This lockdown experience has been very strange for me, as I’m sure it has for many rugby players and supporters. The most recent development has been my partner decorating our flat with rugby memorabilia, making homemade pies and chips and streaming old games to give me a full match-day experience. You never know how moody and miserable you’ve been acting until someone feels the need to go to those lengths for you.
In light of my desperation for rugby and the continuing deafening silence from our dear leaders, I have taken the initiative to become incredibly unproductive in my day-job, whilst devoting more and more time and energy to gorging on rugby articles and podcasts, and thinking about the future of rugby in Australia.
Before I set out some thoughts on where rugby could go in this country, I should first confess that I have never played for or coached the wallabies (or any other professional team). In fact, I’ve never even played rugby at a decent level. My rugby experience has been coasting along in the bottom team of a few clubs and doing a bit of voluntary admin. This seems like an important admission because whether it is a result of professionalism or factionalism or some other factor, the average supporters seem to be heard less and less.
So… to business.
A Workable National Club Comp
I have been consistently hopeful and supportive of the ARC and NRC and incredibly disappointed why not enough other people have been. There are many reasons for this that could fill a whole additional article, but the main reasons seem to be a lack of traditional support for the teams and a lack of funding to generate new support. If we accept that we aren’t going to contribute the latter, then the whole thing becomes a somewhat pointless exercise.
On the other hand, I have not previously been a fan of the National Club Comp idea. The issues for me have always been that:
- It would not provide an effective third tier giving players a better run into Super Rugby;
- It seems unwieldy and unworkable from a distance and calendar perspective; and
- It wouldn’t provide a national footprint with a clear pathway for players in non-traditional rugby areas.
Those arguing point (3) might suggest that clubs could come from anywhere in the country. However, realistically we are talking about clubs of a certain level, which more or less limits us to Qld Premier Rugby, the Shute Shield and the Tuggeranong Vikings/Canberra Kookaburras.
Recently however, the support from respected rugby people has made me think that it deserves another look. Eddie Jones in particular was persuasive on the Rugby Ruckus podcast recently when he spoke about capitalising on Australia’s traditional strengths, rather than focusing on perceived weaknesses or copying other countries’ models. (Anyone who hasn’t heard it should absolutely check it out). Stephen Moore was on the podcast recently also and openly backing a National Club Comp.
Eddie recommended reducing our Super Rugby teams to three as being the most effective set up for Wallabies success. This is contentious but his argument was it had the best players playing together, at a high level. The ugly truth in Australia is that Wallaby success is essential for rugby’s success more generally, so that is my starting point. 3 Super Rugby teams. The NSW Waratahs, the Queensland Reds and the Brumbies representing the rest of Australia. From a costs, total players per region and Wallaby perspective it makes some sense.
I can already hear grinding of teeth when I write that so I’ll move on quickly.
The next step for a National Club Comp is to find some additional competitive teams outside of QPR and the Shute Shield. The NRC has been bereft of marketing since its inception however it would be an utter waste to throw away the progress it has achieved in name recognition of team identities. What if those teams could be preserved as rep teams at the end of their respective local rugby seasons?
I’m thinking the:
- Canberra Vikings;
- NSW Country;
- Qld Country
- Melbourne Rebels;
- Western Force. (Twiggy permitting)
Five additional teams that could all be a real presence in a National Club Comp. All drawing from club rugby players within their region. They would not have the same professionalism as their NRC iterations, but perhaps some of those structures and personnel could be maintained. Players would be drawn from the local comps and go into camps. Perhaps if money could be found they could have trial games or even a short competition against each other before the National Club Comp kicks off.
Personally, I think they would be very competitive and give the game that national footprint that it would otherwise lose.
Add those 5 teams to the Shute Shield, which is currently expanding to 13 teams apparently, and the 9 from QPR. We then have a nice, round 27 teams.
27 isn’t round I hear you say, but just wait…
Three Divisions. 3 Divisions divides up the teams, making the length of the National Club Competition shorter and less costly. Promotion and relegation would make the games interesting for both ends of each table. 9 teams in each Division, playing a single home or away game against each other. At the end of the 9 week tournament, there would be:
- A grand final for the top 2 teams of Division 1;
- Automatic promotion for the top team in Divisions 2 and 3;
- Automatic relegation for the bottom teams in Divisions 1 and 2;
- Playoff matches for the second and third placed teams for promotion in Divisions 2 and 3;
- Playoff matches for the second and third last teams for relegation in Divisions 1 and 2.
