I am a rugby fanatic: even a cursory examination of this blog will tell you that. Over the last couple of years as I have started to write my weekly preview of the Super 15 for pinkrugby.com I have had reason to watch not just the Queensland Reds play but also, as a minimum, the Australian franchises every week. What I see every week, and what has worried me for some time, is the lack of depth and consistent results in the Australian conference which I believe is having a flow on effect to the Australian team.
Before I move on I need to be clear about something here: I have had my share of run ins with fans of a particular Super 15 franchise in Australia, the Western Force, and before you start at me Force fans I am not writing this blog solely as a mechanism to put the boot into you and your team. I write it because I have grave fears about the game in this country and where it is going.
For the avoidance of doubt: I am strongly of the view that Australia has one too many franchises in its conference and that the uncompetitiveness of at least two of the Australian franchises is having a deleterious effect on the game at the national level.
Let us consider some facts that are irrefutable:
1. South Africa has the Currie Cup and New Zealand the ITM Cup. These are domestic competitions made up of 10 and 14 provincial teams respectively. Australia does not have a provincial / domestic competition save for club rugby in each of the provincial areas.
2. There is little to no competition for talent from other codes in South Africa and New Zealand. Conversely in Australia the code of Rugby Union competes for players with Rugby League and Australian Rules Football.
3. Whilst the conferences in South Africa and New Zealand are made up of teams from parts of the country where rugby is the dominant sport, in Australia the introduction of franchises in 2006 (Western Force) and 2011 (Melbourne Rebels) took place in areas where the principal sport of the geographical area is not Rugby Union.
I recount these facts here as the premise for this statement: Australia is a distinctly different rugby union market to its “sisters” in the SANZAR alliance and has, as a result, a vastly different catchment of players to choose from. This difference leads to the central plank of why I am an advocate of change to the structure of the conference in Australia. More on that in a moment.
It is important at this juncture to consider the performance of the Australian conference teams since the introduction of the Western Force in 2006 and Melbourne Rebels only two years ago. Since 2006, an Australian franchise has only appeared in the final of the Super 14/15 twice and only won the title once (Queensland in 2011). By any statistical measure the best performed team in the period between 2006 and 2011 was the Waratahs which went through a golden age of sorts making a final in 2008 and semi-finals in 2006 and 2010. Queensland during the same period went from being a powerhouse (winner of two Super 10 championships) to a perennial back marker. The other “original” franchise from Australia in the Super 12/14/15 , the ACT Brumbies, also have struggled and have failed since 2006 to make the finals.
The introduction of the new franchises to the Australian conference and the flow on effect of the results that have arisen following said introduction would be easier to bear if at the same time as the “original” conference members have been struggling the new teams were performing at a high level. The fact is though: they simply have not! The Western Force have never been placed above 7th despite pillaging Queensland and the ACT of their best players upon introduction and this year may struggle to win a game based on current form. The Melbourne Rebels have now had two seasons in the Super 15 and to this point have placed 15th and 13th.
More to the point: is Australian rugby stronger for having two addition franchises playing? Australia’s results in the Tri-nations / Rugby Championship both before and since 2006 are instructive here:
* From 1996 to 2005 Australia played in 34 matches and won 13 of them (one draw) for a winning percentage of 41%. During that span Australia won the Tri-nations twice.
* Since 2006 Australia has played in 38 matches and won 16 of them for a winning percentage of 42%. Australia won the Tri-nations in 2011.
Simply: Australian rugby has not improved with the introduction of the extra teams, and by extension extra players, in the Australian conference. It is conceded that Australia’s results have not worsened during the relevant period but is stagnation really what the players, coaches, administrators and fans of rugby in this country want from its national team?
The short answer to that question is a resounding “NO”.
All of these facts established, it is important to consider where Australian rugby ought go from here and that gets me back to the structure of the conference in Australia. Simply put: I do not believe there ought be franchises in the Australian conference where there is not a natural and available catchment of players to fill the squad of a Super 15 franchise. The later point is important: available catchment. I am an advocate of the game growing in places where it previously has not been prevalent and would, therefore, be delighted to see a homegrown rugby side from Western Australia and Victoria grace the Super 15. However right now both franchises are reliant on imports from the “traditional” rugby provinces to get by and frankly that is not a strategy that is working for anyone: not the players who are seemingly already starting the migration back to the traditional provinces (Pocock and Phipps the most recent examples) and the franchises themselves who are not winning rugby games.
So am I advocating the removal of franchises from non “traditional” rugby provinces? If it was that easy I would be saying yes: for the betterment of the game in this country. The problem is though that both “non-traditional” franchises have developed a significant following in the home states and depriving those fans of super rugby is just counter intuitive.
What is the solution then? Well I have a three point plan that I think would help Australian rugby improve and also see the Australian conference become replete with teams that are all competitive:
1. Amalgamate the Rebels and the Force into one conference that plays half of its home games in Melbourne and the other half in Perth. The open conference spot could be taken by the best provincial team in Argentina or a side from Japan. The players lost in the amalgamation would then be fed back to the team who finished lowest on the table of the three “traditional” provinces. At this stage of the 2013 that is looking a lot like the Waratahs.
2. A second tier competition needs to be put in place to provide, like the ITM Cup and Currie Cup, an entree into professional rugby for players across Australia and to enhance the catchment of players from non “traditional” areas. I see the competition having 10 provinces in it: North Queensland, Southern Queensland, Northern NSW, Sydney, Western Sydney, Wollongong / Illawara, Canberra, Victoria and Western Australia.
3. Players in the second tier competition may be elevated to the Super Rugby franchises but the “home” franchise for each of the second tier provinces must be the franchise for whom that player plays.
I know this is very harsh on the fans of the new Australian rugby franchises but I believe this approach is for the betterment of the game in this country. As I said in the opening: this is a different market for rugby union that those of South Africa and New Zealand BUT I do believe that Australian Rugby would be wise to focus on the traditional rugby areas to strengthen the Australian conference and by extension the Australian team. By not doing so I fear we will continue to see franchises like the Melbourne Rebels and Western Force struggle like the mythical boxer with one arm tied behind his back.