A examination of the Australian third-tier: what is the future of the NRC? - Green and Gold Rugby
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A examination of the Australian third-tier: what is the future of the NRC?

A examination of the Australian third-tier: what is the future of the NRC?

It’s a topic of discussion that I’ve been dreading for a long time. But a difficult topic warrants a big article. 

As we near the end of Super Rugby and approach the halfway point of the club season, minds are turning to the latter half of the year. Wallabies tests, the Rugby Championship, and this year, the World Cup. With that comes the latest round of questions surrounding the future of Australia’s current third tier competition, the National Rugby Championship.

At the start of May, Cameron Rivett published an interesting article about the future of the NRC, where he examined how, with rapid formatting changes going on the international stage of rugby (i.e the proposed World League and reformatting of Super Rugby), the fledging competition may in fact be changed or even scrapped. He makes some good points, and I do suggest you read it, because it does provide an interesting discussion on the state of the third-tier, and where it fits within the construct of Australian rugby.

It’s no secret things are looking increasingly dire for the competition. Fox Sports, who bankroll the whole thing, might be cutting entire sports from their next TV agreement after recording a record financial loss. This news has put the likes of Soccer and Rugby on edge. Even an interesting discussion by RA’s new director of rugby Scott Johnson argued that we shouldn’t have a centralised aligned rugby model, but a ‘four-stick’ system, makes me question where the NRC fits in his vision. And, as Cameron has pointed out in his article, there are many problems with the NRC. I agree; and in fact, a lot of them really came to the forefront in last year’s season.

This question of survival has always lingered around the NRC, even since it’s first season. So, if you don’t have the NRC, what will the rugby landscape in this country look like? How different will it be? It’s a valid question.

It’s no secret to folks who are regular readers at GAGR as to where I stand with the NRC: I really love this little competition, and what it represents. Heck, I wrote my first ever article on GAGR on it. Across it’s entire five year history, the one thing I can really say about it is that it gives me hope. To me, it is a bridge between the semi-professional and professional. Cutting it seems nonsensical, because if you reduce the foundations of the pyramid, you lower the pyramid. In every year of its existence it has given me optimism for the future of the game, something that was quickly sapped whenever I watched the Wallabies play. Yet, I feel like, in some rugby groups, I’m in a minority, as I’ve argued with so many people in support this competition. Fans, former players, administrators, even blokes on our own podcast.

The Toast Rack at the NRC 2017 Launch

The Toast Rack

Player interest in the competition last year experienced a notable drop, and a lot of problems with the NSW teams emerged in terms of management, something we covered on our Dropped Kick-Off podcast.

The truth is, the NRC is, and has always been, somewhat of an afterthought. For a competition that is supposed to create future Wallabies, that mindset severely limits the positive impacts it could have on our game. Frankly, it’s a miracle it has lasted as long as it has: run on a shoestring budget, broadcasting to a rugby public that is as divided on it’s existence as they are on the general running of the game in this country.

But, let’s take a step back for a moment. Before we discuss completely removing it, we need to ask: has the NRC actually fulfilled the role set out at it’s inception?

People forget that before the NRC was introduced, having a third-tier comp had been discussed in Australia for decades. In fact, the discussions were at their strongest in the Nineties and Noughties, with the arrival of professionalism. Gone were the days of the All Blacks incorporating games against Randwick into their tours.  Mindsets were turning to when the likes of George Gregan, Stephen Larkham and John Eales retired from the game. It was a good time to put something in place, as the commercial success of the 2003 World Cup had seen an increase in interest around Super 12, as well as an increase in junior participation in the game.

It was that mindset of growth and expansion that saw the Western Force established in 2006, followed by the NRC’s first iteration in the Australian Rugby Championship, which was scrapped after one year due to losses of $4.7 million (which came from the ARU having to pay the ABC to broadcast it). It was a competition that proved controversial at the time, especially in clubland, but in just it’s one season it brought to the forefront many players who had been excelling in clubland, and who are now part of the Wallabies lineup. Cue, the best ad the ARU ever produced:

Despite it’s failings, the ARC showed the need for a bridge between the professional and semi-professional in the Australian landscape, and it’s a pity it wasn’t given the chance to continue. Unlike the 1980s, this was now a time when the gap between clubland and international rugby had widened, and for players entering from clubland into Super Rugby it was (and is still) a real case of baptism by fire.

When the NRC was introduced in 2014, on paper it seemed like a good idea: it served as a new end point for the club season, while also providing some much needed game time to Super Rugby players and giving them a more established pre-season. More importantly, it allowed club players and Super Rugby players to mix together on a week in, week out basis, and learn off each other. Clubland were again up in arms, arguing that it’s existence wasn’t justified, and that it wasn’t contributing anything the city premier comps couldn’t do themselves.

2018 saw the Fijian Drua take home the Toast Rack, a win that left a bad taste for many rugby fans who questioned if the competition was now even benefiting our players. While I personally still thought that it was, some key issues had begun to emerge with the competition.

Rob Simmons awaits the lineout throw.

Rob Simmons awaits the lineout throw.

What are the problems with it?

We’ve had five years of the competition now, and as the rugby landscape has changed, so has the NRC within it. And in truth, it has become increasingly less and less relevant within it’s role of developing players in Australia.

Let’s start with squads. The NRC traditionally falls in the September to November period of the year, at a time when pre-season for the following year is beginning. In principle, it should help those squads looking for extra talent to fill their ranks and extended playing squads, however often by the time the NRC rolls around, many professional teams have already assembled their squads completely, which effectively negates the reason why players would want to play: if there are few professional contracts on offer, then there isn’t really a transition of talent from clubland to the professional leagues.

Add to that, it doesn’t exactly help that the competition pays it’s players peanuts. This was bought to the forefront in an article on the Roar by an anonymous former NRC player, who claimed that there was no incentive from a career or financial perspective to play for the NSW teams. Why chase the “experience” of playing with Super Rugby players when you can actually earn an actual living going overseas?!

