Australian rugby’s new pyramid (scheme)

After Round 1 of Super Rugby Trans-Tasman, it’s evident we have a flawed tournament format. The Aussie teams play five Kiwi teams, while the five Kiwi teams play five Aussie teams. The Aussies have it harder. Because only two teams qualify for the final, only those with a full house of wins can realistically expect […]

Australian rugby’s new pyramid (scheme)

After Round 1 of Super Rugby Trans-Tasman, it’s evident we have a flawed tournament format.

The Aussie teams play five Kiwi teams, while the five Kiwi teams play five Aussie teams.

The Aussies have it harder. Because only two teams qualify for the final, only those with a full house of wins can realistically expect to make it.

Since no Australian teams can achieve a full house, and all New Zealand teams still can, it’s unlikely any AU teams will make the final.

Yes, I know, we were only a couple of conversions away from a different story, and Queensland might beat the ‘Saders and stay alive, but we all know we’ll most likely be watching two Kiwi teams contest the final on 19 June.

This isn’t a surprising turn of events, though. New Zealand is a great rugby nation and Kiwi domination has been the meta-narrative of Super Rugby’s intercontinental flying circus over the last 25 years.

New Zealand teams won more than their fair share, and our Aussie teams seldom played in or hosted finals. In fact, after 25 years of Super Rugby intercontinental, and 18 years of Bledisloe Cup misery, Australian rugby was in a death spiral.

Then came the pandemic, and SR’s intercontinental flying circus was put on hold. Super Rugby AU temporarily took its place.

These are facts: simply because an Australian team won every game in Super Rugby AU the mood changed. Winning translated into improved morale and commercial optimism.

Super Rugby AU’s success was not PR spin: the 236 per cent improvement in TV audience and 41,000 grand final attendance are real.

That’s a signal. That’s the market talking.

Rugby Australia should listen.

Let’s be honest: Rugby Australia has been lucky. If it wasn’t for COVID, they would never have held AU. When Lady Luck smiles at you, you should smile back.

(Photo by David Gray/AFP via Getty Images)

RA should accept they stumbled upon a tournament format that resonates with the market, and has unexpected commercial potential, which they would have never known about otherwise.

Whatever else happens in our uncertain world, the AU cat is out of the bag. RA should nurture AU and its confidence building finals series. It’s better for us than Trans-Tasman.

You know, tournament formats are debated endlessly by Australian rugby fans. Everyone’s got a theory on a better way to do things.

That’s because, for many reasons, SANZAAR never got their tournament formats right. I know why that was: they didn’t listen to the marketplace.

Instead, they created a complex intercontinental flying circus that confused and disappointed fans, while racking up the blazer brigade’s frequent flyer points.

It appeared, to outside observers, SANZAAR’s managers were managing our rugby for their own personal fringe benefits, and not for the good of rugby. I don’t know if that’s true, but let’s not repeat their mistakes in order to find out.

Anyway, tournament formats are an important topic, because getting that right creates a framework to inspire engagement from rugby stakeholders and casual sports fans alike. We should think harder about what the ‘ideal format’ looks like before we start pencilling in teams names against flawed structures.

I don’t want to describe the ideal format here. I do have some models in mind – I can write another article explaining if you are interested. Let me know in the comments.

But whatever the format, once understood, the conversation needs to move easily to stories about the teams and the players. The sporting narratives must develop organically, without requiring convoluted multi-ladder explanations requiring use of functions on a scientific calculator.

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Super Rugby AU had the mix right: the Queensland Reds fairy tale usurping the defending champion ACT Brumbies; and the underdog Western Australia Force foreign legion rising like the phoenix to beat their arch enemy Melbourne Rebels to make a SR final for the first time in their history.

These are the kind of stories that burned on rugby advocates love to tell to casual sports fans. That’s how interest in the game grows.

This year, we had our own Australian rugby stories to tell. That’s important.

Tom Robertson of the Force

Tom Robertson. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

When RA think about tournament formats, they should think independently from what New Zealand Rugby Union want, because they don’t have our best interests at heart.

They are motivated by access to Australia’s bigger economy and bigger potential TV audience to achieve their own commercial ends. They want to lock Australian rugby into their scheme.

We should still play rugby against New Zealand teams, of course we should. Just not so much.

