The coaches want it, and now it seems RA’s appetite for the NRC might be growing

It didn’t get much traction on the east coast, but comments from Western Force coach Tim Sampson in a Nick Taylor article in The West Australian last week added yet more weight to a growing sentiment in Australian rugby. “We had seen enough of Ollie over the last year or so to back him, but […]

The coaches want it, and now it seems RA’s appetite for the NRC might be growing

It didn’t get much traction on the east coast, but comments from Western Force coach Tim Sampson in a Nick Taylor article in The West Australian last week added yet more weight to a growing sentiment in Australian rugby.

“We had seen enough of Ollie over the last year or so to back him, but without a second-tier competition there is an element of risk for some players jumping from club rugby to Super Rugby with nothing in between,” Sampson said of young backrower Ollie Callan, who earned his first starts for the Force in the final games of Super Rugby trans-Tasman.

“Certainly, there is a bit of the unknown and it’s a huge step for some players who might be thrown into the deep end when they might not be quite ready.

“Without a two-tier competition there is a gaping hole. It is an extremely important stage in a player’s development,” Sampson said.

It’s a pretty obvious statement based on plenty of evidence just this year alone. Callan has made a pretty good fist of Super Rugby so far, and so has someone like Isaac Henry with the Queensland Reds.

But for every Callan and Henry, there’s someone like young Brumbies prop Archer Holz, and Waratahs winger James Turner, hugely talented players both of them, but they quickly learned just how big a step it now is from club rugby to the professional level.

Holz, at least, had been training with the Brumbies squad as a rookie pro; Turner and several other Waratahs call-ups in this season of injury hell were just plucked straight from first grade.

Tim Sampson’s comments were accurate, but the accuracy was only part of it. More significant was the fact that he was now the third current Australian Super Rugby coach – of five – to publicly lament the loss of the National Rugby Championship last year.

Now, the reasons for the NRC’s demise are obvious: Rugby Australia simply couldn’t afford to run the competition in the face of brutal and necessary cost-cutting. Even if they wanted to play the NRC last season, there were simply much higher financial priorities.

In many ways and to many people, it was a convenient casualty of a pandemic that impacted the governing body’s finances like they’d never been hit before.

But while the reasoning for discontinuing the NRC were understandable, the impact of not having that vital development bridge between Premier Rugby around the country and the Super Rugby programs hit home far quicker than was perhaps anticipated.

All five states were hit by injuries at different times, forcing them to call in injury replacements and granting hurried opportunities to academy and club players well before they would normally be declared ready. The Brumbies used 37 players through Super Rugby, and the Waratahs’ tally is quite likely higher.

Only a week before Tim Sampson had his say, Reds coach Brad Thorn had already made his view clear.

“The thing I’ll say is, my concern, is not having the NRC, this is the second year now,” Thorn said a few days after the Reds beat the Chiefs in Townsville.

“And you look at the Crusaders, they’ve got Tasman and they’ve got Canterbury, two of the strongest teams in the NPC, plus the academy.

“And for us we had (Queensland) Country and (Brisbane) City and you look at all our players who have come through that middle ground between club and Super.

“So not having the NRC, to me, it’s a tough one. Something has to be done.”

Brad Thorn. Down with N-P-C. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

McKellar has been on this same page for some time, though takes a view that whether it’s something like the NRC or something that brings existing clubs together on the national stage, it doesn’t matter. But something is still needed to bridge the ever-increasing gap.

Back in late April, he again raised the idea of an FA Cup-style national knockout competition that was first raised more than a year ago as the broadcast negotiations heated up.

“Having that next tier of competition is important moving forward. I think that [Cup-style tournament] is fair, then everyone is involved and the best survive,” the new Wallabies forwards coach said at the time.

“You’ll get your upsets which will create a whole lot of interest, like we see in soccer both overseas and in Australia. We see who the best of the best is.”

When three of the five coaches are saying player development is now harder without an NRC or some other competition in its place, you’d like to think their concerns were being heard at head office. But there hadn’t been much evidence that that was the case.