And then there is the fact of engagement, the real achilles heel of this competition. We’ve talked about this a lot on GAGR. It’s something that frustrates me, game after game I see that I’ve got a great game of footy in front of me and hardly anyone is watching it. Granted, we know the reasons why for this: a lack of resources and money within the code to give it the love it needs. Add to that, it’s not easily accessible: it’s on TV you have to pay for, which subtracts substantially the potential size of your audience. But, then again, Fox are the reason why it exists.

The NRC is, with it’s multiple rule changes, a really entertaining product, and has frustrated me no end how often Rugby Australia views the competition as a development pathway, and nothing else. Management wise, they only release the fixtures a month out from the competition starting. Every time I chat to coaches (especially in NSW), they tell me they’ve only had one to two training sessions with their full squad. No wonder they don’t play well. That barely qualifies as preparation. Not only the players, but that lack of preparation also affects the support staff and people off the field, who put a lot of effort into this competition and it’s teams, and who work their arses off to make it work. I admire these guys so much. It’s hard to organise anything this complicated when you have little time to work with it.

So, yes, the NRC is far from perfect. But, I hear you ask: if there are so many problems with the competition, what is the harm in getting rid of it? The answer is, at least to me, quite a lot.

Karmichael Hunt is tackled by Rod Davies

Karmichael Hunt is tackled by Rod Davies

So, what if we were to get rid of it?

As already mentioned, before the start of the NRC, there was a clear issue of a gap in experience between those who played club rugby and those in Super Rugby. In truth, you have to come up against the best to get better. The successful Wallabies teams of the Nineties and Noughties didn’t just waltz in and take their victories. Those players, as Ben Darwin astutely pointed out, played together for many years, developed together, and learnt off each other in a club system like the Shute Shield and Queensland Premier Grade, at the time a smaller step down from international rugby then than it is now.

Cameron raised an interesting point in his article: “considering that Australian NRC talent being concentrated in seven teams (down from nine in 2015) has still resulted in the one foreign team winning the competition, and with further high-quality Pacific Island teams set to be added it’s not really possible for the NRC to continue to exist without substantially diluting the quality of the domestic portion of competition to an amateur level and thus removing its raison d’être.”

This point, initially when I first heard it, fed into my reservations on the NRC. Not diluting the quality of players but growing the amount of talent and depth in the game was the whole point of the competition. Yet, if we want depth, it comes from players and coaches learning off each other as much as possible, and that talent won’t grow overnight. And that means, as a result, you’ll have some players and coaches that will struggle as the competition grows. Having teams based on the current professional franchises isn’t diluting the quality of players (especially when, for example, the QRU have shown regularly that the Brisbane City and Queensland Country outfits often work in tandem with each other), but is focused on building those club guys into the Super Rugby players of five, ten, fifteen years down the track. It’s all about building.

Yes, the Fiji team won last year. We always knew they were going to be a heavyweight team in the NRC (as there are over 80,000 registered players in Fiji alone!). But, what would the development of Samu Kerevi, Ned Hanigan, Jake Gordon, Taniela Tupou, Brendan Paenga-Amosa, Isi Naisarani and Junior Laloifi  have been like if they hadn’t had the chance to play multiple games with and against their Super Rugby counterparts, not to mention against players from the likes of Fiji? It certainly would have affected their transition into Super Rugby players, as a bare minimum.

Clubland have argued that they can fulfil the role of the third tier. Competitions like that are, of course, paramount to rugby’s survival in Australia, and if you don’t have them, you have nothing. Over the last few years, as more and more people have become dissatisfied with the Wallabies, more of them have gravitated towards those competitions. It’s helped as well, for example, with the Shute Shield, that the competition has become more competitive over the last six seasons: gone are the days where it was a three-way race against Sydney University, Randwick and Eastwood; now the likes of Norths, Warringah, Manly and Southern Districts are regularly challenging for the title.

Michael Ruru

Michael Ruru

This has not happened in isolation either. In the Queensland Premier Grade, there has been six different winners in the past nine years. In the WA Premier Grade, there’s been five winners in the past ten years. The notable exceptions are the ACT (where championships have been shared between Tuggeranong and the Canberra Royals since 2011) and in Victoria (where championships have been shared between Melbourne and Harlequins since 2013).

Regardless, the increased competitiveness of club rugby competitions nationwide hasn’t come from nothing, and it sure as hell doesn’t suggest to me that player depth is being diluted, especially when fans are taking enjoyment in the quality of rugby being played. If a third tier competition like the NRC didn’t exist, would those club players have had the chance to play with their Super Rugby counterparts, especially when both seasons are running simultaneously? Yes, maybe a few come the end of the season, but is that enough?

If the third tier was removed, with it would be the bridge between semi-professional and professional, and the opportunity for those players to play together, week in, week out. As great as the work that club competitions do to grow great players (I mean, every player I’ve mentioned has come up our club system), when those club players are selected in Super Rugby, they will be coming up against against players and clubs from South Africa and New Zealand who have played in established third tier competitions, with Super Rugby players.

Let’s break this down to a more localised level, and examine one player as an example: Brendan Paenga-Amosa. Starting his career playing in Southern Districts in 2013, BPA first came to prominence when we was selected in the Greater Sydney Rams in 2016, where he scored six tries and was the best hooker of the tournament, especially when playing alongside the likes of Hugh Roach, Jack Payne and Will Skelton. While a professional contract alluded him, in 2017 he went back to Southern Districts, and it was clear something had changed compared to previous years. His influence made their scrum one of the strongest in the competition, leading to them finishing in 2nd in the regular season, their best regular season in over a decade (it is interesting to note a lot of the SD outfit also played together for the Rams). With change going on at the Rams in 2018 and them moving to Eastwood, BPA went to NSW Country Eagles, had another blinder of season scoring five tries, picked up a contract with the Reds, and the following year, debuted for the Wallabies.

Rams 1

BPA and the Rams with the Horan-Little Shield

For me, club land is the very engine room of Aussie rugby, and the likes of BPA wouldn’t have had the successes they’ve had without going through the likes of the NSW, Queensland and other states club systems. However, you’d be mad to not think that clubland’s improvement in quality over the last five years, to some extent, come from the introduction of a third tier competition like the NRC. It’s a two way street, and both competitions benefit from it with better quality players.

