There are plenty of suggestions around at the moment for changing rugby competitions and administration in Australia. A tsunami of armchair administrators has been building for some years, and now even in the mainstream media we are seeing conflicting “Year Zero” suggestions such as killing off the states, having the states sit on the board, restricting the rugby knowledge of the board (that’s a genius one – Pol Pot would be pleased), and banning the CEO from sitting on the board (very helpful to have the CEO not in board meetings).
A “mind various” of rugby negativity seems to have started in Australia, and is now spreading through the English speaking world, soon to destroy all rugby before it.
So in an effort to keep up with the crowd (no child left behind), I thought I’d knock out another suggestion for a competition, because a chance as small as a one in a billion of making a slight difference is not discouragement enough for me, apparently.
Many say we need a competition to fill the gap, a third tier, to provide pathways – more formal connections between the levels to both let people see ways to progress and to transfer skills and knowledge down to the lower levels. But it can’t cost too much, and it needs buy in.
What do we have now between Super Rugby and club rugby? Not nothing it may surprise some. The gap in the schedule left where the NRC was has become partly populated in the last couple of years. We have some Super Rugby teams playing a few low key short tours that might be termed A teams. In QLD a Reds development team has played a team picked from the QLD Premiership in a three match series in each of the last two years.
We also have the Australian Rugby Shield. It doesn’t contain players from the Shute Shield or QLD Premiership, but otherwise most clubs feed into the state and regional rep teams in it.
NSW has 9 regional unions outside of Sydney that run rep teams and QLD has 11 regional unions outside of Brisbane that run rep teams. These teams play in state-wide competitions and NSW and QLD country teams are selected from these competitions. These country rep teams play in the Australian Rugby Shield. The ACT and Southern NSW Union has three regional unions. WA has two country regions and normally runs a country carnival, the other states I understand are a single region.
Most of these rep comps are run on a short carnival basis.
The Australia Rugby Shield teams in 2023 were as follows:
- ACT/SNSW Griffins
- VIC Axemen
- QLD Country Heelers
- QLD Suburban
- NSW Country Cockatoos
- Perth Gold
- SA Black Falcons
- TAS Jack Jumpers
The ACT/SNSW Griffins have won the last two years.
Did anybody know it was happening? This comp isn’t even listed on the Rugby Australia website list of competitions ($0 for marketing I guess), but there are nevertheless a few traces of its occurrence on the internet, and presumably RA organises it. I hope they at least know about it.
Also RA has stated that they’re planning something with the Shute Shield and QLD Premiership teams. It’s not clear how that will help from a pathways point of view, or spread rugby knowledge and development throughout Australia. It may even damage the Shute Shield and QLD Premierships by undermining the importance of their grand finals and competitions particularly if the RA national club comp is run right after the current comps.
Anyway, a straight forward way to build on these existing third tier activities and plans is to bundle all these teams (A teams, rep teams and any club teams that want to play) into one comp. This would be too many teams for a single league given the short time and the variety of standards of play, so it would need to have a first division and more groups below, and the lower groups might be regional groups playing on a carnival basis as the rep comps are done now. This is a fairly standard league pyramid except with a short season and small groups.
A first division of six teams would take 10 weeks for a full home and away schedule. With a promotion/relegation system, the top teams would spend most of their time in the top division, and some time playing teams below. It’s possible to have quite a lot of promotion and relegation. For example, two teams drop down and go up after 5 weeks when all teams have played each other once, and then again at the end of the season for the beginning of the next. This amount of relegation and promotion would see one or two Super teams relegated, and then presumably promoted soon after, but they would get between 5 and 10 matches against other Super A teams each year.
There’d be a gap in standard between Super teams and others. In the QLD Reds Challenger games a winning margin of 20 or so points (in favour of the Reds) seems common. The Premiership team is pretty much a scratch team and maybe not representative of how well such a team could do with more preparation, but the Reds teams are also A teams and perhaps not representative of how Super teams would do in this comp either. Anyway, the gap between Super teams and the QLD Premiership doesn’t appear to be so big as to make the teams playing each other useless or counterproductive from a development point of view.
Some of the current rep teams (ACT, NSW and QLD Country) are probably of higher standard than QLD Premiership teams. There was a time when the ACT fielded a team in the Brisbane comp and also in the Shite Shield. They won the QLD Premiership pretty convincingly three years in a row, and they were quite competitive in the Shute Shield. The Shute Shield is a bit higher standard than the QLD Premiership. The Newcastle and Hunter Rugby Union in NSW has entered a competitive team in the Shute Shield in recent years. There could also be state-wide NSW and QLD amateur rep teams of probably even higher standard to help fill the gap.
