience.

“Rugby is owned by the fans,” the businessman said. “You want to give the fans what they want: running rugby, instead of this bloody crap that they’re serving up at the moment.

“When you say to the average rugby person what business are you in, they’ll say, ‘We’re in the rugby business’ or if they’re a little bit more enlightened, they might say ‘they’re in the entertainment business.’ They’re both wrong. They’re in the business of actually winning time that people are prepared to spend on the sport. So, they’re in the time capture business.”

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Having watched Super Rugby try to expand into Japan with the Sunwolves, and Argentina with the Jaguares, Moffett also issued a warning to officials to not overreach.

“They destroyed a competition that was the envy of the world because they went for quantity over quality,” he said.

“They’re still talking about going to Japan and America.

“Why would Japan have anything to do with Super Rugby? They’ve got their own competition up there that is attracting so many good players. It’s no longer somewhere players go to pick up their retirement fund.”

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