It does say a lot that when we sat down to pick our squads for the World Cup, there were multiple options available in many positions. When you create a team with the intention of them growing their own talent, you realistically won’t start to see it’s success until up to ten years down the line. Look at the Force: after being in existence over a decade, more than half the team had come up through the WA rugby system. They had fostered so much support, that when they were cut folks refused to take it lying down, and set up their own competition!

When people argue the point that we don’t need a third tier, especially when they say “let’s kill the NRC and put all the money into funding grassroots”, I groan for so many reasons, and not only for the reasons listed above. The NRC, for one, is a cost-neutral competition for Rugby Australia because Fox Sports foots the bill, which is the reason why it has lasted so long compared to it’s predecessor, the ARC. So, if you got rid of the competition, would the money Fox Sports provided to the competition go to grassroots? Odds are, probably not, it’s Fox’s money, and they choose what to do with it. If money from Fox went anywhere, it would probably go to Rugby Australia. Enough said.

The NRC isn’t perfect. But over the last five years, what it has shown, at least to me, is that there needs to be some sort of third tier in this country. I’ve barely even gone through the benefits it has provided, from the coaches like Simon Cron, Tim Sampson and Brad Thorn, to referees like Amy Perrett. If we did get rid of it without thinking about the consequences, and put nothing in it’s place, will those great club players have the chance to grow alongside their Super Rugby counterparts? Or would they instead resort to going overseas to make a living after years of being ignored for a professional contract, and reaching their full potential outside of our rugby system?

Taler Adams lays down the law

Taler Adams lays down the law

What are our options?

So, what are our options? Maintain the NRC? Rip it up and start again?

Regardless, for me, there is only one choice: we need to create a third tier that actually gives players a chance to progress, is more integrated with the Super Rugby franchises, that fuels our clubland systems, and instead of being treated like an afterthought, instead be treated as a important cog in the growth of future Wallabies. It’s time for a clear line to be defined in terms of where club competitions end and third tier begins, and how that transitions into Super Rugby.

So, should that third tier be something new, or be filled by the current NRC? Honestly, that’s a tough question. In states like NSW, the NRC clearly has it’s work cut out when it comes to winning folks over and being more defined within the Aussie rugby system.

For context, let’s look at our Southern Hemisphere counterparts. The Mitre 10 Cup in New Zealand has 14 teams, with each team serving as a primary feeder to their respective Super Rugby province. If you aspire to be an All Black, you have to get into those clubs, then into Super Rugby. By comparison, with the Currie Cup in South Africa and the 14 teams there, it gets a bit more complicated. There are clubs directly connected with their Super Rugby / Pro 14 teams, such as Free State Cheetahs, the Eastern Province Kings, the Blue Bulls, the Golden Lions, the Sharks and Western Province. But, in addition, you also have other clubs that, like in New Zealand, are defined as feeder teams to their respective province.

Those third tier competitions have a defined line. So, whether we do keep the NRC or restart with a new third tier, we need to rethink our approach to the competition and where it fits.

To start, we need to focus on that Super Rugby integration, because if we want the best players to play in our third tier, give them something to play for. What if, for example, our four Super Rugby teams and the Western Force left five places open in their squad or extended playing squad? That’s 25 professional contracts up for grabs. The QRU have dabbled with this in the past when they had the Ballymore Kid back in 2015. Not only would it encourage competition for spaces (something we need in Aussie rugby, especially in key positions like flyhalf), but it will also maintain the transfer of information from the professional to club level.

Quade Cooper Kicks

Quade Cooper Kicks

Going off that integration, this can extend to a marketing level too.  Remember how when Karmichael Hunt was signed to the Tahs, he was also allocated a Shute Shield club in Gordon? Include an NRC or third tier team in that allocation announcement. Release the draw a few months earlier, at the halfway point of the Super Rugby season, to give the teams time to prepare. Or, for every fan who get’s a membership with, for example, the Waratahs, why not chuck in an NRC membership as well? Doing something like that sends a message about where this third tier fits in our rugby system.

When it comes to advertising and marketing, Aussie rugby isn’t benefited by the likes of having much in the way of resources to support competitions like a third tier. However, we live in a time where a smart marketing plan can get you a long way. Advertising for this competition needs to be focused, clinical and cunning, and aimed at specific audiences like exisiting rugby demographics.

When we chatted to the SRU’s President David Begg last year on our podcast, he talked a lot about building bridges with governing bodies like RA, and that there would be more of an effort to have a gap between the end of the Shute Shield and the start of the NRC. In addition, he went out of his way to announce that NSW Rugby and Rugby Australia were providing support to the Shute Shield at their season launch this year, which does suggest some much-needed unity off the field.

And what about game days? How do you get families to these games? The best games I have been to in the NRC have been ones where the footy is not the only part of the day. Games at Concord Stadium with food stands, music, jumping castles, family events, a carnival atmosphere… there is a reason why those games get great numbers! It also worked in WA. The Force provided free admittance, put on food trucks, jumping castles, free rugby clinics, and low and behold, 5,000 came and filled the hill to watch the Force defeat the Country-Eagles last year. Seeing your heroes can also be a crowd pleaser, Brisbane City also attracted great numbers last year with the likes of Quade Cooper in their squad (4,500 turned up to their game against the Force at Norths Rugby Club).

But then again, this is just going into hypothetical ideas about how to make a third tier work. But really, with us now in June (and realistically only a few months out from whenever the season will start), there needs to be something. Despite the issues raised, I still feel that the NRC has a lot of legs in it, and can do a lot of good, if it is given the right resources in the right places to help the game both above in Super Rugby, and below in clubland.  My greatest fear is that, at some point this year, the governing bodies may decide the NRC should be cut without thinking about what could be lost. I hope I am proven wrong on that front.

