The Case for Scrapping the NRC - Green and Gold Rugby
National Rugby Championship

The Case for Scrapping the NRC

The Case for Scrapping the NRC

There has been a lot of discussion about the future of international and Australian rugby this year. The proposal of a World League linking the Six Nations and Rugby Championship (TRC) tournaments as well as the decision to scrap the Sunwolves have filled the headlines, and it doesn’t stop there. There are strong rumours that the National Rugby Championship (NRC) is going to be scrapped, and a broadcasters’ wish list published by the Sydney Morning Herald indicates that we should expect significant changes to Super Rugby and TRC in the next few years.

2020 is already essentially set in stone. Even the expulsion of the Sunwolves from Super Rugby has been postponed until 2021 as the various broadcasters’ contracts all extend until the end of the 2020 season. As a result, 2021 represents a rare opportunity to shake-up the system, and it’s worth considering what the broadcasters are hoping for and the trade-offs that must be considered.

If no further change occurs, Super Rugby will revert to a 14-team round robin format in 2021. For the Australian teams (excluding those that make the finals – and there are no guaranteed finals spots starting in 2021) that means:

  • 2 of 13 games will be in South African time zones,
  • Only 3 of 13 games will be against Australian opposition,
  • There will be only 6-7 home games per season,
  • Only 1-2 home games will be played against Australian opposition per season (down from 4 currently), and
  • Each team will play only 13 games of rugby in total.

This last point simply falls short of the standards expected in professional sport. I would go so far as to say that it falls short of the standards expected in amateur sport –Shute Shield teams play 18 games per season while Premier Rugby teams play 16.

Further comparison with other competitions makes it look even worse. English teams play 22 games a season in the Premiership, while Pro14 teams (from Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Italy, and South Africa) play 21 games a season. NRL teams play 24 games a season and AFL teams play 22. Though there is some unevenness to these comparisons because Test matches supersede club footy, even a historical comparison with itself makes 2021’s version of Super Rugby look bad – between 2011-2015 and 2018-2020, Super Rugby teams played 16 games each.

Faf de Klerk collared by Allan Alaalatoa 

Will tour matches with Super rugby teams bring crowds?

The broadcasters’ wish list includes a suggestion that TRC move to a tour-based itinerary with midweek games against Super Rugby franchises. Georgina Robinson says that “the Springboks would tour Australia for two Tests in a row, for example, bringing across an expanded squad to make possible midweek games against Super Rugby sides.” This fixes the issue involving the reduction in Super Rugby home games per season starting in 2021 and would create a lot of income for Super Rugby franchises. It also resolves the under-discussed issue of there being only 1-2 first-class rugby games per week to watch during TRC, as this number would effectively double. Perhaps most importantly, a tour-based itinerary fits with the traditions of rugby (while a World League competition does not).

You could say that I am broadly in favour of such an arrangement. It could even be expanded to the June Internationals. This would have even more benefits, such as keeping Super Rugby teams in the minds of fans while Super Rugby hits the pause button. If the new calendar has the June Internationals taking place after Super Rugby, then it would provide a link between Super Rugby and TRC. Tours with midweek games have certainly worked for the British and Irish Lions, which consistently ranks among the most watched and attended sporting teams in the entire world (though the scarcity and prestige of their games probably has something to do with this). These midweek tour games can also create a lot of prestige – who can forget when the Brumbies beat the Lions in 2013?

But there is an unanswered question here: Australian Super Rugby sides typically disband after the tournament is over. Their players split between their national sides and the NRC. To make the tour-based itinerary work, Super Rugby franchises would need to fill the gaps created by the elevation of Test players. 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.

Fiji spilled a  lot of first half ball

The Fiji Drua have been a wonderful addition to the NRC

This seems like a beneficial trade-off for Australian rugby as it would receive a substantial increase in revenue from the international games hosted by Super Rugby sides and would no longer have to continue to fund the NRC. The British and Irish Lions gave game time to 43 players during their tour of New Zealand in 2017, and if we use this as a guide (though the Lions tour was slightly longer) we can say that as many as 20 extra players will be getting valuable experience playing for the Wallabies. All 43 of these players need to be replaced by the Super Rugby franchises as well, and as these replacements will be playing international teams rather than other Super Rugby teams the argument could even be made that the experience is more valuable than regular Super Rugby games. Certainly, it is more valuable than NRC experience, and the addition of 43 players to the professional setup in Australia goes a long way to making up for the loss of 6 teams (not 7, as the Western Force are privately funded and also play in the Global Rapid Rugby competition) through the cutting of the NRC – 4 of which would effectively be replaced by the extension of the Super Rugby teams’ existences.

