The NSW Waratahs have given Australian rugby a much-needed shot in the arm, but their run to the semi-finals has not disguised the fact the code is still in trouble in this country; the four remaining Australian teams may have improved since the culling of the Western Force last year, but they were still largely uncompetitive against the best New Zealand had to throw at them.
The Waratahs would have finished fourth in the New Zealand conference, yet they managed to secure a home quarter-final by winning the weaker Australian conference. They were the only Australian team to reach the top eight. The other three – the Brumbies, Rebels and Reds – were among the bottom seven, although the Rebels just missed out a play-off spot on point differential.
You could argue the Australian teams are heading in the right direction, but there is still a long way to go to reach their destination. How do they get there? Sanzaar is working on a new competition model post-2020 to win back spectators and television viewers, but it will not make much difference if Australia does not further lift its game – by some distance.
Australian rugby could invest more in quality coaching, high performance and front-office smarts, and it would have a positive effect, but what every team needs is players, coachable athletes, who can fill positions on the field and on reserve benches. With more and more Australian players such as Wallabies and Waratahs winger Taqele Naiyaravoro heading overseas, Australia lacks the depth of talent to populate four competitive Super Rugby teams, let alone five.
Australian rugby has always enjoyed mini-periods of success, but it has never managed to sustain success at Test or Super Rugby level over the long-term because the game lacks a strong foundation.
Australia needs to create a genuine third-tier competition to develop players for Super Rugby and the Wallabies. New Zealand has the National Provincial Championship and South Africa has the Currie Cup, both high-standard provincial competitions with a lot of history, which underpin Super Rugby in the two countries.
Australia’s National Rugby Championship is a relatively new competition, which has only been around for a few years. Maybe the NRC needs time to grow, but what is it going to grow into? It is really just a glorified Super B competition and is not comparable to the NPC or the Currie Cup, which create wide and deep pools of talent for New Zealand and South Africa respectively, and also have an economic benefit to the game.
There has been speculation Rugby Australia is looking to enter teams in New Zealand’s NPC, but the Kiwis are unlikely to agree to this. Why would they? They have already got what they need. Instead, RA should look in the opposite direction to Western Australia where mining billionaire Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest has created World Series Rugby as a vehicle for the Force.
It is quite bizarre that the NRC and World Series Rugby co-exist on a level not just below Super Rugby, but beneath the NPC and the Currie Cup too. Interestingly, the Force play in both competitions, which suggests there should be some kind of merging of the two entities to create one strong third-tier competition, perhaps co-owned by Rugby Australia and Forrest.
RA needs to join forces, excuse the pun, with Forrest, but why stop there? Both have expressed interest in exploring opportunities in Asia. If a joint venture was able to incorporate teams from the Japanese Top League, it would have the potential to develop into a credible and lucrative competition, which would add value to Australian rugby.
When RA was bringing the axe down on the Force’s neck, Forrest emerged as the franchise’s financial benefactor, but it was too late in the game politically for him to save them as a Super Rugby team. But he has remained an important player in the west. If there is one thing that Australian rugby is desperately in need of, it is private equity and that is something Forrest, whose net worth is $US3.7bn, has got plenty of.
With Sanzaar re-negotiating its broadcast deal to take Super Rugby beyond 2020, RA should be in discussions with Forrest about creating a new competition to support the professional game in Australia. RA rejected Forrest’s bid to save the Force as a Super Rugby franchise, but he could still end up the saviour of the competition, at least in Australia.