Clive Berghofer Stadium

Clive Berghofer Stadium

Whatever we do decide, regardless of it’s failings, the NRC has shown the merit of having a third tier in Australian rugby, and whether it survives or not, expanding on that third tier to compliment what we have is something we need to do if our game is to grow going forward. And I do know that I’m not the only one who thinks that. 

  • Hannes En Brianda Barnard

    I share your fear that RA will just cut the NRC and to continue the centralisation of anything rugby around a narrow strip on the East Coast. RA had already threaten to cut WA out of the NRC when they axed the Force, so I would not be surprised if that happens. That is why it is important for the WA and other neglected parts of Australia to align with Global Rapid Rugby and a second Australian team to join the competition so that there is an alternative competition to those run by a narrow minded RA.

    • Kiwi rugby lover

      The trouble I find with this competition is that I think the rules are too different and it won’t find a pathway to Super or international rugby. I watched a game and didn’t enjoy it at all to me it may as well have been a hybrid league or AFL game for all the relevance it has to rugby. I’ve seen nothing to indicate that World Rugby is considering the rules so I’d rather see a closer alignment with the WR laws of the game myself.

      • Hannes En Brianda Barnard

        I enjoyed the game with the almost 12,500 other spectators at the stadium – the whole package with entertainment just makes sense. The new “rules” lead to less scrum resets, less line-outs, less kicking for territory, the ball is more in play and there are less opportunities to slow the game down. It rewards the team that control the ball and wants to play.
        If rugby wants to make inroads into AFL markets and Asia we need a to game that is more entertaining to watch. The kicking for territory kind of game and hoping the other team give away a penalty , e.g. Rebels vs Tahs, just do not cut it. Rugby must reward the team that is prepared to take risk and play enterprising rugby.
        I also do not think GRR should aim to be to a major development pathway to Superugby or Test rugby. If GRR can develop skillful, fit and enterprising players and attract a loyal following in its markets that would be sufficient. Why would you want to develop players for a stale and dated competition like Superugby?

        • Kiwi rugby lover

          Mate if GRR wants to go down an isolationist path like this then that’s fine. However if it does it needs to not be part of the plan for a link between The Clubs and International rugby as it can’t fulfil both of these paths.

        • Hannes En Brianda Barnard

          It can fulfil the path between clubs and international rugby without going through Superugby.
          Superugby is a tired and declining competition that served the SH and especially NZ well for years. Those days are numbered as spectators, viewers and broadcasting revenue are declining. South Africa has been declining economic and rugby power that is unable to hold on to their best 60 players. In NZ and Australia it is not yet as desperate yet, but the trend is clear that the lure of the Wallaby and All Black jumper will not be enough to resist the temptation of better pay packages in the NH.

        • Kiwi rugby lover

          Mate you’re dreaming. So a competition against minnows with rules that are vastly different and no ability to bring them together is going to be a link. Players will need to go from one set of rules to another and back again. They’ll not have any experience of playing against the level of players they’ll meet at international level and due to the rules difference won’t play the same tactics or game plan. It’ll be a worse disaster than anything there is now

        • Hannes En Brianda Barnard

          I would not be surprised is the quality of GRR and Superugby are comparable within a few years as South Africa/Aus and to a lesser extend NZ struggles to hold on to their best players while GRR have an open cheque book without salary caps to attract experienced marque players and develop local players. The GRR competition of today can only become better, while Superugby is following a trend and is not the competition it used to be.

  • The Red Kangaroo.

    I think Rugby Australia needs to strip the NRC back and play Super Rugby Sides in the competition ie Reds, Tahs, Brumbies, Rebels, Force, Fiji and Samoa. The Force play in both GRR and NRC, Rugby Australia could look to add teams into GRR and have them play NRC as well. NRC could become a GRR and Super Rugby cross over with extra teams to be added on the east coast.

    • Kiwi rugby lover

      I think a hybrid comp with that and players from the clubs is a good idea. However the timing would be critical as that appears to be a real issue in NSW

      • The Red Kangaroo.

        Yea NSW seems to be the issue with the NRC. I am from Queensland and last year I was more interested in watching a Brisbane team with QC than first grade of my own club.

    • Nicholas Wasiliev

      GRR is in an interesting situation here. I’ve been interested in what’s been going on over there but I think I need to see a full regular season of GRR, which I know they’re planning, before we talk about merging. The showcases have shown to me there is legs in the idea, probably much more than a lot of folks gave it credit for.

      I will say that I have enjoyed the rule changes in the NRC more than GRR so far, but maybe cause I’m stuck in my ways a bit. I feel like we should persist with the format of the NRC currently, as mentioned in the article, but hey, merges with GRR isn’t looking like a bad idea. I definitely agree we need another Aussie team along with the Force. If they were to revive the Rams in western Sydney, I’d already know those running GRR would have their heads screwed on more than what SANZAAR looks like right now.

      • paul

        But there is thing called compromise when it comes to law changes, the advantage GRR has is potential private investment, once that flows in all bets are off.

        The issue with super rugby is it is run by internal vested interests so nothing changes and we end up with the current Bus Crash.

        I thought it was interesting an article in the Australian yesterday with the WA rugby chief. All very speculative, but maybe a hint at a possible future.

      • The Red Kangaroo.

        Yea I agree, I am counting my eggs before they hatch. A Western Sydney team in Rapid rugby and NRC would be a great start. Great article and thanks for the response.

      • Gregory Parkes-Skell

        A trial run for how it might work could be evolving the NRC into a bridging structure between SR and GRR. Take the 4 Aus SR teams and include the top 4 GRR teams from every season.

        Play it under GRR laws. Could be a proving ground.

        • We need to keep it as another step on the way to Super Rugby and Wallaby selection. So sure, if necessary follow the Kiwi NC example. I.E. Auckland splits into Auckland and North Harbour. Why not the Warathas split into Sydney and North Harbour. We need to restore a tribal challenge.

    • Who?

      How does that increase player depth?
      Why should unions other than the NSWRU throw away their years of investment in non-Super teams?
      It’s no cheaper – we’re suddenly flying to Samoa, instead of driving across Sydney or Brisbane.

