WITH Australian rugby standing at a fork in the road, there’s one important issue that we can’t afford to overlook: the value of developing a strong feeder competition to provide players for the future.
As ARU chief executive John O’Neill moves to have the Super 14 become a winter-long competition, concerns are being raised over the effect it could have on the club scene in Australia.
The O’Neill model features the Super 14 running from March to August, with the Tri Nations at the end, in direct competition with the AFL and NRL. A definite advantage is that it would fill that black hole for rugby in June, July and August when all attention is focused on league and AFL.
But the problem it presents is that it would take 125 players out of club rugby for the entire season. That could have a detrimental effect on the quality and support of this level of the game, with some clubs already struggling with Super rugby taking just 25 players from their competition. Then there’s the model put forward by former CEO Gary Flowers three years ago, which involved the implementation of the Australian Rugby Championship, running the Super 14 competition from February through May and the Tri Nations slotted in, with the Super players dropped back to club rugby after the season and the rest donated to the Australian cause. It also gives us a jump on the other codes early in the year.
This, New Zealand and South Africa argue, is the preferred method, with these parties in the SANZAR agreement having strong domestic competitions. But, like O’Neill’s model, it also has its cons. While all top 25 players are available for club rugby from May, the other codes will continue to grab the spotlight for the remainder of the year.
The South Africans are clear on what they want; they’re happy with an expanded Super 14, but the competition must start in February and finish in time for their strong domestic competition, the Currie Cup in July.
Australia and New Zealand want to start later, with a winter-long season from March through to August, but nine New Zealand provinces have expressed concern at the damage a winter-long season would have on their domestic competition, which is regarded as one of the strongest in the world.
There are three very different points of view and just how it’s worked out could have a major effect on any of the three domestic competitions. New Zealand have stated in no uncertain terms that they’re not prepared to compromise their domestic competition. All Blacks great Colin Meads has come out strongly in opposition to the ARU’s plan, declaring: "Aussies always struggle when [South Africa and New Zealand] are playing Currie Cup and NPC. It’s up to them to develop another competition to boost their numbers. They had one [ARC] and canned it. It looked good for rugby. I suppose it was a financial thing but they should have built on it."
He also said any nation pulling out of SANZAR would be a bad move and he’d be dead against it.
It’s clear his point of view is that more compromise has to be made.
The problem with the ARU placing all its focus on the top is that this is one of those rare occasions where the blood flows from the bottom up. We can’t lose out focus on the development of players through the club system.
No matter which model the ARU and SANZAR agree upon, the development of new players in Australia cannot be overlooked or it could be disastrous – whether it means strengthening the club rugby scene or re-introducing the ARC.
The amateur game needs to drive the professional game and in doing so become professional itself.
Club rugby needs to be nurtured. The individual states look after their Super 14 clubs, but it’s the ARU’s responsibility to look out for Australian rugby as a whole.