It is uncertain whether the other SANZAAR nations would concur on this point. The Currie Cup has a history which predates Super Rugby by more than a century. The Mitre 10 Cup is also well-loved in New Zealand and dates back to 1976, though arguably the glory days of the National Provincial Championship are past.

But these circumstances are very different from Australia’s. For example, the South African Super Rugby teams also play in the Currie Cup, so no post-Super Rugby disbanding occurs. Additionally, the Mitre 10 Cup already has a history of being altered, such as in 2006 when its predecessor (the National Provincial Championship) was split into the Mitre 10 Cup and the amateur Heartland Championship. These competitions could potentially be merged again to reform the NPC. It is really only the NRC which would need to be discontinued to allow for the tour-based version of TRC to become reality.

Rays v Vikings 2018 NRC-8498

Has the NRC achieved what it set out to achieve?

The NRC has its benefits and I do not want to come off as an opponent of the competition. I welcomed the original Australian Rugby Championship with open arms in 2007 and cherish my Central Coast Rays v Western Sydney Rams ball signed by a young Kurtley Beale among others, but the fact is that the ARC was canned due to financial losses it accrued. Considering that only half the games of the NRC are televised, none of them are on free-to-air TV, and the streaming service has insufficient technical support to prevent it from constantly buffering, I highly doubt whether this has significantly changed – even with the addition of the popular Fijian Drua.

While players do get experience out of the NRC, it is not the third tier of professionalism that we were initially promised. The fact is that many players decline selection because the pay is barely sufficient to cover travel and accommodation expenses – less if the player doesn’t manage to appear in at least one third of games. To the viewing public, the existence of a bottom-tier competition that runs after Super Rugby but during TRC (while the NRL and AFL are still running!) is confusing and uninteresting, especially considering the complete lack of marketing for the competition. No regions or cities are represented in the NRC that aren’t also represented in Super Rugby or Global Rapid Rugby, the two-team difference being a result of the fact that NSW and Queensland are split into city and country teams in the NRC.

In short, the tour-based version of TRC is a step in the right direction for Australian rugby, even if it leads to the demise of the NRC. This will improve the commercial value of rugby in Australia and consolidate the identity of the sport into its two most popular and well-known products. Keeping the NRC alive as a ghost of its former self so that amateur players can get thrashed by franchises which are incredibly similar to the Test teams of high-ranking Pacific Island nations does a disservice to Australian rugby, and at no small expense. Conversely, boosting the number of games played by both the Super Rugby sides and the Wallabies while simultaneously improving the quality of opposition to Test level will create revenue for Australian rugby and provide superior professional pathways to the NRC – and for nearly as many players.

  • Jamie Hevia

    Hi Cameron

    Good article!

    My thoughts

    Keep SR as a round robin and no more changes, round robin is the best thing for the comp.

    After SR all Aus side to play home and away in the “NRC” as the Tahs, Rebels, Reds, Brumbies plus the Drua and Western Force. Each SR squad has enough players that see zero action throughout SR plus you have players not selected in the Wallabies match day.

    As a member of the Tahs I get to see my team play SR and the NRC, also in terms of branding you see the Tahs play all year round AND they can play at different venues :)

    6 – 7 home games is not enough for me to renew my membership however SR and the NRC in one membership package ? Take my money now!!!

    • Cameron Rivett

      I definitely want to keep SR as a round robin. Your suggestion is a lot like the South African system, and I’m not opposed to it but my article mostly addresses the reality of the broadcasters’ suggestions regarding the tour-style version of TRC.