    • Hannes En Brianda Barnard

      I am concerned that if GRR is expanded to NRC that the same people that is running the stale Superugby competition (RA) will mess up GRR. Twiggy is on to something – maybe we should give it time to develop. WE definitely need a team in the Eastern States in GRR but please keep the RA far way from them.

  • Kiwi rugby lover

    Thanks Nick, that’s a well written article. I think the a layer between clubs and Super rugby is critical. It’s telling how QC has mentioned this step up a couple of times. I think with the tribalism that is so prevalent in Australian Rugby the final solution may need to be something that is a little bit different.

    A feeder system where each Super franchise had 2 or 3 teams under them and each of these in turn were fed by 2 or 3 clubs won’t work anywhere except NSW so it needs some sort of hybrid system where players from the Super team play with players from clubs in a seperate competition.

    Not sure of the answer but I agree this is critical for ongoing development here

    • Nicholas Wasiliev

      Cheers mate. For me, this is a critical part of the dialogue around the game in Australia, and I wish there was a magic bullet solution.

      On your idea of a hybrid solution, I don’t think that’s a bad idea. For example, outside of QLD or NSW, if for instance in Victoria, the Rebels were the Rebels across Super Rugby and the NRC, it might draw more of a ground because the Rebels are a more established brand than the Melbourne Rising. The Force pulled a decent crowd, both at home and away from home, so there might be something in that.

      In QLD and NSW though, it gets more complicated. QLD have shown that having two teams both managed closely by the governing body can work, in crowd numbers and results. While it hasn’t led to improved success for the Reds yet at Super level, Thorn has his team are showing potential. NSW is just a shitshow, the Country Eagles do well but the Rays have a tough gig. The idea of tribalism could work though, when the Rays and Rams represented clear different parts of the city they pulled better crowds.

      Both the Mitre 10 Cup in NZ and Currie Cup in SA run at a loss for their governing bodies, but it’s critical for producing talent so it’s worth the financial pain. I hope RA don’t just cut it, that would be a critical loss for the game as a whole.

      • Kiwi rugby lover

        I think NZ measure success a bit differently too. The coach of the U20’s is measured against his conversion rate of players into Super teams more than his win/loss and NZRFU use a similar measure for the success of the Mitre 10 comp. Makes sense really

  • RobC

    Thanks for the essay Nick. The main issue I have is its nomenclature. We shouldn’t call it the third their

    It should be a our national competition, and build it to become our most important comp. We do that, everything else will be right.

  • Charcoal

    I agree that it’s a big step-up from what is essentially an amateur competition in the respective Premier Club competitions where they train for two nights a week, to a fully professional Super Rugby competition. There clearly needs to be a bridge between the two such as the NRC, or call it what you will. In saying that, I’m not denigrating the standard of club football, which I consider to be very high, having regard to their limited resources. It’s neither affordable nor practicable to have fully professional teams in clubland with so many teams from each State or Territory. It’s certainly not in the interest of Australian Rugby as a whole to just focus on NSW and Qld.

    Speaking in the NSW context with which I’m most familiar, there has clearly been a resurgence in support of the Shute Shield competition and it’s all based on tribalism. I’m a regular attendee at both home and away games for my local club and to be honest I can’t be bothered watching Super Rugby matches anymore, particularly against sides from South Africa, Japan or Argentina. I’m sure that there are a lot of others like me.

    The major difference between the NRC and the domestic competitions in NZ and SA is that in the latter cases, they start their respective competitions much earlier, running in tandem with their local club competitions. That’s not the case with the NRC, which starts at the conclusion of Premier club competitions, which doesn’t leave much time for the NRC teams in NSW and Qld in particular to train together as a squad. There needs to be an acknowledgement that Australia has different longstanding structures to NZ and SA and it would be a mistake to change them other than enhancing them. However, I can’t see the Sydney and Brisbane Premier clubs agreeing to an earlier start to the NRC and losing their best players, so there has to be a compromise to work around that. The one city teams also have an advantage in that they have a much higher proportion of contracted fully professional Super Rugby players compared with NSW and Qld where they are split between their respective multiple teams.

    From a NSW perspective, I would like to see a continuation of the NRC, but starting later after the Shute Shield Grand Final. I would also like to see the Shute Shield competition start earlier in the year from the beginning of March, with a full home and away draw and finals over 26 weeks, concluding with the Grand Final at the end of August. I realise that this may affect some clubs in March because of the unavailability of their home grounds at the tail end of the cricket season, but surely this could be worked around by scheduling their early games away, or negotiating some alternative arrangements. The NRC would start 2 or 3 weeks later after the Grand Finals, giving more time for the NRC squads to train and gel together and bring club players up to speed.

    Outside of the one city teams in the NRC, there has been a failure to engender any sort of tribalism in the NSW and Qld teams, which is essential to enable the NRC to prosper. Again, speaking from the NSW perspective, the make-up of the teams bears little resemblance to the respective regions that they are supposed to represent. With players split between City and Country teams, when most are city based anyway, what’s the point of it? I mean no disrespect to Country supporters, but the overwhelming bulk of talent, including those originating from the Country, is playing for the city based teams.

    The original ARC was much closer to getting it right, when the NSW teams were based on the Northern, South/Eastern and Western regions of Sydney, with the respective Shute Shield clubs being evenly split as feeders into each regional team. In spite of some anomalies, such as the Northern team being based at Gosford and the South/Eastern team being based at North Sydney, it still attracted significant crowds. With further tweaking, it could have progressed further. Alas, in my view, it was prematurely cancelled.

    The success of any future third tier competition such as the NRC in Australia will greatly depend on the preparedness of NSW and Qld to fully embrace it. I can’t speak for Qld, but in NSW they have been found wanting. It’s little wonder that talented and experienced Shute Shield players who have done the hard yards through the grade competition from colts feel disillusioned when younger players of lesser ability are selected to the NSW NRC teams from 2nd Grade and colts. It’s farcical. Where’s the incentive in that?

