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This week it has been announced that the polarizing Giteau Law is to be reviewed. It’s unclear at this stage if it will be loosened or scrapped entirely. Rugby Australia CEO suggesting one option is dropping the number of tests from 60 to 15 or 20. But conceded that it’s not the sole solution.
For the uninitiated. The Giteau Law states that a player can retain his test eligibility while playing outside of Australia if he has played 60 test matches or completed 7 consecutive years of Super Rugby service.
To say I have some strong views about this would be stating it lightly. The logistical challenges, astronomical travel and overseas club compensation costs offset any perceived short-term performance benefits of repealing this law.
However, we’re still not addressing the elephant in the room. It doesn’t solve our (clearly) deficient pathways system. In this writers opinion, the fact that some of our top talents have decided to play overseas is irrelevant. The issue in Australian Rugby is that our pathways and development system is broken. We don’t develop enough top tier talent. As result, we aren’t as competitive as we think we should be.
So, in light of this, I’ve decided to examine the Law and the long and short-term implications. Here’s how I (a former ordinary player in Rugby Australia’s ordinary Rugby system) see it.
Be Careful Comparing Australia to South Africa… Or Any Other Country
Rugby Australia CEO Andy Marinos was a Director of South African Rugby when they scrapped their 30 test rule. He stated that “They have access and the ability to choose their very best players no matter where they’re playing”. This decision has clearly paid dividends for South Africa, winning the 2019 World Cup. So, on the surface, I can see how you might think it’s a good idea for Australia to follow suit.
South Africa has one huge advantage over Australia on this front… It’s geographic location. Sure it’s in the Southern hemisphere, however, the time difference between South Africa and Europe is at most an hour. And the flight time from Europe to South Africa is significantly shorter than to Australia. As such, players moving to Europe are still exposed to South African audiences. Additionally the costs of bringing players back from Europe for camps and test series isn’t as significant as it would be for Australia (more on that later)
Now that the former South African Super Rugby teams are playing in Europe it makes sense to open doors. Even if South African players aren’t playing for South African teams, they’ll still be playing in front of South African coaches and in front of South African audiences.
One of the other big advantages that South African Rugby has over Australian Rugby is it’s the countries national sport. And it’s treated as such by the government, the franchises and broadcasters. This allows South African Rugby to fund three underpinning competitions in the Currie Cup (which has two divisions), the Varsity Cup and an under 21s championship. This of course is all in addition to their club rugby.
So, when a player signs in Europe or Japan South Africa has the infrastructure to support his replacement often with 3 or 4 players.
Unfortunately, rugby isn’t even the top football code trailing AFL, Rugby League and Football (soccer) in Australia. And our underpinning competitions? Well, we’ve scrapped ours and performances at the club level don’t really seem to matter anymore. Speaking of which.
Australian Rugby will lose control of how its players are being developed. Granted we already do a poor job of this. if you walked into the 5 major rugby academies today (assuming there are no lockdowns). You would find that each academy’s approach to player development is very different from the last and the next.
If you conducted the same experiment across the ditch at the New Zealand rugby academies you’d find that there’s a uniform approach to athlete development. How do I know this? I have been in both systems, I never progressed past the academy stage in either country. But I can tell you that the differences between the two systems are enormous (even 12 years ago).
I’m not saying that each Super Rugby franchise is running the same shape, defensive structure, lineout calls or backline moves. I am saying that there is a focus on core skill development and athletic performance development (Strength and Conditioning) that is uniform. it starts with the All Blacks and trickles all the way down to junior rugby. By doing this New Zealand has created a system that is designed to benefit the All Blacks and make athletes transition from the various levels much smoother. Ever wonder why the learning curve seems shorter for Kiwi rugby players? The above is why.
So, with that in mind do you think maybe it would be a better idea to rebuild our pathways infrastructure so that everyone is on the same page? I appreciate it will be a costly, difficult, time-consuming and painstaking exercise but the long term payoff far exceeds any short term gain we might get from opening the door to all our overseas players. One of the few benefits we’re currently getting out of our system is that we can keep an eye on players and at least give those pathways coaches some feedback. if they’re in a European or Japanese system do you really think those coaches are going to listen to what the Wallabies want from that player?