      • Jamie Hevia

        Hi Cameron

        Cheers for the reply,

        The SA system is great in my opinion

        The tour style TRC is great however it should be an add on to my suggestion, again one or two extra games per team is not going to add much value to members and hence broadcasters, the only reason I have Fox is for my rugby

        • Cameron Rivett

          Honestly I’d be up for a hybrid system such as what I suggested for the Currie Cup to BR above – have the NRC be a competition of the 4 Australian Super Rugby teams, the Force, the Drua, and maybe a Tongan and Fijian team as well. These are established brands which would continue to draw interest. When the international tours are inbound, the team scheduled to play the tourists can have a bye that week. This would not really be the NRC anymore though, not one of the teams involved would have taken part in any of the first few NRCs.

        • Huw Tindall

          Hear hear! When are you interviewing for a position at SANZAAR or RA mate?

  • Brumby Runner

    Cameron, can you clarify a few confusions I have about your proposals please.

    1) Are you suggesting the inbound tours during the RC will only occur in Aus?

    2) If not, why would the situation with the Currie Cup and the revised NPC be any different to the expected demise of the NRC?

    3) Would there not be mid week games against the likes of the Blues, Chiefs, Hurricane, Crusaders and Highlanders (and the same for the Saffa SR teams) just as there would be for the Aussie SR teams?

    4) If the NZ and Saffa SR teams are then playing mid week games, wouldn’t that impact the need for and even the structure of the teams in their respective domestic comps?

    5) If the intention is for each of the ABs and the Bokke to play two test matches in the inbound series (or is it three?) wouldn’t that imply only two mid week games for the local SR teams to share? Four in total over the two tours? That equates to one or two extra games for the local SR teams in a season. Hardly enough to counterbalance the loss of SR games under the 2021 restructure. (Even worse for NZ teams owing the extra side in their SR structure).

    6) Is Argentina also envisaged taking part in inbound tours?
    As you can see, I am having trouble understanding exactly the proposition outlined. Can you assist?

    • Cameron Rivett

      Hi BR, first I’d like to clarify that they’re not really “my proposals”, moreso they are the broadcasters’ proposals for TRC and my predictions on what that will mean for the NRC. The tours would happen with all 4 TRC nations and I didn’t have room to expand on why it would be different with RSA and NZL but the fact is that those competitions have survived since long before the game was professional.

      The Currie Cup could continue in its current form, perhaps with bye weeks for the teams playing touring international sides, while the NRC doesn’t include any Super Rugby sides so this isn’t really possible. The NPC is a closer example to the NRC but even then the fact it is a tiered competition with both professional and amateur levels makes it unique (it already includes teams with a lower standard of play in the Heartland Championship), and the Kiwis are usually pretty good at resolving these sorts of issues without blowing everything up. I’m not sure I understand your 4th question if it is not already dealt with in this paragraph.

      Regarding question 5, the example given by the SMH is a two-test inbound series which would mean only two games against Super Rugby sides, but with 3 inbound tours that would still mean that each team gets 1-2 extra games (2+ if some of the series are three tests or if it’s tied to the third Bledisloe match). If this were to also occur in the June series then you can add an extra game per team on top of that which brings it right back up to 16 games per season for each Super Rugby team.

  • Who?

