Will You Be Supporting the NRC? - Green and Gold Rugby
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Will You Be Supporting the NRC?

Will You Be Supporting the NRC?

The National Rugby Championship (NRC) will be entering its fourth season this year, with Perth Spirit looking to defend their maiden title. This year also sees the arrival of the Fijian Drua to the competition, which has perked up the interest of many rugby supporters.

When the draw was announced near the end of July, it was a really encouraging sight to see more people voice their approval about the season starting again. For me personally, after the basket case that was the 2016 Australian Super Rugby Season, the NRC was the perfect antidote. It was rugby that, for the first time in a while, I actually enjoyed watching. I was lucky enough to go to many games last year, and to see that crowds were actually growing by seasons end was, quite frankly, awesome.

It’s good so see many advocating and encouraging their fellow fans to give this competition a chance. Yet, it is also seemingly disheartening to see that rugby supporters either not pay attention to the competition or, even worse, criticise it for whatever reason. “It’s an ARU product.” “It’s full of fake, cobbled together teams.” “It’ll be scrapped in a few years.” “It can’t come close to the rivalries of club rugby.” Why is it many people turn up their nose to the NRC?

Michael Ruru, the eyes have it.

Michael Ruru, the eyes have it.

It’s a question that I’ve been asking for a while. I’ve had many conversations and debates about this with other fellow rugby folk.

So, before this season kicks off today, I thought I’d write this to try and understand why people have such mixed feelings on the competition, to hopefully provide some clarity for many GAGRs who are unsure about going to their first match. I myself am coming from the perspective of being a huge fan of the competition, and my opinion is obviously subjective. Rugby this year in Australia has really become a battleground of clashing fan viewpoints, and I feel it’s important to consider multiple perspectives on the NRC.

Melbourne Rising player Rob Leota with Fiji Captain Seru Vularika NRC 2017

ARU/Fox Sports 

The Argument:

I get it, straight out the gate. People want to watch rugby and not have to pay for it. Hell, I wrote an article about the need for rugby to be on free to air last year. People will have good reason to complain if they can’t access a new competition on TV.

Fox Sports does hold a powerful monopoly on rugby content in this country. Aside from online streaming, and TV coverage of the Shute Shield and Wallaby test matches, we don’t get much else in the way of rugby. It is frustrating. How can you expect a competition to grow if you can’t see it?

Tom Staniforth steams in.

Tom Staniforth steams in.

Obviously, the answer is because Fox is one of the ARU’s major sponsors, and will be responsible from millions of dollars in TV revenue that the ARU would not be able to function without. They also bankroll the competition. You have to pay to be on FTA, and as we all know, the ARU isn’t exactly known for financial management.

This has led to many fans arguing they should boycott the competition. Many only see the NRC as a purely corporate product that is taking money away from the grassroots, and in fact is an embodiment of the ARU’s incapacity to run the game in this country.

Pro-NRC:

Yes, nearly all of us can happily admit that we don’t have much faith in the ARU right now (if ever). But, for all the many things they’ve got wrong in managing our game, the NRC certainly isn’t one of them. In fact, this is one of the few things that they’ve got increasing right with every passing year, in my opinion.

Yes, it is on Fox Sports, and yes, we can’t watch it on Free-To-Air, and that’s a pain in the arse. But to not support the competition simply for that reason is, to me, a bit naïve.  You can watch the games in their entirety for free on Fox after match has happened, as well as watch it on platforms like YouTube. And, by the way, it’s $1 a month to subscribe to Fox Sports for the NRC. You can watch the games very easily, if you want to.

But I’m getting off track. It’s obvious the ARU hopped into bed with Fox because they do on’t want the new Third Tier to go the way of the ARC, that was pulled after one year because it suffered losses of over $5 million. And that was on Free-to-Air. A competition needs money to run. But there was a reason why Pulver and co. formed the NRC in the first place.

Brisbane City and Queensland Country pose for a post-match photo with the Andy Purcell Cup

Brisbane City and Queensland Country pose for a post-match photo with the Andy Purcell Cup

Let’s not forget the past. Prior to the formation of the NRC, people had been crying out for a third tier in Australia for decades. It was that pressure that led to the launching of the ARC in 2007, followed by the NRC in 2014. Australian rugby has needed a bridge between club and Super Rugby, and it is something we’re becoming all too aware of over the past two years.