Australian rugby needs to get tougher in the boardroom in order to give our players the best chance of winning on the field.

For example, why do we agree a best-of-three Bledisloe Cup series every year? There are too many dead rubbers and it’s hard for the Wallabies to win two from three.

The All Blacks don’t need any extra help. Let’s return two of those Tests to the Rugby Championship and make the third Test a one-off, winner-takes-all Bledisloe blockbuster.

There’s no cost to that fixture improvement. Strong negotiation could make a Bledisloe blockbuster happen for our Wallabies, this year.

Winning on the field starts with strong negotiation off the field: deciding what’s best for Australian rugby, our people, and not what’s best for New Zealand Rugby Union blazer brigade.

Commercially thinking, why would we bind ourselves exclusively to NZRU again when we could get closer to Japan – the third largest economy in the world, who just hosted the most commercially successful Rugby World Cup ever, qualified for the quarter-finals and have 120 million potential TV viewers in our time-zone?

Japan last toured Australia in 1975, playing two Tests against the Wallabies and matches against six State and country teams. It has been 43 years between drinks.

Since 1975, how much rugby have we played against New Zealand teams? The balance is wrong.

There are 102 member unions in World Rugby. RA could consider a greater variety, starting with Japan.

Encouragingly, COVID proved our rugby administrators can think on their feet. Actually, international variety aside, resuscitating Australian rugby should be thought of as if consuming a food pyramid.

•80 per cent green vegetables: the grassroots, clubs, schools, districts rugby. Build a strong foundation
•15 per cent representative rugby: sub-unions, country rugby, interstate and territories rugby, national and interstate club tournaments. Super Rugby AU. The proteins
•Five per cent international treats. The Cadbury chocolate on top!

During the days of the Super Rugby intercontinental flying circus, the supply of international treats exceeded demand to the extent that the stadiums were empty and no one watched on TV. The costs of maintaining the model were astronomical and the ship was sinking.

We’ve had our rugby pyramid upside down.

Just like a food pyramid, if you eat too many treats and not enough healthy vegetables and proteins, you’ll tire of the treats, and you’ll risk your health.

We need to turn Australia’s rugby pyramid the right way up.

The grassroots foundation of rugby is its advocacy.

The rugby community are the ones who pay for Stan subscriptions, buy tickets to Super Rugby and encourage their friends to watch the Wallabies.

RA know this, but there’s a logical implication. If you get the supply and demand of treats right (not so many) you’ll sell all your treats (at a higher price).

You’ll have full stadiums, strong revenues, and a healthy game.

Source : The Roar More   

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Why Australian rugby should go it alone

How good was it to see 42,000 screaming rugby fans watching the two best rugby teams in Australia fight out an epic final on home soil in prime time on free-to-air TV? Exhilarating. Spine-tingling. Rugby’s back, baby! As a proud Brumbies supporter I’ll admit to a few sour grapes over one or two decisions on […]

Why Australian rugby should go it alone

How good was it to see 42,000 screaming rugby fans watching the two best rugby teams in Australia fight out an epic final on home soil in prime time on free-to-air TV?

Exhilarating. Spine-tingling. Rugby’s back, baby!

As a proud Brumbies supporter I’ll admit to a few sour grapes over one or two decisions on the night, but it was a fitting end to an enjoyable competition and a great night for the sport in this country.

Let’s fast-forward a week. Our teams have just been handed a reality check by our Kiwi cousins, we’re zero from five and things are not likely to get better. There was a sense that the Super Rugby AU optimism had been crushed.

Before Super Rugby Trans-Tasman started I thought the Reds and Brumbies would be competitive, with one of them a good chance to make the final, the Rebels and Force might have grabbed a win or two each, and the Tahs would provide cannon fodder for all – maybe ten to 12 wins from the 25 games.

Now I think we’ll be lucky to get five wins, and maybe one of our teams might make the top half of the table.

Any sense of optimism has evaporated. The Kiwis are just bigger, stronger and faster. Their skills are better, they play quicker and run harder and their kicking game and tactics are miles ahead. Worst of all is they’re smarter rugby players too – and I feel dirty after writing that.

