A Workable National Club Comp and Why it won’t Work - Green and Gold Rugby
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A Workable National Club Comp and Why it won’t Work

A Workable National Club Comp and Why it won’t Work

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.

The Toast Rack at the NRC 2017 Launch

RIP NRC

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:

  1. It would not provide an effective third tier giving players a better run into Super Rugby;
  2. It seems unwieldy and unworkable from a distance and calendar perspective; and
  3. 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 Teams

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:

  1. Canberra Vikings;
  2. NSW Country;
  3. Qld Country
  4. Melbourne Rebels;
  5. Western Force. (Twiggy permitting)
winners NRC 2019 GF Force v Wikings (Credit Delphy)

Western Force – 2019 NRC Champions

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…

The Structure

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:

Div 1

Div 2

Div 3

*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

Andy Muirhead in space.

NRC – a quality product that couldn’t draw the crowds

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

Fraser McReight Brothers v GPS QPR Club Semi Final (Photo Credit QRUBrendan Hertel)

Fraser McReight up against Bryce Hegarty in QLD Premier Rugby (Photo Credit QRU/Brendan Hertel)

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.

  • ATrain

    Really enjoyed this, thanks. I have a similar background to you (a lower grade player and coach)…..we have something to say and as many insights as any other person so I am glad you took the time to write your thoughts down.

  • paul

    Interesting read and some thought has gone into it, but can’t help think of the old theory KISS.

    • qwasimodo

      It would be great but I almost think that bird has flown. Either we work around the existing competitions or we blow them up and start again. I just can’t see how we can have them all running side by side and maintain the interest. Maybe Rugby Australia will enlighten me in the near future…

    • Charcoal

      My sentiments exactly. Why does it have to be so unwieldly and complicated?

      You can forget about a National “Club” Competition, because it’s just not going to work. Only the cream of clubs will participate, which will leave many highly ranked players in teams that don’t make the cut, missing out. That’s its major flaw. You need to have all of the top players participating in a National Competition, regardless of which local club they come from. In some cases it may even be someone from a club at the bottom of the ladder.

      To engender any sort of tribal following, the teams in a National Competition must be representative teams of a region, which particularly applies to NSW and Qld. That’s not an issue with the single city teams from Canberra, Melbourne and Perth which represent the whole of their respective city regions and the best players will be selected, regardless of club.

      In the case of NSW and Qld, where multiple teams in a National Competition are warranted because of their greater concentration of players, regional representative teams in each city with the local Premier clubs as feeders is going to have a far greater chance of capturing that tribal loyalty in those states.

      I can’t speak for Qld, but in NSW the artificially contrived teams supposedly representing Sydney and NSW Country in the most recent incarnation of the NRC, are nothing more than NSW A and B teams made up exclusively of Sydney based players from the Waratahs and Shute Shield Clubs. It’s little wonder that there are divided loyalties from Shute Shield club supporters when their representative club players are split between the two teams. I, among others, are more likely to follow our local regional NRC team, where all of our representative club players are in the same team. Country based supporters will also follow the NRC representative teams based on their Shute Shield club following.

      I’m sorry, but I don’t see a place for a “Country” team in a National Competition, when those talented enough gravitate to and are recruited by the city clubs. None of the other football codes have “Country” teams in their respective National competitions, although some have teams based in their major regional centres, which is an entirely different matter. That’s an option for an NRC further down the track as the competition matures.

      In the NSW context, there would be greater support for regional representative teams based on Northern, Southern and Western Sydney, with the local Shute Shield clubs in each region as feeders. Representation within each region should be strictly enforced, with no crossovers. If a player wants to represent a region outside of his club feeder, then he should join a Shute Shield club in that region.

      I base my suggested format on the support of the previous longstanding annual representative matches between North Harbour and South Harbour in the amateur era which were fiercely fought for City representation against NSW Country and televised on the ABC in front of full houses at North Sydney Oval. It’s as relevant today as it was then and the addition of a Western Sydney based team will add to the competitive environment in the NRC.