    The only way the NRC will prosper is if NSW changes its team structures for the NRC to reflect the tribalism in each of its respective regions, which I suggest is North, South and West. Shute Shield clubs in each region should act as feeders with no crossovers outside the region. That would encourage supporters of the respective clubs to follow their representatives in their local regional team. At the moment, it’s a dog’s breakfast as far as trying to work out which team to follow when their club players are spread across multiple teams.

    Finally, the NRC should be a solely based Australian competition. As much as I regret to say it, there is no place for an overseas team such as the Fijian Drua. Australian Rugby’s responsibility is to foster its own, otherwise what is the point of an NRC competition?

    • Patrick

      Agree on all that except the Drua – think that the view you and others refer to, about benefiting Australian players, is firmly on the wrong end of the stick.

      First, one of the direct benefits for developing Australian players is exposing them to better opposition which to my mind includes Islander teams.

      Second, the potential TKs and Super Sefas of this world, both those born here and those in Fiji, etc., are all going to be perhaps just that little bit more excited by seeing Fijian and even other Islander teams, and this can also only benefit Australian rugby.

      • Charcoal

        Sorry, don’t agree. RA’s responsibility is to provide pathways for local players, which includes those of Pacific Islander heritage born here. There’s no place for an overseas based team in a domestic competition wherever it comes from.

      • Huw Tindall

        Didn’t World Rugby also bank roll the Drua or something? Pretty sure that’s the only reason they could literally afford to be in the comp. Clearly travel costs for them are a big deal and the gate takings in Suva don’t get you a latte in Lygon street.

    • Who?

      Given you’re speaking from an NSW perspective, you’re completely wrong on the Qld situation, the tribalism, the supposed lack of connection to regions that they represent. The QRU has always mandated – and continues to mandate – that players from Brisbane play for Brisbane, and players from the Country play for Country, except where one team or the other has an oversupply of QRU contracted players. For instance, if all the QRU’s contracted hookers were from Brisbane, then they’d be split between the teams.
      Country also has a history of taking development players with them from regional clubs. Guys who were in the Country Heelers program.
      Qld Country is based – officially – on the Gold Coast. At the QRU AGM where the NRC was first discussed, it was widely questioned as to how appropriate that might be, given it’s considered by many to be anything other than country. However, the GCDRU was ALWAYS part of the QCRU, and it was representatives from Mt Isa who stood up and defended the GC as part of Country’s constituency.
      The issues with NSW’s NRC teams are all down to the lack of vision and incompetence of the ARU, NSWRU and SRU in how it was set up. I agree that the ARC concept was better in NSW, being regional. It’s only logical – NRC should be a contracted, selective rep side. You look to get called up to your regional team.
      The other issue to question is the full 26 round home and away Shute Shield. That’s a lot of Rugby, there’s no room in the calendar – or juice left in the tank, especially for amateurs – to fit that, let alone 26 rounds, finals, AND NRC.

  • Huw Tindall

    Top work Nick and thanks as always. Such an important topic and crucial to getting things right in Australian rugby.

    If NSW had taken the Queensland approach and fielded two largely coordinated teams and met with similar success (half decent crowds and performances) do you think the same doubts would surround the tournament? To me it feels like this is a major sticking point which needs resolving before worrying about putting some actual $$ into the marketing etc.

    • Nicholas Wasiliev

      Hi Huw, a fair question.

      I would like to think no, but then again Shute Shield Rugby supporters are a stubborn bunch. You are definitely right that this is a major sticking point: because NSW provides so many players, the fact that they have a complicated relationship with the NRC only adds to the narrative of how and where it would fit in Aussie Rugby.

      When putting this article together, I threw up a hypothetical: if it was the case that all NRC teams were doing well on and off the field and there was a clear progression of talent to higher levels, would we be still having this conversation? I’d say no. A lot of the complaints around the NRC come from NSW, and in fairness, the Shute Shield has been a much more organised and successful product the last five years compared to the NRC in Sydney.

      I think success in NSW at NRC level could change that attitude though. The lack of NSW NRC success only feeds into the narrative that the competition doesn’t work, despite the fact it is working everywhere else. On top of success on the field, NSW Rugby should also start to put more definition as to what the teams represent.

      In a perfect world, here’s what I would do. The Country Eagles have done a good job, but the Rays need to be rejigged, because Sydney, at a national level, has a much bigger impact on our game than to warrant one team. I for one would, for instance, bring the Rams back and you’d have the Rays representing the traditional white collar heartland of the Eastern Suburbs and Northern Beaches, vs the working class regions west of the ANZAC bridge. There is enough talent for three teams in NSW; in 2016 NSW Country and the Rays finished 1st and 2nd in the regular season, and the Rams fell only three points outside finals contention. With proper preparation, those teams can be legitimate threats.

      • Charcoal

        Sorry, I don’t agree. Why is everyone ignoring the bleedingly obvious solution to the NSW teams makeup for the NRC? It should be based on representative teams from Northern, South/Eastern and Western Sydney, with the Shute Shield clubs acting as feeders into their respective regions. That’s the only way to engender any form of tribalism which would encourage club supporters to follow their representative players in their respective regions. Based on the current Shute Shield teams, the Northern Regional team should consist as feeders from Norths, Gordon, Manly and Warringah; the South/Eastern team from Eastern Suburbs, Randwick, Sydney University and Southern Districts and the Western Sydney team from West Harbour, Eastwood and Parramatta (Western Sydney Two Blues). Another Western Sydney team, whether it be a reinstated Penrith or some other such as Campbelltown, should be included as a feeder to that team.

        There’s no way you would encourage any support for an Eastern Sydney team based on a combination of teams from north and south of the harbour. There’s a longstanding antipathy. You may not be old enough to appreciate that in another era, there were annual representative North Harbour v South Harbour matches played at North Sydney Oval which were fiercely contested before a packed out house, as well as being televised on ABC TV. The Shute Shield clubs at the time provided players to their respective representative teams north and south of the harbour. It provided a pathway for selection to the NSW team. I can see no reason why this concept shouldn’t be continued in the NRC with the addition of a Sydney representative team from the west, ala the Rams.

        • Who?