You can imagine my surprise, then, when RA CEO Andy Marinos was suddenly and enthusiastically agreeing with Thorn and the other coaches, even lamenting the fact that without that next tier competition, Australia will only continue to drop further behind New Zealand, South Africa, and even England and France.

“He’s (Thorn) not wrong, he’s not wrong,” Marinos told Christy Doran for an article on the Fox Sports site.

“If you look at any great structure in the world, there are those competitions and it’s a part of what I’ve been saying since I’ve come in. We’ve got to have a bottom-up approach, not a top-down approach to the game in this country if we’re going to be sustainable.

“As we start embarking on a new strategic plan and a new strategic direction, the competition structure of having a second-tier competition – for want of a better word – that underpins what’s happening at Super Rugby level is going to become even more important because we have a group of players who play Super Rugby and can drop back into the Shute Shield and Hospital Cup but then after those competitions finish there’s very little rugby for them.”

Marinos went on to say that competition structures were being floated and determined, and that “I’d like to look at getting a second-tier structure underway in 2022 at least, so we can start building momentum”.

Getting Australia’s rugby structures right were also going to play an important role in building toward RA’s bid to host the 2027 Rugby World Cup and, you could safely assume, cashing in on and benefiting from the event thereafter.

“If we can have that by the time we have the World Cup in 2027 and we have a flourishing first, second and third-tier domestic rugby competition structure, I think that would be a really big statement for the game,” he said.

Well, colour me shocked.

This was the first public utterances I’d seen from anyone with the highest levels of Rugby Australia over the last year that were different to the very public position that utilising and strengthening existing Premier Rugby clubs around the country was the best way forward.

Marinos’ comment, that “it’s a part of what I’ve been saying since I’ve come in” made my ears prick up too.

Because that wasn’t the vibe I got when I raised the future of the NRC during a meet-and-greet discussion with Marinos I was part of in Canberra back in February.

Promoting the game at the community and club level around the country, strengthening club comps in Canberra, Melbourne, and Perth so that they were not too dissimilar to the levels in Brisbane and Sydney, and looking at ways of bringing existing clubs together on a national stage was very much the plan, Marinos told us, which was consistent with what Chairman Hamish McLennan had been saying since he’d come in earlier last year.

So, if Marinos had been talking about implementing – or reinstating, more accurately – a next tier competition in between club and Super Rugby, he’d not been saying it much. Because no-one from Rugby Australia had been.

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Hence my surprise at his comments now.

I’ve maintained ever since the demise of the NRC that I would be pleasantly surprised if it ever returned, and that remains the case.

Even with Marinos now seemingly putting it back on the agenda, I remain hopeful rather than encouraged, and still a long way short of confident.

But the fact it is back on the agenda and up for discussion again, at least, is a very welcome development, for fans, players, and coaches alike.

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The Wrap: Five-try Wainui reveals Super Rugby’s bald truth

Sean Wainui scoring five tries on Saturday night – a Super Rugby record – was impressive enough, but it was what he said afterwards that was the real story. Asked what lay ahead for him, Wainui said he was looking forward to playing provincial rugby for Bay of Plenty and was hopeful of a call-up […]

The Wrap: Five-try Wainui reveals Super Rugby’s bald truth

Sean Wainui scoring five tries on Saturday night – a Super Rugby record – was impressive enough, but it was what he said afterwards that was the real story.

Asked what lay ahead for him, Wainui said he was looking forward to playing provincial rugby for Bay of Plenty and was hopeful of a call-up next week for the Maori All Blacks. In other words, Wainui will spend his next few months in professionally run rugby programs, playing intense, high-level rugby, before enjoying an off-season ahead of next year’s Super Rugby competition.

What about Wainui’s equivalents in Australia? Players who are solid, talented professionals without being of genuine international standard? What is their rugby program for the rest of the year?

Without a domestic semi-professional competition there are three options: rest, club rugby or a contract in the northern hemisphere, none of which is likely to improve Australia’s lot in Super Rugby in 2022, whatever the format.

The right noises are being heard from Rugby Australia about the resurrection of such a competition, perhaps from 2023 and beyond, once private equity investment in Australian rugby can be secured. With Australia’s top two sides, the Reds and Brumbies, comprehensively outplayed on the weekend by Super Rugby Aotearoa’s bottom two sides, the Hurricanes and Highlanders, that day can’t come quickly enough if Australian teams are going to match the intensity and consistency of the best professional franchises.