Australia has some of the strongest club rugby competitions in the world. The Shute Shield, the Queensland Premier Rugby, the John Dent Cup. Even the Dewar Shield and the Pindan Premier Grade have really stepped up their game in recent years. But if there was no NRC, those club players, despite their talent, would go straight into Super Rugby. Going from amateur to professional in one go which is a huge step-up, even for a good club player.

Yes, you may get Super Rugby players dropping down to play club rugby games, as often happens in the Shute Shield. But does that mean there’s no need for the NRC? It would only be effective in teaching younger players when Super Rugby isn’t actually on, and they can play with the more experienced players on a week-in, week-out basis. The NRC provides that weekly schedule, and more time for Super Rugby and club rugby players to intermingle.

Canberra Viking player Jordan Jackson-Hope with QLD Country Duncan Paia'aua NRC 2017

The NRC Clubs

The Argument:

Of all the arguments I’ve seen against the NRC, this is certainly one I understand the most. What do the clubs stand for?

This is an argument that is noteworthy to the NSW teams and the Canberra Vikings.

I hear the questions all the time. Why is it called the NSW Country Eagles when there are so many players from Sydney University and Randwick? Why do the Sydney Rays, despite their name, play all their games on the Northern Beaches? Why are there Country boys playing in the Rays and Rams side? Why is it that the Greater Sydney Rams, who are supposed to represent Sydney’s west, have seemed to completely neglect the likes of Parramatta and Penrith? And why are the team selections for all three NSW teams this year such a confusing mashup of different regions?!

And of course, in Canberra: how on earth should we support the Canberra Vikings if in name, strip and ownership they don’t represent all the clubs in Canberra? Why not name them the Canberra Kookaburras?

A more recent one has emerged because of the Force axing, as many in the west are concerned that the Perth Spirit may follow a similar fate. A loss of the Spirit would be a huge disaster for WA grassroots, and it’s no secret that fans in the west are pissed about it.

This is another reason that many in the Australian rugby landscape seem to have a lack of interest in these rugby teams and this competition. I don’t blame them. If I didn’t feel that I had some sort of connection towards a club, I wouldn’t want to support them either.

Paddy Ryan lays down the law to his troops

Paddy Ryan lays down the law to his troops

Pro-NRC:

I try to answer this question with another question: isn’t that what clubs in general have always done? As a rugby league example, remember when Western Suburbs Magpies and Balmain Tigers formed the West Tigers? It took years for people to get behind them and support the club. Or what about all the name changes in the AFL? Like the fact that the Sydney Swans used to be from South Melbourne?

And before you say that rugby has never had that, just look at the Australia’s oldest club rugby competition, the Shute Shield. Southern Districts has represented multiple different regions and changed its name twice in their history (previously being known as St George and Port Hacking).

Clubs are amalgamations of different peoples and groups, and different people go to different clubs. But this isn’t necessarily the point of this argument. What matters is what these teams represent. A team can’t survive unless people have faith in it. I understand the argument against the mashup of players and squads this year, and really, I can’t think of a retort for it. But these clubs over the last few years have been trying to build an identity. An identity in where they represent. And judging by the slow growth in the competition, it’s starting to work.

The NSW Country team will play all their home games in the country this year, for the first time ever. And yes, a lot of the squad isn’t from the country. But the coach is. The captain is. And from my recollection, at least a third of their squad is too. You have to start somewhere, and build an identity. That’s how a club starts. The Force did that, and ten years later nearly their entire starting squad was from WA. The NSW Country boys are going out there, meeting passionate rugby fans, having a drink with them in the pub. That’s what rugby is all about. It’s about people being together.

Seb Wileman bursts forward.

Seb Wileman bursts forward.

The Sydney Rays, despite playing their games on the Northern Beaches and at Macquarie University, have also started to branch out to other clubs. But they’ve also now got a Womens team too. When I chatted to Julian Huxley, coach of the Sydney Rays at the NRC launch, he mentioned the same thing. The Rays experienced an important year in their history last year, with them making the NRC finals for the first time ever. But, better than that, they started to build a team culture.

“I was part of it last year, and all the boys were as well, Fitzy [captain Damien Fitzpatrick] included”, said Hux.

“We really set out a culture at the Rays. We’re not just finishing club rugby and coming to play a bit of rep footy to prep for next year. We want to improve as a group, as individuals, and try and win it.

“Rugby, at the end of the day for me, is a community. We’ve swelled our community with the inclusion of our womens team [in the Aon Uni Sevens series], and we’re looking forward to training with them. People always talk about diversity these days, but we’re really looking forward to what we can learn from them; there’s certain things that each and every one of us do better than others. It’s exciting to have the womens program running alongside the mens. We’ve swelled our community and it’s exciting.”