          You know the real problem? There’s more passion in this debate here than there was in any of the planning. I think that any of these ideas could’ve worked, provided that there was direction from the NSWRU and buy in from the SRU. The Shute Shield clubs seem to consider themselves the only thing that matters below the Tahs, forgetting the history of North vs South, of the Sydney rep teams. They couldn’t ever consider something that might replace those supposedly antiquated representative team concepts and provide opportunities for players to develop beyond what they already provide.
          Some history and some planning could’ve tapped into that sort of passionate debate, and turned the NSW NRC teams into the powerhouses they should be. Instead, the NRC’s success for NSW Teams is best described in terms of BPA making the Reds and Simone making the Brumbies. Shute Shield players finding new opportunities to grow, shine and then move into professional ranks.

        • Nicholas Wasiliev

          Fair points, and I do agree with a lot of what you say. Having more tribal teams based off Shute Shield clubs is a good idea. There is also more evidence to support that this would be a more successful model, the Rays got much better crowds as North Harbour in the first two seasons of the NRC than they have had as the Sydney Rays. I do think it is a great idea to have a north, south and western team. Frankly, when there were four NSW teams in the NRC they should have coordinated it in Sydney like how you suggested, it would have done so much better.

          However, if you are proposing that and getting rid of the Country Eagles as a result, then I’d have to disagree, for a few reasons. Firstly, representation of many passionate country rugby teams at a national level doesn’t come along in many competitions, especially not here in Australia; and that has shown through in the fact that NSW Country often get better support than the Rays do when they travel out bush. Following them take most of their games regionally in 2014, I’ve noticed that a lot more competitions are taking games out to regional centres because they’ve seen the demand for it, such as the NRL, Super Rugby trials and the Shute Shield itself.

          Secondly, players. Yes, that NSW Country outfit has a lot of city players, but I view that as a fault of the current system and the struggle of defining these teams properly in NSW, and the fact that nobody bloody knows which team to go to. I mean, in their last year, the Rams has as many country players as NSW Country did. That feeds into the lack of identity around the teams that the NSW teams have struggled with in the past. There are a lot of Country players and coaches, playing both in the Shute Shield and in the Waratahs, and there is certainly enough to warrant an NRC team.

          On a more personal level, I grew up in the country, so Country Rugby is something I have a real soft spot for. The North vs South was something very much before my time, I won’t be afraid to admit it. And honestly, I wish I could have had the chance to see that. But when I was growing up, I never got to go to Shute Shield games, and I never got into it as a result. There was nothing there that represented where I was from. Even when the ARC started and we were getting passes to watch Western Sydney Rams games, all my team were asking: we’re not from Western Sydney, why should we support this team? I got into the Rugby from the teams that came out to my school, which was why I now follow the Brumbies, not the Tahs. And I didn’t get into the Shute Shield until I moved to Sydney, and it was more accessible for me.

          Obviously, these are just my own personal experiences, but how many country kids would be inspired to take up Rugby if they had a team representing them and coming out to their town and playing on their local field? That’s something great. With a North, south and West team you could potentially take one game a season out bush like the Shute Shield does, but it doesn’t have quite the same ring as having a team of boys from the country, playing in the country.

          The Shute Shield is a great comp and pulls in a lot of players from many backgrounds. Correct me, but I think the key point of difference is the fact that we don’t know what to do with the Rays. Having a Western Sydney team was invaluable as it connected with the islander community out there, which was why it sucks they got the boot. The only solution would be to split the Rays into North and South, but would there be enough talent for them to be competitive??

        • Charcoal

          Thanks Nick for your considered response.

          I do appreciate your sentiments with regard to having the NSW Country Eagles as part of the NRC, but this is exactly where the team structure in NSW has failed. The reality is that most if not all talented players originating from the bush come to Sydney to play for Shute Shield clubs and get noticed. Just look at how many former Country players have been recruited by Sydney University and their results in both Grade and Colts over the last couple of decades speak for themselves.

          It’s not like the old days when there was a representative structure providing clear pathways from club to regional teams, eg North Harbour v South Harbour in Sydney and the Country inter- region competition, culminating in the annual City v Country matches, which were also widely supported. It was a simple progression leading to selection in the NSW State team, then the interstate matches between NSW and Qld, culminating in Wallaby selection.

          The City v Country matches lost their relevance, as they also did in League, when the Country teams were no longer competitive, because their best players were recruited by city clubs. It unfortunately is the same across all codes of sport, but that’s the modern day sporting environment we now live in. Unless a Country based team is able to be competitive with players actually currently from local Country clubs, then regrettably, I can’t see any point in it.

          An alternative structure is for teams to be strictly based on City or Country origin, but that could only work if there are two teams (in NSW), which is partly applicable although not completely, in the current NRC structure. However, I have my doubts if this is the best outcome.

          One of the major problems with the NSW Country Eagles is that although it is supposed to represent “Country”, its major feeders, and I use the term loosely, are Eastern Suburbs, Randwick and Sydney University, with a sprinkling of players from across other Shute Shield clubs, which is in reality a Sydney South Harbour team. Yet most of their home games are played outside Sydney, so what incentive is there for the supporters of the so called feeder clubs to follow them. It’s a “Country” team in name only, which satisfies no one.

          A compromise, which you have already alluded to, is for the Sydney based NRC teams, which I suggest should be split into three regions, should play one home game in a country regional centre, just as some Shute Shield clubs already do, with great support from the respective local communities. Let’s not forget that the televised Shute Shield matches have a big following in country NSW. All of the Shute Shield and potential NSW NRC teams would and have a broad representation of players originating from the Country, which would increase their exposure to their local communities with games in NSW regional centres.

          I believe that because of its larger population, NSW (Sydney) warrants three teams in the NRC, based on Northern, South/Eastern and Western Sydney with the respective Shute Shield clubs in each region acting as feeders. It’s not that hard and would enhance the tribalism which the NSW teams currently lack.

