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Strong custodians or factional hacks pushing state agendas? The numbers that will decide future of Australian rugby

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Expert
18th March, 2024
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It was a Queensland-led coup which resulted in Hamish McLennan being sacked as Rugby Australia chairman on the day of the long knives on November 19.

The Sydney businessman was made to pay the price for the Wallabies’ World Cup implosion and the Eddie Jones coaching circus. He was replaced as RA chairman by a Queenslander, Dan Herbert.

And the all-powerful Queensland voting bloc will have a key role in determining the outcome of RA’s annual general meeting on April 29, when Australia’s Super Rugby franchises, State unions and the Rugby Union Players’ Association get to vote on who will guide rugby in Australian through the fog of an uncertain future.

Paradoxical as it may sound, Queensland’s influence at Moore Park has actually been strengthened since last year’s AGM due to the financial problems besetting Australia’s Super Rugby franchises.

Rugby Australia Board Director Daniel Herbert speaks to media during a Rugby Australia media opportunity in support of the Rugby World Cup 2027 & 2029 bid, at King George Square on May 13, 2022 in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images for Rugby Australia)

And here are the raw numbers which explain why.

All up, 14 votes will decide just who gets to sit around the RA board table after the April 29 AGM. Those 14 votes will dictate the outcome of five critical resolutions.

The first two of those resolutions will determine which newbies get to fill the RA board vacancies created by McLennan’s departure and Phil Waugh’s elevation to the role of chief executive. As previously reported here, the Herbert-chaired RA nominations committee will decide which new board nominees make it onto the ballot papers, and which have their resumes returned with thank you notes attached.

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The other three resolutions relate to whether the incumbent RA directors up for re-election – Matthew Hanning, Karen Penrose and Jane Wilson – get to stay on, or are shown the door like McLennan.

Critically, all resolutions require a two-thirds majority. That means to get up, each nominee must secure at least 10 of the total 14 votes. Which of course also means it only takes five of the 14 votes to torpedo any of the resolutions.

Queensland, through the Reds and the Queensland Rugby Union, controls three of those 14 votes, collectively the most of any state. Which means that in true Joh Bjelke-Petersen style, it will be tough for any board hopeful to rally the necessary votes if they don’t already drink XXXX or Bundaberg Rum – or at least indicate some flexibility in their drinking habits.

Queensland is the only state with three votes because the NSW Waratahs surrendered a vote after throwing back the keys back to RA. Similarly, the Rebels were stripped of their vote after going into voluntary administration.

All of which, according to my back-of-the-beer coaster numbers, leaves a voting card as follows:

Queensland/Queensland RU – 3
NSW RU – 2
Brumbies/ACT RU – 2
Western Force – 1
WA RU – 1
Victorian RU – 1
South Australian RU – 1
Tasmanian RU – 1
Northern Territory RU – 1
RU Players’ Association – 1

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To note: Under the RA voting structure, the Queensland and NSW state unions both received a bonus vote in 2023, over and above the other states, for having more than 50,000 participants respectively. The 14 vote total above is based on the expectation that will remain the case in 2024.

Observant readers might notice the Western Force and the WA Rugby Union are referred to separately in the table above, rather than collectively like Queensland and the ACT.

That’s because the Western Force and RugbyWA didn’t show solidarity in weighing up whether McLennan should have been axed. On one hand, the Western Force’s billionaire owners Andrew and Nicola Forrest went public in their support of friend McLennan, stating: “Hamish is steering rugby through a very difficult period from the complete mess that he inherited.

Rugby Australia Chairman Hamish McLennan talks during The Rugby Championship 2021 Fixture announcement at Parliament House on September 24, 2020 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Former Rugby Australia Chairman Hamish McLennan. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

“Now is not the time for more disruption in the sport, but a time for rugby to band together and back the proposed centralisation reforms. We support the efforts Hamish and the existing board are making to centralise high performance and improve governance to ensure Australian rugby administration is focused on what’s best for the game, its players and fans.”

Few, as it turned out, agreed with them. Most surprisingly, that included chairman John Edwards and the board of RugbyWA, who sided with the Queensland-led board coup to oust McLennan.

That appeared to be a classic case of biting the hand that feeds you given that apart from personally covering the Force’s operating losses, the Forrest family-controlled miner Fortescue ploughs millions of dollars into RugbyWA to make sure the heart of community rugby continues to beat strongly out west.

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It failed to register with Edwards and co that as a friend of the Forrests, McLennan was by extension a friend of the Force.

As Alice in Wonderland once mused, curiouser and curiouser. Alice, meanwhile, might well have made the same observation about comments made last week by Australian newspaper rugby columnist Jessica Halloran, which provide an insight into the inter-state political machinations which will shape the outcome of the April 29 AGM.

Writing on how Queensland’s RA chairman Herbert had essentially been missing in action in countering the Sydney Roosters’ $1.8 million bid for Waratahs young gun Max Jorgensen, Halloran noted: “There is concern that archaic rugby factions will come into play with Queensland powerbrokers uninterested in retaining the young New South Welshman who strengthens the Waratahs.”

One of the big decisions facing whoever is sitting around the RA board room after the April 29 AGM is how many Super Rugby teams Australian will field in 2025 and thereafter.

As Eddie Jones told Halloran in a recent interview, that won’t be a decision based on emotion, but dollars – and RA’s lack thereof.

“I think at some stage the financial reality of supporting five teams is going to be difficult for Australia to sustain,” Jones said. “There’s an inevitability about that and it’s how you go about that.

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“They had one go with the Force and they didn’t get it right at all. The next time they’ve got to get it right, running the business of rugby, and that’s a skill in itself.”

With all the inter-state politics at play, it’s hopefully not just naïve thinking to hope the most suitable custodians of our great game will be elected to the RA board on April 29, rather than factional hacks pushing state agendas.

Otherwise we could be left with another scene from Alice in Wonderland: A mad hatter’s tea party.

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