We’ll lose whatever Rugby identity we have and that is such a sad thought.
We know Rugby Australia is cash strapped it’s basically the only reason they’re seeking a private equity deal to pull them out of a hole. But are we really so desperate to just spend that money for no long-term return?
Think about this for a minute. Let’s pretend that in 3 years a squad of 30 would have 20 players located overseas. That’s 20 international flights, 20 hotel rooms and 20 mouths to feed for their entire stay in Australia (not just the time they’re in camp).
Additionally, unless tests fall within the defined European test window (June and November) the European clubs expect to be compensated. Can someone remind me when the Rugby Championship is played? Why do you think the Pacific Island teams are always so undermanned? Because their national bodies can’t afford the release fees for the clubs and the clubs will actually pay players more not to represent their countries. So, now, for those 20 players, RA is going to have to compensate the clubs.
Furthermore, Rugby Australia has to take out insurance policies on any player being released from an overseas club. In the event of an injury, that player would be covered by an insurance company rather than by their club. I can’t imagine an insurance policy on a million-dollar contract is all that cheap.
The final nail in the cost coffin? We’re still going to need to put these players on Wallabies contracts. Currently, if you’re on a Wallabies contract you’re paid in two ways. You get paid an amount by your Super Rugby franchise which sits on that franchises balance sheet and salary cap. Then, another amount from Rugby Australia. Sure, the Super Rugby franchises might save some money, but Rugby Australia will have to top up those contracts to get the players they want for the Wallabies.
This model makes the Wallabies more expensive. If Rugby Australia goes down this route they’ll blow through that private equity money pretty damn quickly. Then, they’ll once again be completely reliant on whatever money they can squeeze out of a broadcaster. But tell me this. What broadcaster is going to pay for a competition in which the best players don’t play?
Unattractive Competition for Broadcasters
We’ve seen this play out before. The previous iteration of Super Rugby was not an attractive package for broadcasters. Too many teams in the wrong countries and time zones. We’ve now solved that problem with Super Rugby AU and Trans-Tasman.
But if we allow players to retain their Wallabies eligibility even when they leave for overseas clubs. What’s the incentive for our best players to stay? We already know they earn less money here. So why then would our elite young players stay when they can earn more overseas? Young players goals will shift from playing Super Rugby to playing in Europe or Japan.
That says to a broadcaster and the broader Super Rugby fan base, that Super Rugby is now a developmental competition. It’s now the D-League, Minor League Baseball, the VFL, NSW Cup or NFL Europe. Do you know what all of those leagues have in common? None of them has a lucrative broadcast deal. They’re completely reliant on the elite teams and competitions they’re attached to fund them.
We can forget about sponsors too, why would they want to sponsor a 2nd rate team in a second rate competition? I mean (extreme example) you only have to look at the economic impact of Lionel Messi moving to PSG to understand how valuable having elite players can make your team and competition.
So, if the Wallabies have become more expensive as a result of our best players moving overseas, broadcasters aren’t interested in the product and neither are sponsors where is the money coming from to fund the Wallabies? I don’t have an answer to that question.
It feels like a knee-jerk reaction to review the Giteau Law right after a big loss to the best team in the world. It’s hard to benchmark ourselves against the All Blacks. Our infrastructure is not as good as theirs and we have to compete with three other football codes. We should really be benchmarking ourselves against countries like England and France who operate in similar sporting environments.
But, before we scrap the Giteau Law I implore Rugby Australia to take a long hard look at itself and ask these questions. Do we want the Wallabies to be competitive for the next 3 years? Or do we want to set up the Wallabies for long term success? One of those options is pretty simple and easy. The other will take a lot of hard work and dedication. I’ve said it before in my columns. All I want is for Australian Rugby to be successful. I know which road leads to that outcome and I hope Rugby Australia does too.