Super Rugby mess costing the Australian game dearly

If you thought all this Super Rugby hand-wringing was about a couple of small, broke clubs and their whinging fans, you were wrong.
Nanjing Night Net

Sorting out the format and make-up of the competition is about the future of the Wallabies as much as it is about the Orange Emus. It’s about that mythical trophy, the Bledisloe Cup, and whether Australian fans ever again see a Test captain thrust it aloft.

It’s about your local rugby clubhouse, whose door you probably haven’t darkened in a while but boy, weren’t you dismayed when you woke up and read its volunteer board was trying to sell the joint to finance a future. The longer the Australian Rugby Union accepts a competition that makes less and less money for its Super Rugby clubs, the less money it has to grow the game anywhere else.

Just how much money is the ARU ploughing into clubs with falling attendances and members? Try an extra $8 million last year. Its forthcoming annual report is expected to reveal a total spend of $33 million in direct cash funding across the five clubs in 2016, up $8million on 2015 figures and $13million since 2014 – the year the Waratahs won Super Rugby.

Not all of that is good money after bad. But head office spent at least $3 million bailing out the Western Force last year, and that is on top of the $3 million it spent on the Melbourne Rebels the year before while the club was between private equity deals. In 2010 the ARU threw a few million dollars at the failing QRU, which followed the $5 million it gave the NSWRU a decade earlier. Imagine what $3million could do in other parts of the game right now.

Try the Australian Under-20s, who will play in the world championships in Georgia in May. In the nine years the tournament has existed, Australia’s juniors have never won. They have played in a final once – the same year then-QRU chief Jim Carmichael went cap in hand to the ARU – and in the bronze medal match just twice. Since 2011 they have not finished better than fifth. Over the past two years, ARU strategists have quietly overhauled the national U20s program, setting up provincial squads attached to the five Super Rugby clubs and launching a Super U20s Championship to give the 60-odd squad members regular game time.

But this is a program that operates on a budget of less than $1million a year, paying its coach somewhere in the vicinity of $30,000, in an area that every other major rugby-playing nation recognises as an area of crucial strategic import.

It is no secret that England’s recent dominance at the U20s level – they have won three of the last four titles – is translating now into a golden era at Test level. That’s not all down to Eddie Jones. The last Test nation to beat the All Blacks? Ireland, whose U20s played in the final last year. The IRFU, like the RFU, employ full-time coaches, strength and conditioners.

In fact, the strides made by both those countries ruffled serious feathers across the ditch. New Zealand won the first four titles on offer when the world championships started in 2008 but didn’t win again until 2015 and finished fifth last year. It is no surprise then that almost 50 of New Zealand’s best young players are about to assemble for their second five-day camp in the lead-up to the tournament in Georgia. In contrast, the new Australian U20s coach Simon Cron, who coaches the team part-time in addition to his Shute Shield duties, will not have all his players in one room until the beginning of April. They will have three days together and then meet again at the end of the month for an eight-day Oceania tournament alongside New Zealand, Samoa and Fiji. Necessity will dictate Cron use the tournament for some serious trial-and-error, in the hope that by the end of May he will be able to take a competitive side to Europe.

Imagine what a small slice of that semi-regular bailout money could do for the next generation of Wallabies. As outspoken club rugby identity Brett Papworth is fond of saying, there are too many good causes in Australian rugby and nowhere near enough money to fund them all. Club rugby, sevens, the U20s. They should all be in the minds of the administrators at the SANZAAR meeting on Friday.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.