    Cameron, Cameron, Cameron……. This is a horrible concept.
    So, we’re looking at a proposal (you’ve clarified in the comments it’s not your proposal, but you’re presenting it as if it’s a good thing) where:
    1. We get less Super Rugby
    2. We get less ‘third tier’ Rugby (because we’re talking one squad coming to Australia at a time, who will play one game per fortnight against a single Super team)
    3. The farce that is NSW NRC gets used to scrap the strongly supported NRC.
    You’ve noted that the Super teams don’t disband to go into Currie Cup. I’m not sure how that can be true, when there’s teams in Currie Cup who don’t play Super Rugby (or Pro 14). In NZ, the Super teams disband and players either got to their province or the ABs. That’s my understanding of Currie Cup – that each Super (or Pro 14) team has ‘feeder’ provinces, so the Stormers are fed by both Western Province and Western Cape. Two Currie Cup teams.
    The issue with players refusing to play NRC is solely true in NSW, and is down to the debacle that is their structure and management. It doesn’t happen anywhere else. In Qld, Super players are split by the QRU between the teams (largely based off their heritage – if they’re not from Brisbane, they play for Qld Country). And, as someone regional, I feel more represented by Qld Country than by the Reds.
    You’ve claimed that the NRC costs money – it doesn’t. It was set up to be cost-neutral to the ARU (as they were at the time). Fox covers the costs of travel, broadcasting, refs, etc. The teams are liable for their own costs. RA has no costs.
    The reason the Brumbies beating the Lions in 2013 carried prestige is the rarity of the occasion. Not the rarity of the win, but the rarity of a Super team (these days, a substitute for the old provincial teams) getting to play the Lions. If you’re playing *Test Nation* “A” every other year, is it that big a deal..? Further, those (Lions) games weren’t “A” teams – most of those games had Test players in them (First Choice Lions Test, not just national team). Further elevating the value of those games.
    I don’t see that playing 1, maybe 2 more games as Super teams (so, a maximum of 9 home games per year, a maximum of 13 + 3 + 2 = 18 games per year) against “A” teams (i.e. they won’t be Test standard) will replace a change down from a possible (16 + 3 + 7 + 2 = 28) 28 games at Super and NRC levels. How does 2 extra Super games compensate for 7 to 9 NRC games? How does 2 extra home games for a Super side better something between 3 and 6 extra home games each for extra teams (i.e. people in the country who’d otherwise never see a professional player).
    This is just more of the same Sydney-centric agenda pushed by people who can’t be bothered to commute ‘all the way’ to Parramatta for their ‘beloved’ Waratahs. It’s gotta stop, it’s killing the game in this country. Because it’s killing any passion for the game that’s held by those in areas where the average income isn’t six figures.

    • Cameron Rivett

      The proposal is not that we get less Super Rugby – that is already a fact, and I state that this is a bad thing. The Currie Cup is not like the NPC as you’ve described it, while the Stormers are fed by both Western province and Western Cape the Sharks only draw from KwaZulu-Natal, the Cheetahs only from the Fress State, and the Jaguares from the Jaguares XV. Also the play mobility in New Zealand is significantly higher, with as few as 12% of Highlanders having come through the Otago rugby system.

      I am aware that NSW is the main opponent to the NRC (though I have also heard that it’s not well-supported in Brisbane) and as someone similarly regional I also feel more represented by NSW Country than by the Waratahs, who never venture outside of Sydney. As for the financial side of things, I have also heard that the costs are borne by FoxSports but I don’t buy it – in any case, finances are not something we are privy to. It certainly doesn’t bring in any money and I haven’t seen any evidence to say that it’s been consistently growing.

      Obviously the teams playing the midweek games would be weaker than the teams playing the Test matches on the weekend, but that is by design. Unlike New Zealand, who have the Maori All Blacks, there is no second option for Australian players to be exposed to Test-like environments since Australia A was scrapped.

      While I state that the number of players being represented through a professional pathway would be similar to the current system, you are correct that overall game time will still diminish. However this could be made up for by having the Super Rugby sides continue to play each other on the weeks they are not playing touring international sides. I wouldn’t call this the NRC because it includes none of the same teams, but theoretically you could keep the Force and the Drua (and maybe those additional Pacific Island teams) to make things a bit more interesting.

      Overall I think this is somewhat beside the point – this is not my personal ideal situation for Australian Rugby, it is a response to the broadcaster’s wish list. Yes I am not opposed to the tour-style version of TRC, but nor am I opposed to the NRC – I just state that they are incompatible, and then hypothesise what could be done if TRC changes were to be prioritised over keeping the NRC.

      • Who?

