Australian rugby crisis: backing for idea to send players to develop in New Zealand

Rajiv Maharaj
The Guardian
<span class="element-image__caption">‘Playing in the Mitre 10 Cup might give it [the NRC] greater commercial sustainability, and connect through to the community,’ says Waratahs CEO Andrew Hore.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images</span>
‘Playing in the Mitre 10 Cup might give it [the NRC] greater commercial sustainability, and connect through to the community,’ says Waratahs CEO Andrew Hore. Photograph: Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images

Another week of Super Rugby has passed and still no Australian team has beaten a New Zealand side in 2017. That’s nought from 15 attempts – up until this point, Australia’s worst return in the history of Super Rugby trans-Tasman clashes.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. Why not look at the hitherto unexplored idea of outsourcing professional player development to New Zealand on a short-term basis while Australian rugby rebuilds its woefully ineffective player development pathways? Should Australia send its second-tier National Rugby Championship teams across the ditch to participate in the Mitre 10 Cup competition?

While it might involve paying New Zealand Rugby a participation fee, it would mean new and attractive content for game-going punters and TV broadcasters. Think fixtures like Canterbury v Sydney Rays, Otago v Brisbane City, Waikato v Perth Spirit. Throw in the likes of Wellington, Auckland and others against the national footprint NRC teams and not only do you have a platform for accelerating player development, but also another revenue stream from which money can be earned for investment in community rugby. It makes complete sense.

And it’s a proposal worth looking at, says Waratahs CEO Andrew Hore. First, a disclaimer: Hore is a Kiwi. His rugby CV is impressive, including stints as high performance manager for New Zealand Rugby, conditioning director for Wales and, more recently, CEO of Ospreys. In rugby currency, he is arguably the best credentialed Super Rugby CEO in Australia. He’s been at the forefront of what works (New Zealand) and what doesn’t (Australia, and to a lesser extent Wales in the early noughties). In short, he’s someone the Australian Rugby Union should listen to.

Speaking to Guardian Australia just before the Waratahs v Reds game on Saturday night, Hore said Australian rugby could turn itself around in “two and half to three years’ maximum”.

Asked if the radical proposal of sending Australia’s eight NRC teams to play in the Mitre 10 Cup could accelerate player development in the short-term, Hore said: “Does it have merit – yes, it does. It would be great for coaches, it would be great for players and it would enhance the competition,” he said. “The NRC is actually not a bad competition. But we want it to be commercially sustainable – playing in the Mitre 10 Cup might give it greater commercial sustainability, and connect through to the community.”

Hore, however, cautioned against the notion of “just one silver bullet” fixing Australian rugby’s seemingly terminal decline. He has a list of concerns of which player wage inflation sits at the very top. However, underpinning most issues is a lack of consultation and collaboration between state unions, Super franchises, and the Australian Rugby Union.

Hore accepts the game is in crisis in Australia. He’s been saying this for some time. Rugby is in freefall with plummeting crowds and dwindling pay TV ratings. The public – rugby people at that – have simply switched off.

Meanwhile, New Zealand are not only slaughtering Australia on the field but off it as well. NZ Rugby’s annual report delivered at its AGM in Wellington last week revealed a game in rude health. The Kiwis are in no doubt whatsoever about why they’re going gangbusters – significant investment in community rugby. “The success of our national and Super Rugby teams is entirely reliant on the success of community rugby,” the annual report says. “This investment in community rugby is growing the pool of future All Blacks.”

It’s hardly rocket science – it’s the “building the bottom of the pyramid” model the AFL does so well. And yet, for reasons we may never quite know or understand, Australian rugby has never meaningfully embraced this model despite repeated calls to do so from well-respected former Wallabies and grassroots advocates such as Brett Papworth and Simon Poidevin.

While rugby has withered in Australia, lawn bowls and ballroom dancing have prospered coast to coast – at rugby’s expense – if you believe Roy Morgan Research. Lawn bowls ahead of rugby. It’s scarcely believable.

Unsurprisingly, Australian Rugby Union chief executive Bill Pulver and chairman Cameron Clyne are sitting ducks for an angry mob spearheaded by former Wallabies coach and broadcaster Alan Jones, who crucified Cameron on air recently. Jones left Cameron severely dazed and confused, the proverbial deer in the headlights. It’s the same stunned mullet look Pulver has worn for much of his tenure as the game’s highest official.

It’s clear Cameron and Pulver don’t have the answers. In fact, to many people in the game they are a big part of the problem. Such is the distrust of the ARU by provincial unions and Super franchise bosses, it’s fair to say the pair’s prospects for the ongoing stewardship of the game are damaged beyond repair.

Hore didn’t name names but it was clear where he was coming from with a thinly veiled homage to Will Carling’s infamous “old farts” quotes. “It could have something to do with the maturity level and maybe the age of some of the administrators in this part of the world … we’re starting to see is some tired individuals, people who don’t know what else is out and about,” he said.

At the heart of the matter, Hore says, is a lack of collaboration and consultation. “We don’t have a great deal of collaboration. That’s the big difference between here and NZ. There’s almost a feeling with that group [Australian rugby administrators] of being intimidated by consulting down. It’s as if they’re embarrassed if they don’t have the answer to bring to the table. I say give the problems to the people to bring back some solutions.”

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