It’s the hottest day in the history of Sydney and Greg Harris, the CEO of RUPA, is talking me through his organisation’s proposals for the evolution of Australian rugby outside a cafe in Surry Hills.
It’s not just Greg’s F- and even C-bombs (refreshing after 20 years of business in the UK) that have got my attention in this crushing heat, but also the vision that he unfolds over an hour. He readily admits it’s not a panacea and that it will have its points of friction among stakeholders. But it’s a different take on an intractable challenge — for which, if there were an easy answer that wouldn’t piss someone off or send them broke, would have surely been solved by now.
In the week following that meeting, Wayne Smith wrote a piece in The Australian (paywalled, but republished here by FoxSports) about the proposal and since then there’s been a heap of chatter over it — not least six pages of it or more in our own G&GR forum.
Now, the original proposal is necessarily pretty chunky and therefore not easy to condense into a readable print article, so I thought it’d be worthwhile clearing up a few key misconceptions that I’d spotted around the place compared to what I’d heard from Greg as he perspired over his flat white.
The new third tier is a new uni-based rugby comp.
Not true. The proposal is that there be two new comps to help boost the talent growth and distribution in Australian rugby. There is no new ITM or Currie Cup analogue, the reality being we just don’t have the market for it (neither does New Zealand, by the way).
One of the new comps is a cup extension to the premier rugby competitions across Australia — The Australian Club Championship.
The other is a nation-wide Under 23 university-based competition (I’ll refer to it as the Uni Comp) that doubles as an academy feeder system into Super Rugby — see the inset diagram of its structure. The chief role of this comp will be to provide a transparent pathway into Super Rugby, thereby attracting and retaining more talent.
How so? Well, think of the 900 AFL prospects who don’t get drafted each year, or the 250 players who drop out of rugby league’s Toyota Cup without a contract. Which would be more attractive to one of these guys (or any young rugby player):
1. a uni degree while playing comp footy with top facilities as part of a Super Rugby academy,
2. no career path as an amateur rugby player in a team with no guaranteed Super exposure?
This proposal will be the death of club rugby
Make no bones about it, club rugby is likely to provide the spikiest sticking point for the proposal. If you do the rough maths, the Uni Comp would probably take around four top under-23 players from each premier club side during the regular season. While that would make an impact, it certainly isn’t insurmountable or club-wrecking.
The proposal also gives all clubs a new platform on which to compete in a national competition (unlike a Heineken Cup like model). For this national competition all of the Uni Comp players will be back in club colours, together with all Super Rugby players not then away on the Wallabies’ end-of-year tour.
Certainly, the Uni Comp teams would be a whole set of new forces, which many clubs currently struggling to hold their place in the world will resent. But with any major change like this comes major opportunity, and there are already premier clubs looking to see what benefits could be gained by partnering with a university.
The biggest uni clubs will just get bigger
This idea is probably a natural suspicion, but it could well be opposite to the truth.
Take another hypothetical: in 2013 you’re a talented young player who’s grown up with the Gordon club and you’d like a shot at Super Rugby. As things are, is Gordon the place you should stay right now, or does an über-club like Sydney Uni make more sense? Of course it’s Uni, because that’s where the facilities, coaches and selectors’ eyes are going to be focused.
In the new paradigm, you could gain access to the wider Tahs academy through (say) a Macquarie University team, and not have to leave the Gordon club — where you’d also have the prospect of playing in the Australian Club Championship. You also get to pick up a degree or further education along the way.
The stranglehold and advantages that big uni clubs like Sydney have could actually be diluted.
Do you feel a draft?
Finally, there’s another point that I am surprised hasn’t got more airtime: the proprosed draft of players out of the under-23 comp and into full Super Rugby contracts. At the moment the NSW and Queensland powerhouses have an incumbent stanglehold on young talent coming through, largely due to history and geography. It’s resulted in the regrettable warehousing of young talent, whereby players are persuaded to wait as third or fourth back-up rather than get front-line exposure at a less established franchise. This definintely holds back the development of good young Aussie talent.
In the proposed system each Super franchise would get just the first three picks from their own academies, thereby levelling out the geographical playing field to a far greater degree than right now.
Is this the most easily workable third tier solution out there? I doubt it, and it’s already ruffling a feathers as you would expect.
But what I like about it is that it doesn’t say there is one simple solution to create a competition to rival the Currie Cup, because that is just not our reality in Australia. It also looks to draw in new resources and talent into the rugby eco-system.
Or as Greg says: ‘Mate, it grows the fuggen pie.’