In what has been a very turbulent year so far for Super Rugby, the long-awaited answer to the restructuring of the competition has been released yesterday by SANZAAR. Now everyone will have their own opinion on this decision, and Green and Gold Rugby always get lots of comments, messages and opinions about this. Many of us here often have many differing opinions ourselves on the game, so I don’t expect everyone to agree with me on this.
Let me tell you what I think. I think the decision to cut either the Western Force or the Melbourne Rebels from Super Rugby is an utterly disgraceful one and totally against the spirit of the game. I also feel very heavily for our South African cousins, who will be losing not one, but two teams, and from what I’ve heard, the mood there is also extremely bitter. The implications of this decision are damaging to every person who loves and plays rugby.
The Impact on The Clubs
Firstly, we need to recognise who this will impact most directly: the coaches and the players. Suddenly, 20% of our professional rugby players will now be out of the job at years’ end. Officially. You’d be a fool to think that players at all the clubs wouldn’t be hurting right now. Players always talk to each other about everything, from looking after and supporting injured players, to situations like their playing future. This happens even if they are from rival clubs.
These guys are hurting, worried about their clubs and worried about their future. You don’t need to look any further than Matt Hodgson, who after the win against the Kings on Sunday was near to tears during the post-match press conference. Not only are the players going to lose their jobs, but the coaches, support staff, administrative staff, social media teams, everyone! They will all go. And with them, so will their commitments and support of grassroots, and the profile of the game in that state.
The Impact on The Fans
A lot of the media has been signalling that the Western Force are the team favoured to be cut (seriously guys, stop doing that). I’m saying this as a Brumbies supporter, but honestly, the fans of the Force are the best fans out of all the Aussie Super Rugby clubs.
They have always stuck by this club and fought hard for it. They know that their club is an underdog, but a club with heart. That underdog tag made years like 2007, 2008 and 2014 all the sweeter. You can see it by the fact that when they are playing well, they fill up stadiums. Even when they don’t, they still pull a crowd. Judging by the amount of money coming in from the ‘Own the Force’ campaign the fans are even putting their money in to keep this club going.
Not that the Rebels don’t have a loyal following themselves. The Rebel Army have been one of the most vocal and important elements behind the Rebels culture, and have been a real breath of fresh air for rugby in a state where AFL is the undisputed king.
To cut a team would not only made those fans livid, feel betrayed and angry, but it would anger pretty much everyone else. It has angered Tahs fans, Reds fans, and Brumbies fans like myself too. I am personally furious that these clubs are being seen as disposable, especially considering the following they have, and the good they do for the game. The Rebels and Force were introduced to grow the game in this country. That’s what they represent.
The Impact on State Rugby
This is the one thing about all this that angers me the most. Cutting a team will do fatal damage to growing grassroots rugby.
Starting with RugbyWA, when they started they were determined to start producing Wallabies. That they have done. Even when they weren’t winning, the Force have been producing great players for the Wallabies, as judged by the five current Wallabies in the squad.
Ten players that played against the Kings this week gone had learnt their rugby in the WA system. It’s taken a decade to bear fruit, but it is happening now, both in a player and coaching capacity (as seen by David Wessels, who has been at the club since 2013). The Force represent the only place in the entire country where the game is growing. Need I mention that the Perth Spirit (with nearly twenty players from the Pindan Premier Grade) won the NRC last year? They represent what is a vibrant and fiercely loyal rugby community. The Force know people care, judging by how upfront they have been during this whole debacle.
And then there’s the Rebels. Will all due respect, the Rebels have hardly been as transparent as the Force with keeping fans up to date about the state of affairs in Super Rugby. But, they too have been a strong representative for Victorian rugby. The Rising have been consistent performers in the NRC (being present in every single semi-final) and have a solid following in the Dewar Shield too. They haven’t had as many years to foster as much homegrown talent, but judging by the likes of players like Sione Tuipulotu and Rob Leota that is starting to happen. What if that all goes?
Where now for the ARU?
In the past, I have been a supporter of the ARU. I understand they are under pressure. They are an organisation in the busiest sporting market in the world. The financial pressure has been impacting on them for years, we all know this. I find it somewhat ironic that, just a fortnight ago when they said they will be posting a $3 million profit, that it was them, not SANZAAR, who decided to cut an Australian team.