        I do get it’s not your personal ideal situation, but you’ve presented the loss of the NRC as a positive. The headline states it that way, and the overall impression of the article is that you believe playing a couple of games as Super teams after the season’s over is a better outcome than having something that is a national competition, that provides opportunities for a wider number of players, that provides a good level of competition for players returning from injury or looking to regain form, that can be built into a revenue source, that can be a bulwark against the constant whispers of SA’s desire to leave. I don’t see any advantage to that situation or perspective.
        I do understand that it’s your position that reducing Super games is a negative. But I don’t see how combining fewer Super games with closing the NRC and replacing it with ‘tour’ matches is even close to a good thing – the difference in potential match numbers is massive. Adding a few ‘friendlies’ between the Super teams, maybe the Force and Drua does little to offset that, as those matches have no meaning. What’s the point of the Brumbies winning the national round robin thing if they didn’t make finals when everyone had their first choice players? If the Test players aren’t there, they’re not truly the Super teams.
        In terms of Currie Cup feeders, the Sharks are also fed by the Leopards. They happen to be a division down, but they’re still a feeder. It’s the same in NZ, where I recognise that players aren’t required to play for the NPC team that shares a home ground with their Super team, but it’s still something that’s done when there’s not an existing allegiance.
        In terms of the costs being borne by Fox Sports, that’s what was presented to the QRU’s AGM when the NRC was floated. I was there. ALL the cost and risk associated with running each team was to be borne by the team – not RA. Hence why the QRU banned their clubs from any involvement, and took on that financial risk themselves. It was the correct decision, one the NSWRU didn’t make, hence the debacle down there.
        I can’t speak to growth, that would be down to viewership figures (I’m sure Fox would have them somewhere) and crowd figures. I didn’t attend last year (no game local to me this time), but each time I’ve gone the crowds have been good, and growing. That may not be true for Melbourne Rising, given their touring nature last year, but that’s another questionable decision which is able to be rectified.
        Regarding the lack of an Australia “A” side, I don’t see that it’s a big advantage in the modern era, when we’re strugging to survive, to add an extra high performance team. The 6N’s teams play their “A” teams, NZ Maori plays a bit. But do we have coaches and resources to fund this? Because this would be international travel, and centrally funded (unlike NRC). The national coach struggles with one team, he’s not capable of taking on a second team. And an “A” team, by design, is a transient team – I’m not confident that the extra learning required to fit into yet another system to play a couple of games every now and then is worth the effort. Not anymore.
        I just don’t see any value in playing Super teams outside the Super comp, reducing opportunities for exposure to higher quality games for developing players, reducing games for Super players, or scrapping one of the few good decisions made by Rugby officialdom in this country this decade. And I don’t see value in presenting any potential positives that might ensue from such a (typically, given RA’s history) disastrous decision.

        • Cameron Rivett

          The headline is a bit clickbaity – the so-called case for scrapping the NRC is really that the broadcasters’ proposal is arguably better and incompatible with it. I don’t agree that the NRC does many of the things you’ve said though – the only thing is potentially does for rugby in Australia is provide a pathway for players who are on the fringe of Super Rugby selection and extra experience for those who are already in Super Rugby but not the Wallabies.

          There’s no reason a secondary tournament involving the Australian Super Rugby teams, the Force, and the Drua couldn’t be a round robin. The argument that a Super Rugby team missing their Test players isn’t a Super Rugby team is one that I don’t really agree with – it is only natural for a higher level of rugby to take players from the level below it. No one complains that it’s not really the North Sydney team playing when the Waratahs sign their players, and in fact this sort of thing is completely normal in Europe and like I’ve said, some of the same Super Rugby/Pro14 teams play in the Currie Cup without their Springboks.

          I have been to NRC games several times in the past couple of years and every time it’s felt like it was just me and the players’ families. I went to North Sydney oval to watch amateur rugby with 20,000 other spectators only a few weeks before watching the Rays at Macquarie University oval with probably double digit attendance. This is all anecdotal of course, but I don’t even believe that the NRC is being backed to grow in the first place. Maybe it’s because I’m from NSW, but the competition is scarcely advertised whatsoever and no one who isn’t already a rugby fan even knows of its existence. Only Super Rugby and the Wallabies truly come close to competing with the other sporting codes in Australia, and this proposal strengthens both of them.

          The loss is really only of QLD Country and NSW Country (the other teams are merely rebranded back to their Super Rugby counterparts), and a similar number of players to those lost would be playing for the remaining teams to replace the increased number of Wallabies. The competition level is higher, not lower, and theoretically the number of games for each player will be roughly equal (or higher if June internationals also play midweek games) if these teams play each other when they’re not hosting touring sides.

        • Who?