The Vikings are also starting to try to reunite fans in the capital, with them wearing a heritage jersey that commemorates the Kookaburras in the first round today, which will coincide with a Kookaburra’s team reunion. It’s what the team does to bring a sense of loyalty and history to the club, but it’s also about whether the community wants to back the team.

UC Vikings are the new holders of the Horan-Little Shield

UC Vikings are the new holders of the Horan-Little Shield

The Rams have also made big changes, having rebranded themselves this year, and will be playing all their games out of an one of Australia’s most established rugby grounds of TG Millner to improve their connection to the rugby community.

Effect on Club Rugby

Hey The Argument:

Whenever we go online and see an article on the NRC, there’s always that one person that says the same thing:

“We should scrap this useless competition and instead invest the money into building up club rugby and grassroots.”

This is probably one of the most vocal arguments against the NRC, that the competition has had a negative effect on club rugby. Much of this argument is based on a financial context, particularly after many clubs found themselves receiving little or no grassroots funding from the ARU over the last few years.

Will Skelton sees the funny side.

Will Skelton sees the funny side.

This argument has been particularly vocal in New South Wales. Unlike in Victoria, Western Australia, the ACT and Queensland, where the NRC slots very nicely into the current centralised programs that are managed by the respective bodies, New South Wales rugby is very much a hodgepodge.

Sydney Rugby Union runs the Shute Shield, NSWRU runs the Waratahs. The three NRC clubs were set up solely by Shute Shield clubs and those clubs run those NRC teams (except for NSW Country, who in addition to being run by Sydney Uni and Randwick, also have support from the NSW Country Rugby Union) It was only last year that the NSWRU started to jump in and help out.

Many of these clubs have seen their financial support from the ARU be whittled away to next to nothing over the past few years. So why would they go to support the competition that, in their minds, exists off the back of money that should be going into their traditional clubs?

Pro-NRC:

This year all around the country has been a good year for club rugby. As people have become less inspired by the performances of our professional teams, many have gone back to the communities that inspired them to follow the game in the first place. Every club competition, from WA to Queensland, saw an increased interest in the community level of the game. People are returning to club rugby for its sense of community, it’s connection, but above all, the quality of rugby on display.

From my experience, it really showed when I went to the Shute Shield grand final. There was close to 20,000 people at North Sydney Oval. How many years has it been since club rugby had interest that strong?

Image Credit: Brett Dooley

Image Credit: Brett Dooley

That’s a positive thing to see, and the NRC is an extension of that. It is all about club rugby. It is all about Super Rugby. And it’s about improving the talent in both.

At the end of the Super Rugby season, RUPA conducted a survey of all the players and coaches at the end of NRC2016 about their experience, and found a lot of interesting results. See our full article here, but here are a few highlights:

  • 90% of players said the standard of play increased in comparison to Club Rugby
  • 82% of players said it improved their overall Rugby development
  • 80% said the standard of coaching increased in comparison to Club Rugby
  • 96% of players said their overall 2016NRC experience was positive, and based on their experience in they would. if selected, play again in 2017

How many of those players and coaches would go back to club rugby and pass on their knowledge to younger players? Having a competition that places a specific importance on club rugby players playing with Super Rugby players won’t damage club rugby. If anything, it will make it stronger. And in my mind, the NRC has contributed to an improvement of Australia’s club rugby competitions through an improvement in the quality of the rugby.

Club rugby and the NRC are not in conflict. If anything, they should be symbiotic.

Example: Darren Coleman. He is the Warringah Rats coach who led them to their first premiership in twelve years this year, and for that effort, he was awarded the 2017 Shute Shield Coach of the Season. But, when he did an interview with the Daily Telegraph, he candidly admitted that he wouldn’t have been able to coach the Rats to win the final if it wasn’t for his time as NSW Country Eagles coach, which saw him lose the grand final to Perth Spirit last year.

Winners are grinners, Perth are off to Tamworth to face the NSW Country Eagles in the NRC Grand Final.

Winners are grinners, Perth are off to Tamworth to face the NSW Country Eagles in the NRC Grand Final.

For Coleman, that loss proved extremely beneficial for him as a coach.

“I think the biggest lesson I got was grand finals aren’t pretty,” Coleman said.

“We’d played pretty footy all year in the NRC and racked up lots of tries and then we got to a night game against Perth and we got strangled.