Their justification, as mentioned by Bill Pulver on Monday morning, is that they could no longer sustain it from either a financial or high performance perspective.
Maybe the ARU, like many of us as fans, have become incredibly focused on the current state of things that we may have forgotten our past. Looking at that graph, it looks like things are going downhill, but the truth is there is a lot more going on behind these numbers. Sport is exciting for us when it is is happening right in front of us, or as a forthcoming event. Very rarely to we step back to look at the history behind it all.
Except for 2000, Aussie rugby has always struggled after a World Cup. Therefore, I find it interesting in that since we’ve had five teams in 2011, the Wallabies finished 3rd at the 2011 World Cup, were Runners-Up at the 2015 World Cup, have won the Rugby Championship twice, were runners up in the Rugby Championship twice, and won the Mandela Challenge Plate four times and The Cook Cup once, as well as plenty more trophies. But no, we didn’t win the Bledisloe Cup, so we must be playing badly.
And then there’s the Super Rugby clubs. Since we’ve had five teams, the Reds and Waratahs have won it, and the Brumbies were runners up. The only bad performances have been since 2016, straight after the World Cup. Those wins and victories are not exaggeration. Those happened. That is fact.
Cutting teams is often done in sport, such as what has happened in the AFL, NRL and the A-League. It happens. But with Super Rugby being such a large international competition, the effect of cutting teams in Australia and South Africa is going to be much more impactful than cutting a team that is in the same city as other teams. An entire region will no longer be able to access the game, full stop.
I have always argued that coaching has been the problem for our poor performances over the last few years. Look at Richard Graham departing from the Reds in 2016, or Gibson taking the reins from Cheika at the Waratahs after 2015. The most consistent team has been the Brumbies, because they have a good coach in Stephen Larkham. Bob Dwyer has argued this for quite some time that Australia has the talent for five teams, but that all these new coaches “have not been part of the coaching development program in Australia.” You want to see the influence that a good coach has on a team? Look at what Wessels is doing over in the West.
Where to now?
Well, if anything, this decision has thrown up more questions.
Will having four teams mean that we will perform better in 2018? Obviously, we won’t know until that happens, so I can’t answer that. But, if (for example) the Force are cut and Tony McGahan is still in charge of the Rebels, and like this year he is struggling to implement his game plan to the Rebels players on the paddock, how much of a difference will three or four players from the Force make when the game plan is not working?
Will Aussie rugby be in a better place financially? Obviously, I also can’t answer that now either. What I do know is that there will be one less market that the ARU will be exporting the game to, and even if all the teams start performing, will that offset the loss of not being able to access that market?
Will it lead to the Wallabies performing better? In my honest opinion, no, because with less professional players in general playing the game that gives you less places to pick your best players from. I know a lot of these answers are unclear, but that is because the whole circumstance is unclear. The only thing that is guaranteed is that less professional players will be playing Super Rugby.
If it is the case that the Rebels are given preference over the Force, who are currently producing more local talent than their Victorian counterparts, then it will be clear as mud as to why this cut has happened: money. The Force are clearly easier to cut due to the ARU running them, at the expense of the talent they clearly are fostering. That is simply not good enough.
Not that I want the Rebels to be cut either. But, when money is prioritised over growing talent, that is when the game starts to die. If this is the case, then the ARU has a lot to answer for. Whether they did or not behind closed doors, the rugby public feel like the ARU’s actions were not done with their interests at heart. Quite frankly, you won’t last long if you disconnect the fans in the way the ARU may have just done. The decision they make on which team will be cut will be crucial, and either way, it will cost them dearly.
Will I eat my own words on all this? If we are better off, I will. We may indeed perform better, we may be financially healthier, we may grow the game more with this decision. Do I think it’s going to happen? Not at all.
I think that as a code, we’ve just shot ourselves in the foot. No, blown our foot off altogether. I think that the financial agenda has superseded the desires of the fans and the game. I’m truly heartbroken for the treatment the Force and the Rebels have received with this. For my generation, this truly is one of the worst moments I have ever seen in Australian rugby history.