      It’s unfortunate that John O’Neill didn’t persevere with the original ARC, in spite of losing money, as it could have been significantly improved with further tweeking.

  • Hugh Cavill

    Us non-Wallabies need to stick together, so I’ll back you in here. I really enjoyed this article.

    I still wonder if the end of season ‘all stars’ can be replaced with another back-to-the-future idea, that being the Ricoh Cup. The Super sides play each other a few times without Wallabies. It uses established brands (with membership bases), and would see local rugby standouts alongside professional stalwarts and young hopefuls.

    It might not draw enormous crowds, but I’d wager a Waratahs vs Brumbies game in September might draw more eyeballs than the Eagles/Vikings, Syd Uni/Sunnybank or an ‘all stars’ rep concept.

    • qwasimodo

      I’d love that. I was thinking of just calling the ‘all star teams’ ‘Emerging Tahs’ or something. Only thing is that it would be good for those teams and the games between them to give a little publicity back to the comp and clubs the players are coming from. Wearing their club socks like the Baa Baas etc.

  • Reds Revival

    As someone from FNQ, the idea of a Sydney/Brisbane comp replacing the NRC leaves me cold. While I understand that the general thought process is that the world ends at the outer limits of the capital cities, and only barren wastelands lie beyond that, I am pleased that you included some of the fringe reasons in to your competition Qwasi.

    Taking this one step further, I would like to also throw into the mix the idea of Big Bash Rugby. It seems apt given that Hamish McLennan is now on the Board, and was at Ten at the start of BBL. They reinvented the game based on what the fans wanted, creating a game that was fast paced, action packed, and loved by adults and kids.
    I think that this is what Twiggy is trying to achieve with GRR.

    Minor rule changes like the scrum clock, or free arm penalty after 1 reset will help to speed the game up. I would also like to see the defending team have to be 2 metres behind the last feet of the ruck to allow attacking teams more space to create the sort of running rugby that crowds want to see.

    The double headers at Wollongong and Brisbane this year showed that it provides more entertainment value for those who are willing to go to the rugby (nothing attracts a crowd like a crowd). Which brings me to greater crowd involvement. Get teams of people near the fence line starting chants, throwing the crowd beach ball. Each franchise needs to have their own “Viking clap” – something that is unique to their team, but creates atmosphere and entertainment at the ground.
    Attract crowds with better seating deals. Do ticket giveaways for home games at coaching clinics. Even if it is a Buy 1, Get 1 Free. Do whatever it takes to get crowds and then give them a reason to come back (lots of crowd involvement and great running rugby/lots of tries).

    I obviously am approaching it from a marketing perspective, but if we can get crowds again, then a lot of the financial issues start to ease, which allows RA to grow the game again at both a Wallabies and grass roots level.

    • Huw Tindall

      I always wondered what the average spend on food and booze and merch is per paying ticket holder. At what point could giving free tickets away turn a positive from increase supplementary spend? e.g. 5000 paying people buying $X of stuff vs 20,000 free people buying $X of stuff.

      • Reds Revival

        The problem is Huw, that the sellers of merchandise and food/drinks are only tenants in the stadium. The money that they earn is of little interest to the stadium owners. They are more interested in gate collections.
        From a SR franchise perspective, they need to sell a certain number of seats (and corporate boxes) to break even, and then make a profit.
        The reason I like the BOGOF is that my son brought home a BOGOF ticket to the basketball when the Taipans had done a clinic at his school. We decided to go simply because we had a good deal on the tickets. Would I have gone without that incentive? Definitely not. Did we enjoy the evening? Absolutely.

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@qwasimodo

Lifelong rugby supporter and consistently poor player. Nearly as amateur in writing as in rugby. Happiest when yelling advice and encouragement from behind a large pack of forwards, or the sideline.

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