Consolidate to survive: Five teams must become four if Super Rugby is to survive

Australian rugby made some real strides during the COVID period. The Reds and Brumbies have been strong, the Force and Wallabies improved, and the new TV deal has seen ratings rise. As we enter the beginning of the end of COVID, Rugby Australia is redesigning the Super Rugby competition and, if there is one lesson […]

Consolidate to survive: Five teams must become four if Super Rugby is to survive

Australian rugby made some real strides during the COVID period.

The Reds and Brumbies have been strong, the Force and Wallabies improved, and the new TV deal has seen ratings rise.

As we enter the beginning of the end of COVID, Rugby Australia is redesigning the Super Rugby competition and, if there is one lesson they must learn from the Trans-Tasman competition, it is that Australia absolutely cannot field five teams in the future.

In the new competition, Australia will need teams winning every week, pushing deep into the finals and, yes, winning championships.

In the crowded Australian sporting market, the standard has to be very high for punters to switch on the rugby over the NRL or the AFL.

With this, and the 23 out of 25 Trans-Tasman losses in mind, there is one harsh truth that we as Australian rugby fans must learn: we must consolidate to survive.

Let me explain.

The core argument is simple: cutting a team makes Australian rugby stronger, and we need to be stronger.

Cutting a club results in a higher concentration of player and coaching talent which, in turn, builds stronger rugby teams.

Without stronger rugby sides, we cannot compete with New Zealand and, if we fail to compete with our cousins across the ditch, Super Rugby is doomed. No one will buy into a competition that is uncompetitive; our sides must become stronger, this is a fact.

(Photo by Mark Evans/Getty Images)

A stronger and more vibrant competition will attract higher TV ratings, greater fan engagement and more sponsorship dollars for the remaining clubs.

The core assumption here is that the competitiveness of a competition is key to its success.

For an example of this, you need to look no further than the 2021 Super Rugby AU competition.

This competition was not necessarily of a high rugby standard, but the competition between sides was excellent, and this resonated with the rugby public; culminating in more than 40,000 people attending the grand final and over half a million watching on TV.

This sort of close, competitive competition format must be replicated in the new Super Rugby competition. If Rugby Australia can succeed in doing this, not only will it keep Australian rugby alive, but it will provide us with an opportunity to thrive.

There are those within the rugby community who argue that a competition with one less Australian team will result in fewer games and consequently, less TV revenue.

This certainly is true (at least in the short term) but it is a trade-off that has to be considered, as an additional game per week in an uncompetitive comp is hardly going to translate into ratings, ticket sales or sponsorship.

This financial trade-off becomes particularly pertinent when you consider the case of the Melbourne Rebels and their finances.

Like every Australian club, the Rebels rely on Rugby Australia funding to survive and RA have spent tens of millions propping up the Rebels over the past decade. This may have been a justified expansion strategy ten years ago but, certainly in 2021, this is no longer the case.

Every dollar sunk into the Melbourne Rebels is a dollar taken from grassroots rugby or high performance rugby and, if the Rebels were cut, Rugby Australia would have millions of dollars a year of extra investment.

If these savings were spent on high performance, Australia would be in a much better position to prevent players such as Samu Kerevi, Will Skelton, Richie Arnold, Brandon Paenga-Amosa, Marika Koroibete and Sean McMahon from leaving the country.

Will Skelton of La Rochelle

Will Skelton. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Not only would this have benefits for the Super Rugby clubs that produced these players, but it would have flow-on effects for their sponsors, and, of course, for the Wallabies.

Alternatively, the savings from the Melbourne Rebels could be spent on grassroots.

If the money was given to clubland, spent on getting rugby union into state schools, or pumped directly into community rugby in Victoria, the fact remains: the money that could be saved from propping up a failing club could be used to create sustained long-term growth in the game.

To my mind, the question is not should we consolidate, but who should go?

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And the answer is undoubtedly the Melbourne Rebels.

There are a number of reasons the Rebels must fold and the aforementioned financial reasons are chief among them. But beyond the finances, the Rebels, on and off the field, are an uncompetitive club.

In terms of their on-field results, the Rebels have spent a decade playing rugby with very little success and show no signs of turning this around.

With the exception of Super Rugby AU 2020, they have never made the finals.

They have been stronger in the past, however, their strongest ever season saw them finish ninth (2018) and they have never completed a season with more wins than losses or with a positive points differential.

The long and the short of it is that the Rebels have been poor for a very long time.