          I can see no reason why NSW Rugby would not embrace this concept, as it doesn’t threaten the integrity of the Shute Shield competition, provided there is an adequate break after the SS Grand Final, as well as other Premier Club competitions, to the beginning of the NRC. They are complementary, not in competition with each other. I’d suggest two weeks to give adequate time for players involved in Grand Finals to train and gel with their respective NRC teams, even if that means the competition finishes later. The other major issue is to increase the remuneration for NRC players, which I acknowledge won’t be easy in the light of RA’s financial position. Nonetheless, it’s an issue which has to be addressed if they want the NRC to be successful. Otherwise, talented players will continue to shun the NRC, as they do now, and head off overseas where they can earn more.

          Just BTW, a Western Sydney Rams team shouldn’t just be focused on the Pacific Islander community, as they only represent a minority of the population in Western Sydney. There’s a much bigger market out there to exploit, as the NRL and AFL have demonstrated. Eastwood as a past feeder club to the Rams, is expanding its catchment to the fast growing North Western region of Sydney where there will be a potential market for Rugby recruits. The Western Sydney Two Blues (Parramatta) and any future Western team are in a similar situation, where they need to expand their recruitment beyond just focusing on the PI community.

  • LBJ

    Thanks for the article, I applaud your dedication and commitment…but with the greatest of respect, I largely disagree with your perspective – I view it as whiteboard management (no coach ever lost a game on the whiteboard, but that’s not how it plays out).

    From a Sydney perspective, the NRC (and the ARC before it) has been enormously damaging and unhelpful – SS clubs are forced to cut the season short, and then pay $ to participate in a competition they don’t want. For this and many reasons, the suggestion that the NRC (and by extension ARU) should be given actual CREDIT for helping the slow recovery of club rugby, is really astonishing – and not well received (It reminds me of Tony Abbot claiming credit for success in changing the same-sex marriage laws – he actually did that!).

    Regardless of the reasons and whether anyone agrees with them – the Sydney rugby community has responded – there is now ZERO appetite for the NRC. With no promotion or support from the ARU, there will be 20k + again at the final of the SS (depending on who’s playing), and the next week’s NRC will be lucky to have 500.

    Fox wont (and shouldn’t – from their commercial perspective) pay for a rugby product that doesn’t have a Sydney audience. Fox have already signalled their intent by saying they are cutting back on funding ‘marginal sports’. Wallabies and Super rugby will be lucky to get anything, NRC has no chance.

    Yet another challenge for the ARU is that without a national footprint, they lose precious federal funding – they introduced the NRC to solve that problem, so they could cut the Force and keep claiming a national footprint – that decision blew up in their face, and now they face further humiliation when they will be forced to shut down the NRC (again). The ARU really do have the ‘sadiM Touch’.

    For what it’s worth, I don’t think the rugby community has agreement on where we want to go collectively, and its impossible to agree on a solution when you can’t agree on the problem. Further, there is no faith in the governing body’s ability to solve it – they are not bad people, just not able to do the job. My view is that there is an irreconcilable conflict of interest where the ARU is responsible for the best interests of all the players and supporters of the game, AND, for making money from the game. This creates a conflict because they are incentivised to only support competitions and players that directly contribute to their income. So success in Rapid Rugby and/ or Shute Shield, is against their commercial interest = conflict. only a change in governance structure can solve for this (it wont happen).

    In Sydney, we’ve stopped looking to them to do what needs to be done. There is enormous support for Rugby here in Sydney, I’m hoping the SS can continue to grow into its potential, and that can only be achieved if the ARU stays well away.

  • LBJ

    Thanks for the Article, but this is all academic, the NRC died when Fox announced they are cutting funding of ‘marginal sports’. Wallabies and Super rugby will be lucky to get anything, NRC has no chance.

    Fox wont (and shouldn’t – from their commercial perspective) pay for a rugby product that doesn’t have a Sydney audience. And regardless of the reasons and whether anyone agrees with them – the Sydney rugby community has decided – there is ZERO appetite for the NRC.

    With no promotion or support from the ARU, there will be 20k + again at the 2019 SS final (+/- depending on who’s playing), and the next week’s NRC will be lucky to have 500 (despite marketing and media effort).

    This will create the next challenge for RA – the team with the ‘sadiM Touch’ – how will they claim federal funding without a national footprint? Can’t wait to see what new inventive ways they come up with to screw that one up…

    My view is that there is an irreconcilable conflict of interest where the ARU is responsible for the best interests of all the players and supporters and clubs in the game, AND, for making money for the professionals in the game. They are incentivised to only support competitions and players that directly contribute to their income. Therefore success in Rapid Rugby and/ or Shute Shield, is against their commercial interest = no support = irreconcilable conflict.

    Only a fundamental change in governance structure can solve for this. However there is no-one in Aussie Rugby capable of advocating for dissemination of control and power. They are all about empire building and feathering of the nest.

  • Paul Rigby

    Super rugby is on the Decline.. there is no reason that that will stop. Australians want a National competition. We are a professional sport. We need spectators and we want to encourage tribalism. We need to build from our strengths which are the Sydney and Brisbane competitions. We need to align these NRC teams strictly with those clubs or combination of clubs and run others as rep teams of Perth and Country Origin. Our sport is receding back to amateurism in this country. In the future to be a professional you will need to go overseas. If we want to arrest this and try to bring back to professionalism we need to change the rules so we are in play more often and the players are more athletic. See Western Force rules. You now say they have no trouble growing in the Northern hemisphere. Well I say we have a more competitively advanced winter football sports environment and we have to get back in the game.

  • Agree with the idea of and behind the NRC. To me though, we should have one team per area. Not two as is the case with Sydney. Have Sydney play in their traditional strip and bring back the glory days of Sydney. (Remember they used to beat touring teams and did beat The ABS [if I recall there was one big win] and Wales).
    Teams: Sydney; NSW Country; Brisbane; QLD Country; Canberra; Melbourne; Western Force and Fiji (probably).
    It can be, as has been shown, a big step to Super Rugby.

National Rugby Championship

Die-hard Brumbies/Country Eagles fan now based in Sydney. Author, anthropologist, musician, second rower. Still trying to make sense of the 21st century. About to drop a book...

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