“That was a bit of a learn for the Shute Shield. I told the (Rats) boys we don’t give a stuff how we get it done, let’s just get it done. We planned around doing what it took to win.”

Through that experience of losing the NRC, he was able to inspire the Rats to play some of their best footy in years. If there isn’t any better example of how the NRC can improve club rugby and provide opportunities for our stars of tomorrow, I don’t know what is.

NRC 2017 Captain Photo

 

****

Now these are only a few of the arguments in the complicated mess that is the NRC, and I know there will be plenty of points that I’ve missed. But I hope they at least provide some differing perspective. Like I say, my viewpoint is subjective. But this year, club rugby’s resurgence has been a really inspiring side to our game, and I hope that fans may give the NRC a chance to do the same.

Hope to see you all a game at some point this season, and above all, go the Eagles!!!

  • Gregory Parkes-Skell

    I find the argument of those who think the NRC should be done away with a tad specious considering as an avid Shute Shield watcher I’ve noticed an interesting correlation.

    For a while there the Shute sort of stagnated in its quality. I’ve been watching it for nearly 20 years and the overall quality stagnation was particularly stark in my opinion. Until recently.

    The past two seasons of the Shute have seen tremendous growth in the overall quality of the games and thus the competition. Which is interesting. I’d like to hear from anyone with exposure to the other club competitions as to whether they’ve seen a jump in the overall quality during this period.

    Anyway, for me there is a common denominator in this leap forwards and that is the NRC. Players are going out and playing in this exciting structure, improving and then bringing that back to their clubs which is then driving other players around them to improve. The quality was excellent this season which has me excited for the NRC. If the trajectory continues it could deliver an amazing 12 weeks of Rugby.

  • Chinese Dave

    To answer the question in the title: Yes, resoundingly.

    How you can be against an additional, domestic, Rugby competition while claiming to be an Australian Rugby fan is beyond me.

    To address the three concerns, here’s my take.

    1. If you’re against everything the ARU does, on principle, then at the end of the day, after all the issues and politics, you’re against Australian Rugby. The ARU is a deeply flawed organisation, with some very compromised people at the helm, making some very bad decisions. But, the ARU is still working (badly) towards advancing Rugby in Australia. The Fox deal is a necessity, unless someone can show a workable solution to keep the comp afloat. And as mentioned above, you can watch for a dollar a month so money is no excuse.

    2. The teams being artificial. Well, all teams are. Find your reason to support a team and get behind it. I support NSW Country. I didn’t grow up in the country, hell, I didn’t even grow up in Australia, but I have a passing acquaintance with Matt Carraro and he was their captain so they’re my team. Easy. Pick a team and move on. Hopefully in twenty years from now the comp will still be going and your team will win (well unless you pick the Rays, fuck the Rays :)), and you can tell you (grand)kids that you supported the champions back in the day. We’ll even have the grace to not tell anyone that it took you three years to get on board!

    3. The effect on club Rugby. As mentioned above, the playing level effect is positive. As to the financial impact, well nothing good ever came out of shrinking a sport. There might be some short term pain but if this works it will improve the landscape for everyone.

    I doubt there are many people on G&GR who don’t support the NRC, but if you’re one of them, I urge you to change your mind and get on board the bandwagon.

    • Simon

      Teams seem artificial in the early days of any competition, but as the competition develops, so do the characters of the teams, the rivalries, etc. It’s still early days for the NRC in that regard. I don’t know about others, but I’m starting to develop a perception of character in some of the different teams. The two Qld teams, and Rays vs Rams vs Eagles especially.

  • Simon

    I think the NRC is exactly what rugby needs in this country. And not just the old joke about watching an Australian team win for a change, though that is part of it.

    Super Rugby matches are just too damn expensive to go to, especially if you want to secure a good seat. And it’s depressing to sit in a quarter-full stadium and be outnumbered by Kiwi fans. By contrast you pay 10 or 15 bucks at Ballymore (or free, this year!) and get a ripper seat right above the action and see rugby that is almost as good in terms of quality and even better in terms of excitement, due to the NRC focus on tries.

    It would be great if they could show some of them free to air but I guess we can’t have everything.

    Anyway, I’m going to head out in an hour or so to Ballymore, to watch Quade Cooper, Samu Kerevi and a host of others I’d normally have to pay $70+ to see from a good seat. Can’t wait.