The Rebels’ on-field performances may not have been strong, but their recent off-field performance may be worse.

They have seen a revolving door of player movement across the course of their existence, and the player exodus has accelerated in the past few seasons.

Last year alone, 19 players left the Rebels with established players Anaru Rangi, Luke Jones, Angus Cottrell, Tom English and Billy Meeks among them.

If not to add insult to injury, the Rebels have sacked their head coach this year, they are very likely to lose marquee players Marika Koroibete and Isi Naisarani to overseas clubs, and their captain, Dane Haylett-Petty, to concussion symptoms.

These poor results and the revolving squad have all but severed the Melbourne side’s connection to their fans. While rugby union has a small but stable community presence in Victoria, this does not translate to fan engagement for the Rebels.

Reece Hodge of the Rebels

(Photo by Michael Dodge/Getty Images)

Attendance at Rebels games has decreased steadily over the past few years. This year’s Rebels-Force game attracted just 3,983 spectators – this may seem like an anomaly, but their highest attendance this season was against the Waratahs, where they attracted just 5,156 spectators.

Between the on-field struggle, the erosion of the playing squad, the persistent financial issues and the absence of a firm fan-base, the Rebels sadly really are a lost cause and the sooner Australian rugby realises that, the better.

Instead of continuing to prop up the Rebels, it would be far wiser for Rugby Australia to take what remains of the Rebels squad and absorb it into the other four provinces. Spending millions more to maintain an uncompetitive side would be a mistake.

The Rebels don’t have to completely die – they could be merged with the Brumbies and play games across both Canberra and Melbourne. But whatever the end scenario, consolidation is key.

If you remain unconvinced, consider the warning issued by Eddie Jones (in 2010, no less): “The reason they’re in is because of TV rights.

“The current 14-team competition is just starting to find its feet [and the] addition of another Australian franchise is not good for Australian rugby.”

Jones went on: “Another Australian side is just going to weaken the third and fourth teams. It’s unrealistic for Australia to have five teams and it will be bad for Wallaby rugby in the short-term, for the next ten to 15 years.”

We didn’t heed the warning and look where we are now.

Australia is stronger with four teams: it was true 11 years ago, and it is true now.

Australia must consolidate to survive.

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Brumbies: Never look a gift horse in the mouth!

In 2010, Collingwood president Eddie McGuire appointed Nathan Buckley assistant coach, despite the latter having never coached. It was part of a workplace transition plan to take over from head coach Mick Malthouse in 2012. Malthouse then moving into director of coaching, affording a graduated transition over four years. The aim: to ensure Buckley could […]

Brumbies: Never look a gift horse in the mouth!

In 2010, Collingwood president Eddie McGuire appointed Nathan Buckley assistant coach, despite the latter having never coached.

It was part of a workplace transition plan to take over from head coach Mick Malthouse in 2012. Malthouse then moving into director of coaching, affording a graduated transition over four years.

The aim: to ensure Buckley could learn as much as he could from one of the best coaches in the game.

When asked how Buckley’s transition would proceed, journalist Bruce McAvaney reported Malthouse offered: “Nathan will be given latitude and be accepted by the players initially, because of who he is and who he was… as a player!

“But as time goes on, the players will ask: ‘how is Nathan going to help me get better?’ It’s how Nathan answers that question, will determine if he will transition from great player to great coach!”

McGuire’s famous transition plan never panned out. For whatever reason, Buckley didn’t want Malthouse sitting above him.

Ex-players gifted professional coaching roles without doing the ‘yards’ can be problematic. One reason is the way professional programs are structured – players seldom have to think too far outside of their role.

Yet even assistant roles at professional level require interdependent understanding.

Further, Eddie Jones recently said:

“The problem with coaching now is that players are being taught by ex-players and not teachers.

“You see a lot of guys from my era that were ex-teachers, it definitely gave us a head start as we knew how to organise a group.

“Knew how to speak to them… you go into any classroom, and you try to work out the three or four kids who are either going to make the class good or disrupt the class and you try to establish a relationship with them.

“It was the same at the Brumbies, understanding which players were going to be influential, establish a relationship with them and which players maybe I needed to move on, and getting those mechanics right.”

Eddie Jones (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

While directly referencing teachers, looking at his mentors, he is also referring to coaches who ‘teach’.
For example, Bob Dwyer, whose career was in real estate. Jones (as did Dwyer) had another mentor – himself a great teacher despite not being formally trained in the profession.