At a national level the comparison between New Zealand and Australia is stark. They have created an incredible system for developing rugby players, ours is stuck somewhere around 1986; rugby is their national sport and attracts their best athletes, rugby is a fringe sport in Australia and our best athletes play league or AFL; their administration is competent, professional and laser-focused on global domination, ours are a collection of private school old boys dedicated to Scotch whiskey appreciation, leather elbow patches and propping up the Shute Shield; their coffers are brimming with private equity money, we would struggle to find enough cash to hold a chook raffle.

In short, I do not believe that Australia can sustain five competitive teams in Super Rugby. Repeated drubbings at the hands of the Kiwi teams will erode interest and support in Australia and probably in New Zealand too. If we continue with the status quo, we will go from circling the bowl to being flushed for good. So what should we do?

I will present four options, starting from the least likely.

Salesi Rayasi (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Option 1
The first idea is to implement a draft that would distribute talent more equally across all teams in the competition. It’s rugby socialism, essentially moving some New Zealand players to Australian teams and shifting a number of Aussie players to New Zealand teams. A salary cap and draft would be required in this scenario to ensure fair-ish player distribution.

This would create a more balanced Super Rugby competition, would probably make the Wallabies stronger and would probably make the All Blacks weaker. Sounds awesome! It’s a good option, but the only problem is that the New Zealand Rugby Union would never, ever in a billion years agree.

Option 2
My next option is that Rugby AU finds a fairy godmother billionaire who is willing to sprinkle a portion of his/her fortune on Australian rugby – paging Andrew Forrest; other eligible billionaires may also apply. With this extra dough we could compete with European and Japanese club wages and get some of our better players back on home soil. We might also attract a higher class of foreign talent, the odd league mercenary and a few of those schoolboy superstars who flirt with union before signing with league.

I really like this option, but unfortunately fairy godmothers are in short supply.

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Option 3
Next: remove two or possibly even three of our teams and consolidate their better players in the surviving teams, essentially what the New Zealand Rugby Union tried to force on us last year. The remaining teams would likely be more competitive.

A quick look at the history of Super Rugby shows we became much less competitive as we added teams. With three teams in Super 12 over ten years we had 11 semi-finalists who made six finals and won the competition twice. With four teams in Super 14 and Super Rugby (after the Force were cut) over seven years we had four semi-finalists who made one final. With five teams over seven years we had six semi-finalists and three finalists, winning the competition twice.

So who gets cut? New South Wales and Queensland have the votes on the Rugby AU board, so it’s the Force (again), the Rebels and maybe the Brumbies. We now have two or three possibly more competitive teams, but the damage to the game would be huge. Supporters of the defunct teams would be somewhere between devastated and furious, Rugby Australia would have even less revenue, there would be less content for the local broadcaster, promising players would be denied a pathway or forced overseas et cetera.

I hate this option. I like the Force and the Rebels and I support the Brumbies. Our fans deserve a team to follow. Also, the Waratahs suck.

Kyle Godwin of the Western Force runs with the ball

Kyle Godwin. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

Option 4
Let’s bite the bullet and go it alone. Why do we need to torture ourselves with weekly comparisons to the clearly superior Kiwi teams or tear the game apart by cutting teams?

There a few options here, so let’s consider two. First, we keep Super Rugby AU and double the length. Each team plays four games against the others, giving us a 22-week competition, including four byes and finals. It’s perhaps the least risky option, but playing the same team four times in season may start to feel a bit stale.

A second option is a tweaked NRC model. Add three teams – one from NSW (Western Sydney makes sense), one from Queensland, and either another NSW team or a Fijian or Pacifica team. Eight teams playing home and away will give us an 18-week competition with two byes each and two weeks of finals.

Assuming no private equity or magic billionaire money, our existing funds would have to cover the wages and costs of three new teams, which would mean pay cuts for all existing players, and some form of salary cap and/or draft would be required too. Many of our highest profile players would leave for overseas clubs, to be replaced by club players on much lower wages.

Our policy of only selecting local players for the Wallabies would also have to be abandoned, as most of the Wallabies squad would be playing overseas until the local competition matured and was able to offer higher wages, which could take a decade or more. If the competition were successful, it could be expanded to ten or 12 teams in the future.

Obviously there are a few more options than what I’ve touched on above. If there’s a good response to this article, I will write a follow-up considering options for a domestic rugby competition in more detail.

Source : The Roar More   

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