My esteemed colleague/fellow Blogger/GAGR Rugby Correspondent, Juan Cote, has called for the ARU to lend a bit more a hand to the Reds in getting them back on top of their game in Please ARU – help the Reds help themselves!!. I’m going to be a little more dramatic. It is time for the ARU to take over Queensland Rugby, completely.
I’m sorry but it’s beyond a joke now. Queensland Rugby is now driving players, young talented players, not just from our boundaries, but from our shores. In previous years Stephen Moore and Mitchell Chapman couldn’t wait to head south. Now Digby Ione and Hugh McMeniman are apparently off to ply their trade overseas. Add to that the recent development surrounding Rocky Elsom’s apparent decision to bypass the Reds and sign with the Brumbies and Ballymore is quickly becoming some sort of vortex away from which the best players are repelled.
Recruitment and retention concerns are a fair indication that something rotten in the state of Denmark (suburb of Herston). The QRU’s roll over of coaches is well publicised. What is less scrutinised is the turn over of CEOs. Since the departure of their first ever CEO, Terry Doyle, in 1996 the QRU have utilised a glut of administrators, accountants and marketers in a seemingly unachievable endeavour to provide that much needed leadership from the top.
For mine, there are two stand out examples of how the poor administration was indicative of our on-field performances. The first was the signing of a rental agreement with Suncorp Stadium predicated on an average crowd of 33,000 – a ludicrously ambitious assessment of the team’s pulling power which had a direct impact on the organisation’s bottom line. Then there was the CEO who was responsible for player negotiation (for some reason) and went on to begin discussions with two of our most prominent players, Nathan Sharpe and Elton Flatley, by referring to them by their wrong names.
The financial woes of the organisation are well known. The blame, supposedly, falls on Ballymore. What used to be their biggest asset is now their biggest liability. But even on the operational side of things the organisation has been forced to make significant cuts in order to try and balance the finances. The bankruptcy of sponsor ISC left them in a hole this year, sure, but this has been building for years.
Corporate support is critical to the Reds as it is presently their biggest source of income. But how sustainable can it be? Current sponsor Queensland Rail are a government owned organisation. With no train stations anywhere near Ballymore, the sponsorship was always going to be dependant on a shift to Suncorp. The sceptical among us might suggest that the sponsorship was a deal made by the government in order to get more activity at the redeveloped, and then largely underutilised, Lang Park. But I hear rumours that there is not a chance QR will continue their sponsorship when it expires. What then? Who’s going to jump on the sinking ship?
Peter Lewis, current QRU Chairman, has become the organisation’s ‘everywhere man’. I can’t remember the last time I have seen the CEO Ken Freer even mentioned in the press. It’s all Lewis. And it’s so old-school. So…amateur.
The fact that Lewis’s company, Trinity, sponsored the Premier Grade Rugby competition last year. Not this year mind you, as Trinity are going through their own financial grief at the moment.
Lewis sent an email from his Trinity account asking, nay pleading, with staff and contacts to send a letter to the Brisbane City Council in support of the planned Ballymore redevelopment.
What next? Injured Reds players (of which there seems to be an inordinate amount) running chook raffles and meat trays at next year’s Reds games??
So fourteen years after Rugby went professional, the QRU and their flagship, the QLD Reds, are club-like in their amateurism. I can appreciate the difficulty however. When the game went professional in 1995 (for the 1996 season), both the NSWRU and QRU (and indeed the ARU) had to change too. They went from amateur organisations looking after amateur players who had been doing so for 100 years, to corporate organisations looking after some of the highest paid athletes in the country, seeking massive sponsorships and inducing new spectators. All the time having to retain their focus on general rugby development issues such as finding more players, coaches and referees. It’s a like asking an elephant to evolve into a stallion, over night.
And so the Brumbies were created. Literally created. Sure they had the brand of ACT Rugby but they were completely separate. Anyone who hasn’t read Rod McQueens’ excellent book “One Step Ahead” should, and from there you will gain an excellent understanding of how McQueen and his carefully selected team moulded the organisation from scratch. Creating logos, jerseys and the team songs and, more importantly, the ethos and culture within the organisation that see it still striving today.
Meanwhile the Reds and Waratahs were falling further behind in their struggle to come to grips with the higher needs of the professional era. The Tahs, with the biggest population base in the country, never made it higher than sixth under their NSWRU structure. The Reds had some early success, but this is more attributable to a flow over from a dominant mid-90s team plus the unquestionable individual abilities of the likes of John Eales and Tim Horan.
Whilst both organisations struggled, the NSWRU hit rock bottom first. In 2000 the ARU made the decision to take over management of the organisation. And did so for a number of years. In this time the ARU, under the direction of John O’Neil, righted the ship. Costs were cut, changes were made and debts were paid off. And the result was almost immediate. The Waratahs finished the 2001 season 2nd on the ladder.
Meanwhile the Reds’ slide began to give a public face to the troubles at the QRU. Coaches were hired because of the media ability. CEOs became coaches. Players like Mark Chisolm and Peter Hewat were let go because there was no future for them at Ballymore. And then came the Force. The fourth team couldn’t have come at a worse time for the Reds. In 2005, when the Force were recruiting for their entry the following year, the Reds came third last with only three wins. They were a team ripe for the picking.
And picked they were. The Force, along the lines of the Brumbies in 1996, were a new organisation who got to start with a clean slate. They didn’t have the advantage the Brumbies did in terms of a lack of pre-existing player contracts, but the organisation was new, and therefore unencumbered. They dictated it all and were given practically a free reign to do so by the ARU. Big signings were critical. Former All Black coach John Mitchell was a good start. Brendan Cannon was their first player and not far behind was the QLD Reds lock Nathan Sharpe. And to follow Sharpe would be a raft of Reds developed players. Some starters, but mostly from the Academy. Players like Junior Pelesasa, Scott Daruda, Richard Brown, Tai McIsaacs, Luke Doherty and David Pocock. Drew Mitchell would follow soon after, attracted by the seeming gold rush in the west.
Now the Force are in for some rocky times with the loss of some key players in Giteau and Mitchell, but you get the impression that they will survive this adversity. They can survive because they can adapt. An ability to embrace change in an organisation is a lot easier to do in one that is only a few years old. For a century old organisation, such as the QRU, it’s a little more difficult.
Which is why, as I said, waaaaaay back at the start of this post, that the ARU must come in and take over the QRU. Change is needed. And this time not just talked about. No more board run reviews and consultant led reports left on desk tops gathering dust. It’s time for the ARU to do to the QRU what they had to do to the NSWRU. Don’t wait for bankruptcy to hit, which could be any day now it seems. Do it in parallel with the creation of our fifth team. If we can get all five teams on an equal level, administratively, then it will maximise the development potential of the Super 15 expansion.
If it doesn’t happen soon though, rugby in this state will continue its slide into that of a minor sport and the Reds into being even more of a laughing stock.
Please John, save my team.