Cyril Towers is regarded as the ‘father’ of Randwick rugby.

His span of influence also included a small public school in southern Sydney – Matraville High.

The 1977 Matraville High rugby team was a fine example of Australia’s multiculturalism. An eclectic mix of ethnic and first Australian backgrounds.

Bob Dwyer recalled attending a Waratahs Shield match between Matraville and St Joseph’s College, Hunters Hill (Joeys):

“When I watched the two teams come out, it looked like a scene out of an American movie. We were seeing kids from the wrong side of the tracks trying their hand against the superstars.

“One team ran out beautifully attired, fit, strong and healthy. The other – skinny legs and socks around their ankles.”

Matraville sent shockwaves through the stodgy rugby community by defeating the 30-time GPS champions.

Five players in the Matraville team have since gone on to change the face and fortunes of Australian rugby. The Ella Brothers, Mark, Glen and Gary; Lloyd Walker and Eddie Jones.

For ex-players who successfully transitioned to enjoy long-term coaching careers, there are some common themes:

1. They started coaching either in school or club rugby and worked their way through to professional ranks
2. They were coaching while they were playing:
a) Rod Kafer was the first player-coach to win a Super Rugby title and Heineken Cup with the Brumbies and Leicester. Further, Phil Kearns in 2000 stated that Kafer was pivotal in Australia’s World Cup win in 1999, despite not featuring as a player during the playoffs.
b) Dan Palmer and Ben Mowen both coached the Brumbies scrum and lineout, respectively, while still playing between 2012 and 2014
3. They were part of environments where significant ‘workplace learning’ was a feature.

Jones recognised and enabled Kafer’s attributes.

Similarly, Laurie Fisher further recognised and enabled the same in Palmer and Mowen.

Dan Palmer is enjoying a post-rugby career in coaching. (AAP Image/Alan Porritt)

Emotional quotient is an attribute common among the ‘great’ coaches.

Why? Because the best coaches don’t have to be the smartest in the room. They recruit, develop and enable world-class expertise where gaps are in their programs.

But first, they need to be generalist enough to know where the gaps are. Then they need appropriate expertise to coordinate all interdependent variables in one direction.

Why then would Buckley not want one of the great all-time coaches around? Was it insecurity?

We’ll never know.

The Brumbies have been gifted a massive opportunity, in the future development of their people, through Dan McKellar’s deserved promotion to the Wallabies.

McKellar is one of the great stories of resilience and having an optimistic mindset.

He started as a country rugby player with Burdekin Canetoads, progressing to colts, then premier grade at Souths in Brisbane.

From Souths and at the ripe old age of 29, he received a contract with the Reds.

When transitioning to coaching, McKellar didn’t take the easy option.

Instead, he started back in club rugby to learn the trade, initially as an assistant under Souths legend and mentor, Ian Cameron.

He led Souths to a grand final in 2009, before transitioning to full-time head coach with Tuggeranong Vikings, Canberra in 2011.

Won two premierships and an Australian Club Championship with Vikings (defeating both Sunnybank and Sydney University).

Laurie Fisher, intrigued as to whether Vikings’ success was recruitment or coaching-based, watched them train in mid 2012.

He returned a McKellar fan, estimating that they moved around the field at around 20 metres per minute faster than other club sides. McKellar’s athletic performance coach, Ben Norcott, was a big part of this, as well.

In late 2013, Fisher’s first act as Brumbies director of rugby was to poach McKellar from Japan.

Under the banner of ‘workplace learning’, I have previously highlighted the importance of head coaching at Premier Club level as a contextual steppingstone to becoming an elite rugby head coach.

Another part of McKellar’s effective transition from assistant to head coach at Super level was Stephen Larkham occupying dual roles with the Wallabies and Brumbies from 2015.

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This afforded opportunity, in conjunction with athletic performance guru Ben Serpell, to coordinate the Brumbies program in Larkham’s absence.

The key being through the off-season and without ‘game’ pressure that can overwhelm and affect decision-making.

Serpell’s influence during this period can’t be underestimated.

While head of athletic performance from 2016 until the end of 2019, the Brumbies were able to achieve two seasons where player availability for training and games was above 95 per cent.

Additionally, during the season, individual players improved across all physiological markers. Arguably the world’s best metrics across any sport, let alone a heavy collision sport.

This is a key measure (outside of traditional win-loss) of ‘programming’ effectiveness.