          If we’re dragging in the Drua, Tonga and Samoa, to play against five Aussie sides, then we’re not building a national comp. We’re building another international comp, but this time one with a lower chance of being self-funding, given the financial realities of the Pacific Islands. It’s a step backwards.
          You’re right, because you’re in NSW, where there’s no appetite to see the NRC successful, it’s completely unpromoted, even amongst Rugby families. Whereas other regions are much better. The ACT’s arguably the second most poorly organised arrangement (given it’s a franchise held by a club, so there’s still negative feelings about that in other clubs, rather than being a united one-team city), but they still do ok. They even did the old Kookaburras jersey last year. I’ve got Qld Country stubbie coolers.

        • Cameron Rivett

          The NRC already is dragging in Pacific Island sides while cutting Australian sides (see the links in the article for source). At its least disruptive, we could merely rebrand the existing NRC sides to keep their Super Rugby counterparts’ names, and only 2 teams (the NSW/QLD country sides) would be left out – and their numbers would be made up for by the increased uptake in the surviving sides to replace members lost to national duty. I can understand not wanting to see these sides cut but in my view, the benefits outweigh the negatives.

        • Who?

          I was opposed to bringing in the Drua… They’ve been good for the comp, but we need to focus on building local teams, and having something bigger than just four or five teams. The reduction in teams has been solely in NSW, and not related to results (the last team cut was finally finding cohesion, and was outperforming the remaining Sydney team).

        • Cameron Rivett

          In an ideal world, I think that cutting South Africa might be best for Super Rugby, but I didn’t put this in the article. This is because It is not being proposed, and the article confines itself to judging the broadcasters’ proposals and their likely/possible consequences. In an ideal world, I agree that the Drua should not have been added – I was also opposed to it. However, in reality the Drua have been added and more Pacific Island sides are on the way. If the broadcasters’ proposals take place, the Australian NRC teams will be weakened by the need to supply Super Rugby squads and the fact is that the Drua are already the best team in the NRC. That is what I am comparing – the real world to the world suggested by the broadcasters. Comparisons with an ideal world do not come into it.

    • disqus_NMX

      Thank you Who? for bringing your usual highly knowledgeable, well thought out, sanity, to one of the most ridiculous, nonsensical articles I’ve ever seen on GAGR.

      The unelected, unrepresentative, NSW power brokers have a lot to answer for for the continuing decline in Rugby in Oz.

  • Rebels3

    Nice read, although a few factual errors (sorry thought I’d clarify as people seem to take the internet as gospel these days).

    – English league has 22 league games
    – no mention of European teams each playing a minimum of another 6 European games
    – English teams also play in their cup competition (Premiership Cup) another 4 matches
    – the NRC had been run at neutral cost over the years, particularly with thanks to BuildCorp and Fox Sports

    Ultimately I agree with the general premise of the article tho. Well done

    • Cameron Rivett

      Ah my apologies with regards to the English Premiership, I was thrown by that they’d played 20 so far but there are still 2 rounds to go. I’ll see if I can get that one edited. The non-Premiership games weren’t mentioned because they aren’t uniform, the point was made already, and they are from separate tournaments (which would beg questions such as throwing Currie Cup games in). As I said below, while I have heard that the NRC is cost-neutral, we have very little information regarding the finances and I don’t consider that a cost-neutral tournament which isn’t growing in any case.

      Thanks for your thoughts and corrections!

  • paul

    The problem I have with all these so called proposed formats is that they are still very much a square peg into a round hole solution.
    As quick as you supposedly address one issue, you ended with another problem.

    Just one example, so the Super teams need more content to attract revenue. yet how long do think interest can be maintained by, weakened Super Teams playing midweek games against Test B teams in essentially glorified friendlies, not to mention what that say’s about turning your Test Teams into glorified revenue raisers.

    How long do you seriously think that will keep the turnstiles going, be very wary of what so called broadcasters want

  • JennyG

    Scrap the NRC. Only family & friends of the players know about it and/or watch. It doesn’t promote and develop the game. Put the money and resources in to club rugby and make that great again.

National Rugby Championship

Somehow still a Wallabies fan. Enjoys brainstorming ideas on how to fix Australian rugby. Waratahs/North Sydney/Country Eagles supporter. Ex-Kiwi with just a touch of love left for the Highlanders and Otago.

More in National Rugby Championship