    • Nicholas Wasiliev

      Great work mate! Wish I could be there to see the debut of the Drua. I’ll be at TG Millner for the Rams-NSW country match. Can’t wait!

  • Johnno

    Yes, but I’m quite critical of its scheduling of venues especially NSW country. Far out playing the Vikings in Armidale and Brisbane city in Orange… The nsw country vs Vikings game should be held in Cooma/Yass/Quenbeyan… And game vs Brisbane city should of been held in tweed heads/Lismore/or Armidale…
    I worry Fiji might need imports if they can’t find enough local players…

  • Julie T

    As a Perth (Pigs) Spirit fan I can’t wait for tomorrow. We’ve loved seeing our Pindan guys like Ruru, Hardwick, Vui, Rangi & others I’m sure play well in NRC & then be awarded with Super contracts. It really has been fulfilling the pathway of bridging club to Super. Also it gives the academy (Future Force) guys who may have been training & playing in club all year to actually test themselves at that higher level.

    But in all honesty. IF (and I say if, as we’re still fighting) the Force is axed, I don’t know how the Spirit will survive. With no professional infrastructure, no academy to feed the Force & no fringe Force players to play with, it would be a huge leap for purely club players.

  • G_Beard

    Stoked that the NRC is back – hanging out to watch my Perth Spirit team get into it at the Hill on Sunday.

  • Pfitzy

    Love the NRC. Dislike what my team (Rams) has come to represent after the change of ownership

  • Charcoal

    I’m a rusted on Shute Shield club supporter and I can’t see how anyone could suggest that the NRC is a threat to the respective Premier Club competitions. It complements them, giving the best of local club players the opportunity of stepping up to be noticed and mixing it with Super Rugby players on another level. I would however like to see a week’s break between the last of the club Grand Finals and the start of the NRC to give those players in the Grand Final the opportunity to refresh and gel with their respective NRC teams.

    I still have an issue though with regard to the identity and makeup of the NSW teams. This could equally apply to the Qld teams and to a lesser extent the Canberra team.

    While I can see the argument that it will take time to build support for a team made up of a mishmash of club players from across the respective regions, and this particularly applies to Sydney, you can’t ignore the fact that potential supporters are more likely to follow a team that includes their local club players in their region. When these players are spread across the three NSW teams, then they’re faced with the dilemma of which team do they choose to support? For example, if you’re a Manly supporter and despite most of your NRC representatives being in the Greater Sydney Rams’ squad, supposedly representing Western Sydney, what incentive is there to support your local region? Would you even bother going to the games?

    It’s not the same as players from different clubs making up the Waratahs’ roster, because the Waratahs represent the whole State, not individual regions. If there is a desire on the part of the ARU to foster tribal loyalty (assuming that is their aim) and build support in the respective communities, then there has to be a mandatory allocation of club players to each regional NRC team. There could be some exceptions for crossover where a particular player is unable to be recruited by an NRC team in his region because of an already full roster.

    Despite my allegiance, I am not comfortable with Eastwood taking control of the Greater Sydney Rams. The same could be said of the Tuggeranong Vikings ownership of the Canberra Vikings. In respect of the Rams, supposedly representing Western Sydney, the Parramatta and Penrith clubs have been completely shut out, without any representatives. How does that create any incentive for supporters of those clubs to support the Rams? I was at the Rams v Eagles game today and it was notable that there was no Horned Army present. That says it all.

    I consider the NRC to be a work in progress and although there are some improvements to this year’s competition, particularly reverting to the traditional points system, there is still much to be done to make it a complete product. Some exposure to FTA would help.

  • Andrew Luscombe

    Nick, you’ve touched on a number of issues, and sure, in a perfect world some of these things could have been done better (better alignment of clubs and NRC teams for example), but despite those things I agree it’s overall still a positive thing and beneficial for rugby as a whole in Australia.

    There are probably good reasons it started the way it did. Not all clubs and regional unions want to be involved initially. FTA wasn’t going to pay for an unproven comp just starting out.

    But just because it has started with some imperfections, doesn’t mean it will always be that way. In future years it might be on FTA, Shute Shield clubs might be aligned with their geographically nearest NRC team, and all rugby regional unions and clubs in Australia affiliated in some way with an NRC team.

    If people support it, and as far as they can help it develop, then it’s more likely the issues will be overcome.

Club Rugby
@Nick_Wasiliev

Die-hard Brumbies/Country Eagles fan now based in Sydney. Author, anthropologist, musician, second rower. Still trying to make sense of the 21st century. Dropped a debut novel last year...

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