The other is injuries. During this period, the Brumbies were the best prepared and least injured.

Larkham recognised he had a world-class coaching team (others included John Pryor – consultant, athletic performance, Peter Ryan – defence and Dan Palmer – scrum) and while setting the structure for responsibility, he trusted each, to interdependently contribute.

Munster coach Stephen Larkham

Stephen Larkham (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

In terms of coach development, think open water training 50 metres off White Sands Beach, Kodiak Island, Alaska before being dropped off in the middle of the Baring Sea during hurricane season, versus an outdoor pool in San Diego… then being dropped in the middle of the Baring Sea!

In leading the Wallaby forwards, McKellar will be afforded the opportunity to experience the requirements at that level and take the learnings back to the Brumbies at completion.

McKellar’s world-class expertise is matched by the other coaches within the Wallaby setup, all bringing an eclectic mix of variety in strengths:

• Dave Rennie, bearing responsibility for final decision-making
• Scott Wisemantel (attack)
• Matt Taylor (defence)
• John Pryor (athletic performance)
• Ben Serpell (consultant)

There will, however, be greater diversity of views of effective player and team preparation within this group than Dan has been used to in recent years.

Post the 2007 World Cup, Robbie Deans was favoured to take over as All Blacks head coach.

All Black captain Richie McCaw came out in support of the then coaching group, Graham Henry, Steve Hansen, Wayne Smith, Mick Byrne and Gilbert Enoka.

New Zealand captain Richie McCaw

Richie McCaw (AP Photo/Scott Heppell)

Stating he was happy to play under either (head coach), he expressed concern (to the board) that Deans would surround himself with support staff who wouldn’t challenge him.

Under Henry, the coaching group challenged each other constantly – always in search of the best result. McCaw felt it was one of their strengths.

Deans, on the other hand, had a history of falling out with and then replacing his assistants.

History shows that New Zealand Rugby Union’s strength in supporting that coaching group led to the All Blacks becoming one of the greatest teams in the history of all sport.

I am a massive fan of Dan McKellar. I hope that this change of scenery will propel him to the next level in his coaching.

Laurie Fisher and Dan McKellar are incredibly similar.

There is an argument that they could be one voice in a coaching room which may drown out others, particularly with a talented, but relatively young coaching group.

With McKellar’s Wallaby appointment, the Brumbies have a wonderful opportunity for workplace growth in their high performance staff.

It’s inevitable that being an assistant again will bring (slightly) less pressure.

With a little more room ‘upstairs’, my hope is that McKellar is able to reflect on the benefits of an eclectic environment where shared ideas and debate is a feature, then encourage more of that from his less experienced assistants on return to the Brumbies.

Laurie Fisher, aside from being one of the world’s best coaches, has also been an incredible mentor to many. Mowen and Palmer are examples. The one thing missing from his career at the moment is international coaching.

If McKellar continues his improvement, he is in pole position to be the next Wallaby coach. That potentially forbids opportunity for Fisher to cap off a remarkable coaching career, by finally realising that dream.

If there was ever a time that bucking the trend of hopelessly short term thinking in rugby (in general), this is it for the Brumbies leadership!

The easy option would be to say, “Lord, you run the program while Dan is away.”

What is the pitfall of that? A potential disaster in IP dissolution post the 2023 World Cup (if both Fisher and McKellar move on).

What is the alternative and what are the potential benefits?

With no NRC and effectively five months before the start of the next pre-season, there is opportunity to provide each member of the coaching group with extra responsibility without the suffocating stress and decision limiting, week-to-week game pressure.

Allow them to develop appreciable voice and contextual experience that will more greatly serve the organisation, both within the coaching room moving forward and also two years down the track when change is more than likely.

It will allow Rod Seib to step up with relevant contextual program management experience, similar to that of McKellar in 2017.

What else can potentially be gained?

With Fisher in an over-arching avuncular role, the ability to look from the outside in.

In addition to accelerating workforce progression, utilise action research in some experimentation via linking athletic performance and skill for more robust individual development – an area that’s gaining more traction in sport.

Innovation has always been at the heart of the Brumbies:

•McQueen’s democratising of Leadership ’96–’97
• ones’s changing of the game ’98-’01
•Fisher and Scrivener’s skills focus in ‘04
•Benton’s overarching program management and maximisation of resources ’12-’13
• Serpell’s maximisation of physical output, injury reduction and leadership research and implementation ’16- ’19.

They have the personnel, and the time is right for the next evolution.

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