Happily for Wallabies coach Dave Rennie focus will now shift away from ‘the gap’ to Australia’s top 38 players, where issues of comparative depth compared to nations like New Zealand and France are less pronounced.

Yesterday’s Wallabies squad announcement was met with the usual debate about players on the fringes of selection missing out or making the cut, Liam Wright, Trevor Hosea, Izack Rodda, Irae Simone among the former, and Rob Leota, Michael Wells, Andrew Kellaway and Lalakai Foketi among the latter.

With some players already knocked out of the equation because of injury – Tim Anstee, Suliasi Vunivalu and Jordan Petaia) – Izaia Perese has been named but is doubtful, while Ryan Lonergan has been included as temporary cover for Jake Gordon.

With the extent of any suspension still to be confirmed, Lachie Swinton was also included, with Rennie stating that while he was looking for Swinton to be “more accurate”, he wasn’t overly concerned that Swinton posed a potential liability for the Wallabies.

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Over the next three weeks expect Rennie’s squad to hit the ground running with a focus on lineout execution, tackling efficiency, kicking (exit and general play) and a “dark side” intensity at the breakdown, all of which were noticeably poor in the Reds’ 43-14 loss in Wellington.

It was as if the Reds believed their superior scrum was all they needed to carry themselves to victory, although once the game was out of reach, even that withered away in line with the rest of their game.

Yes, they were hard done by when referee James Doleman in awarding the home side a penalty try, somehow got inside the mind of Bryce Hegarty and determined that Hegarty’s intent was to bat the ball over the dead-ball line instead of forcing it. That was as ungenerous as it was creative to assume that a full-speed, diving Ngani Laumape would have been able to securely force the same high bouncing ball.

But even with key decisions not falling their way, such was the Reds’ lack of cohesion and unwillingness to support each other in the tackle area, the overwhelming feeling was one of a side that has gone backwards since their Super Rugby AU win.

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Unfortunately much the same conclusion can be drawn for the Brumbies, who fell away in the second half to lose 33-12 at home to the Highlanders.

Perhaps the seeds had been sown earlier in the week when the Highlanders manager phoned his Brumbies counterpart:
“What colour jumpers are you blokes wearing on Friday night?”
“White. What about you?”
“No worries. See you there!”

The best that can be said about this sorry farce was that referee Mike Fraser, in blue and orange, stood out like a Melburnian fleeing to Queensland.

The win was particularly sweet for the Highlanders, lifting them into a virtual final slot, which was confirmed less than 24 hours later. They are a side that has learnt where its strengths lie and how to play them, and they will go to Eden Park with plenty of momentum.

Their reward came at the expense of the Crusaders, who fell short of the 33-point winning margin against the Rebels required to lift them ahead on points differential. It’s a cruel competition where a side can remain undefeated and be sent packing, but such is the nature of compromised rugby competitions in a COVID world.

The Crusaders will perhaps reflect on not playing directly enough, and also the Rebels showing plenty with the ball, managing to score at regular enough intervals to keep the asking rate just out of the Crusaders’ reach.

Despite a string of losses, it has been a good three weeks for the Rebels, gaining confidence and rhythm off the back of much-improved go-forward and quick recycling. On one hand this feels like a wasted year; on the other, if a couple of judicious signings can be made to strengthen the back three, there is a sense of optimism about what next year holds.

Frank Lomani of the Rebels in action

(Photo by Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images)

There is also positivity around the prospects of the Force in 2022, who planted the seed of more game time for some talented Brumbies squad members and secured the returning Izack Rodda to bolster their list.

With 28-0 at halftime effectively securing the Blues home ground advantage for the final, the Force really knuckled down for the fight in the second half, showing what has become trademark grit and resilience to close things to 31-21 at the finish.

While nobody enjoys a second-half drop-off, this outcome was actually a silver lining for coach Leon McDonald, giving him far more to work with in the week leading up to a final than a 50-0 scoreline would have. If Tom Robinson is fit and Hoskins Sotutu continues his fine form, they will be very hard to toss next Saturday.