A 10th round would see all five matches taking place building up to the grand final.
The final tables might look something like this:
*My apologies to Division 3 clubs, this was put together without any malicious intent. Likewise, this is not intended as a compliment to Sydney Uni.
It’s logical, it’s interesting, it builds off traditional rugby strongholds and more recently built up team identities and provides a national footprint. I cannot think of a better National Club Comp.
Why it won’t Work
Because of course it bloody won’t.
How is Australian rugby, without a plastic wrapped meat pie to their name, going to afford to have 27 ‘semi-pro’ playing squads, coaching teams and support staff jet-setting around Australia?
What happens to the tradition of all levels of club rugby playing at the same place on the same day? Suddenly, it’s just second grade down and what does that do to clubs? How does that impact upon the supporters and volunteers?
How are semi-professional players meant to go off and play all over the place without reasonable compensation? Because that is implicit in all of this, it has to be dirt-cheap. What happens with their other employment and their families?
There was a Shute Shield player writing anonymously on the Roar a while back who spoke about why the NSW NRC teams were crap. Essentially, there was no buy in from the senior Shute Shield players because there was no proper remuneration. It was only worth it for the young guys looking to go professional who didn’t have families to support.
I think this could be quite an interesting structure for rugby fans in Australia, but are we seriously suggesting that we have enough eyeballs to draw in sufficient advertising and broadcasting deals to maintain this?
I think it’s mad to think a National Club Comp is seriously achievable. Even if we get rid off all the other teams and just keep it to QPR v Shute Shield, losing the national footprint which is the biggest drawcard, there’s still too much distance between Sydney and Brisbane to think it possible.
Maybe, you could host a tournament in one place to cut down on travel costs. But then how does that provide the sort of weekly content a broadcaster would be interested in.
It’s all ludicrous to me and until someone can actually front up and start talking about HOW it can be achieved rather than whether it would be good or not, I’m off the idea.
But that would be a depressing conclusion to this article and I don’t want to finish on that note…
A Third Way
So I say third but in reality this is probably the six hundred and seventy fifth plan for rugby in Australia. Still… a third way.
If we accept that any serious national competition is going to carry costs that rugby just can’t stomach in Australia, our options become much more restricted, and… probably… realistic.
We would still have our Super teams in whatever shape they would be, and I’m fairly persuaded that the argument for three teams is stronger. But a single domestic competition would be out of reach and we would have to stick to rugby regions.
However, the job for Rugby Australia is to build off our strengths. I am sick to death of the infighting, self-interest and white anting from the unions and I’m particularly looking at NSW, but perhaps now is the time to go back to the future. What I am about to suggest will stick in the craw of many rugby supporters because it means giving some of the worst characters their deepest desire but perhaps we need to rely on our historic competitions.
Strengthen the Shute Shield and QPR with funding and advertising. Get those competitions firing. They have the ties to their communities and the volunteers that manufactured teams can only dream of.
Then I would like to see us maintain those other rep teams, Canberra, Melbourne, WA, NSW Country and QLD Country. If a competition could be devised and afforded for those teams to play against each other after the regular season of their local comps, it would provide a clear pathway to higher levels without moving to Sydney or Brisbane. This competition would need to be short and sharp, done on the cheap and funded by Rugby Australia but it would be worth it. Rugby could maintain something of a national footprint.
Next, an all-star team from each competition playing against each other to round out the domestic season. With only players not selected for Super rugby teams eligible, we would have an opportunity (however brief) to see the next level of rugby talent in Australia play against each other.
The dream would be that in 2025 when the British and Irish Lions come back into town, they would have a tour schedule consisting of games against the three club rugby all-star teams, the three Super rugby teams and three classic matches against a rejuvenated Wallabies.
People will have many strong opinions on these ideas. Maybe they are rubbish, maybe there is some merit to them. I can’t pretend they are the most exciting and they don’t compare to national competition of clubs, whether it’s in divisions or FA cup style. However I think they are achievable and sustainable, and these most critical issues for the future of rugby in Australia right now.