Yowie said to break up long slabs of text with pictures, so I thought he might like to see a picture of a good and true Queenslander at this point .
On with the slabs of text
Shute Shield, QLD Premiership, and many of the best regional players would love to get the chance to show the Super teams what they can do. It’s hard to ignore a player scoring against you, or pushing your scrum back etc. The club players would also learn from playing against the professionals, and so lift the standard of the club comps when they go back to play in them next season. The rep teams from the other states and regions would also learn a lot from playing the stronger teams, but they’d still be playing plenty of teams of their own standard too, which would give them a chance to practice at their level what they learn from playing the stronger teams.
I think lifting the standard of all club comps across Australia is as important as the upwards pathways of good players and coaches finding their way to the top teams. The serious club comps are the base on which the higher levels rest. The higher the standard of the lower levels, the earlier developing players get a solid grounding as a basis for their development.
This type of system is similar in some ways to what New Zealand and South Africa have: regional unions play club comps for the first two thirds of the season and then send rep teams to a national comp. Both New Zealand and South Africa have a high standard of play even at lower levels, this produces large numbers of good players that are then fed up to the higher levels.
SA and NZ distribute their non-national professional players to the regions when they can, rather than having the professional teams play in the national comp. But in Australia, distributing players to our state teams would likely make for a very unbalanced comp, which is probably why we’ve never had a similar national comp as SA and NZ . For us, it’d be better to have our Super teams play in the comp. They need more time playing together, and without the national players involved, it isn’t likely to be possible to have any higher level than an A team comp, at least not within Australia anyway.
It might seem strange to have rep teams, club teams, and Super teams playing in the same structure, but it’s just a matter of what people are used to. Sydney Uni is an organisation, Randwick a suburb, and Easts a district. So three different kinds of thing all playing in the Shute Shield. They all function now effectively as clubs, but they were different types of entities when they began playing. You can find plenty of examples like this. Arsenal came from an institution (Woolwich Arsenal), Manchester City is a city team, and Notts County is named after a county. As long as people find something to align their support to, it really makes no difference how a team comes about. All the teams in the comp would be existing teams with existing support infrastructure – quite natural teams as far as the rugby community of Australia is concerned.
Club teams might want to compete and find out which is the best club, unis might want to compete and find out which is the best uni, and states and regions might want to say which is the best state or region, and they might think they need to all be in comps with the same type of team to do that. But they don’t. They can do it in a single league pyramid. One of the clubs will finish higher than the others, one of the states higher than the other states, and so on. The fact that they have also played teams of a different category during the comp doesn’t make them not the best of their kind. If there’s any doubt about which team is the champion of a category because two or more finished level in different groups and none made it up to higher groups, they can have a play off for best club, or best state or best region. Alternatively a ratings system could decide champions or qualify them for play offs.
So really there’s no practical reason why we can’t all play together. There are plenty of precedents for pyramid league structures. It is one of the most common of sporting competition structures, and many of them have thousands of teams. It shouldn’t be too difficult to do it in rugby in Australia. Our national standard of play would be improved from doing it, I think quite dramatically over time.
It may turn out that the best marketing minds in RA find that a comp in which Shute Shield and QLD Premiership clubs are more prominent is more marketable, and that marketability is more important than the development of good Super teams. So then the Super teams and QLD and NSW rep teams wouldn’t be able to take part. However, it would still be very useful from a development point of view, and for buy-in from across Australia, if the regional unions, and the states with only one union, could take part. It would give genuine places into which the Super Rugby players can be distributed on a “region or club of origin basis”, similar to what is done in NZ and SA. There are Super Rugby players that never came through the Shute Shield or QLD Premiership, and we would hope that there are more in the future. These players could help inspire and develop the region from which they came by representing it in a national comp.
There are probably 7 or 8 regional and state unions that would compete well with the Shute Shield teams and QLD premiership teams if they had their Super Rugby players back. You’d like to give as many of them as practical a shot at wining in any one year, so such a competition might at the top level be organised like a world cup or a champions league with several groups feeding into semi finals and a grand final. But, there could also be lower level groups, possibly two levels of groups below, with plenty of promotion and relegation into the top level. And again, the bottom level groups might be playing on a carnival basis. We would still get many of the development benefits of everyone playing in a league pyramid as discussed above. Super team development would not be as good, but other than that, the benefits largely remain.
We might hope that a comp in which we all play could become rugby’s equivalent of the national soccer cups, like the FA cup, that typically invite any club team in the nation that wants to enter – something that every player and supporter can feel a part of, that the whole nation can get behind.