Not content with helping Wainui to his Super Rugby record, the Waratahs created one of their own, a 13th-straight loss underlying their season from hell. Problems around administration and list management have been discussed enough times they don’t bear repeating here, suffice to say that unless there are a couple of high-quality second rowers, backrowers and wingers about to be signed up, whoever lands the coaching gig for next year is still going to have their work cut out for them.

The Waratahs after conceding a try

(Photo by Mark Evans/Getty Images)

Other than Wainui’s effort, this match featured two major talking points: the red card issued to Swinton and a yellow card shown to Tupou Vaa’i for head-to-head contact with Waratahs flyhalf Will Harrison.

Vaa’i’s punishment was roundly pilloried, with the players clashing heads as they came into contact in a high-density situation. Interestingly, World Rugby’s laws and guidelines are at once helpfully instructive and confusingly contradictory when it comes to assessing the incident.

Law 9.20.b states that “a player must not make contact with an opponent above the line of the shoulders” and further emphasises that this includes head on head.

However, in providing the referees with a decision-making process to step through, referees are invited first to ask, “Has head contact occurred?”, and then “Was there foul play?”. If no foul play is determined, then it should be play on.

Further, the guidelines provide some ‘trigger words’ to apply to various high contact situations. Under ‘play on’ we find the terms ‘passive action’ and ‘involuntary collision’.

In summary, Vaa’i was potentially subject to sanction under law 9.20.b, but a more intuitive reading of the situation would have determined the matter an incidental head clash, passive and involuntary, with play allowed to continue.

Moving forward, if the threshold for high contact is to now be set at this level, the game is in for a tumultuous period ahead, as players, coaches, fans and media struggle to come to terms with any contact to the head – no matter if innocent or low grade – being vetoed.

A week late, but congratulations to the Dunedin Rugby Football Club, who last weekend celebrated their 150th anniversary at their Kettle Park clubrooms. Such events will become more commonplace in coming years, a reminder of how much rugby has changed in 150 years but also, when looking at the essence of the game, how much it has stayed the same.

The Dunedin clubhouse and fields are located on top of sand dunes at St Clair beach, exposed to the full brunt of southerlies whipping straight up from Antarctica. On the wrong night, training sessions would resemble tortuous SAS exercises, with icy sand pellets stinging the face, testing one’s commitment to both the club and the game.

For many, including this writer, plans to attend the event were scuttled by COVID. Nevertheless, many tales, tall and true, will have been recounted, involving Easter tournaments, illicit after-hours sessions behind closed curtains at the Beach Hotel and stories about celebrated New Zealand swimming coach and Dunedin rugby coach Duncan Laing.

Moving into a flat around the corner from Laing’s house proved useful for getting a lift to matches until one Saturday when I found him at his kitchen table, teatowel jammed into his collar as a napkin, tucking into a massive feed of mutton neck chop stew.

“Gary Cooper, my favourite,” he said, nodding towards the television. Larger than life in every sense, here was Laing in his element, with a top-of-the-table clash against University A, now less than an hour away, the furthest thing from his mind.

It was everything a pipsqueak 19-year-old, freshly promoted to the senior side, could do to get him to wriggle things along, hurry his lunch, forget the movie and get to the game, which we eventually did with barely 15 minutes to spare.

Aside from learning more about the history of Hollywood westerns than I ever cared to know, two memories stand out from that day: being so rushed and panicked I could hardly tie my bootlaces, and Laing calling the team together and nonchalantly delivering a last-minute pre-match team talk as if everything was perfectly normal.

Speaking of special rugby clubs, congratulations to Julian Savea, who this weekend joined Kurtley Beale in the club of backs who should never again be allowed to grace the scrum after his underwhelming effort packing down against the Reds on Friday night.

Reds halfback Tate McDermott must have thought all his Christmases had come at once, popping around the side of a five-metre scrum to find newly converted blindside flanker Savea, still with his head down, wondering if he should message Kurtley to see if he had his shoulder in the right position.

The gift seven points didn’t really help the Reds cause, but at least it provided some light relief on yet another tough weekend for Australian franchises.

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