Rugby Australia Moves Towards Centralised Pathways System But Will We See a New Competition Too?

Tuggeranong Vikings Players Aussie Club Champs
Photo Credit: Michael Daniel/Cover Art

Earlier this week, Rugby Australia announced that it was moving towards a centralised pathways system.  For those of you who read regularly, you may remember a couple of weeks ago, I wrote about some of the potential repercussions of repealing the Giteau Law. One of the key points I wanted to get across in that piece was to review our pathways system. And come up with a uniform approach to long term athletic and rugby skill development. I feel like, finally, we’re moving in the right direction.

As an aside, I will apologise for my lack of contributions over the last few weeks. My partner and I welcomed a baby boy into the world, and it’s been all go ever since.

I am happy to eat a small amount of crow after my last piece. The amendment to Giteau Law for 2021 has seen Samu Kerevi emerge as one of Australia’s best players. And, I’d argue he’s one of the form centres in the world. It’s unclear at this stage how lenient that will be long term. Rugby Australia is due to make changes once the Wallabies return from Europe.

However, it hasn’t changed my view on the matter. For all the reasons I mentioned a few weeks back, RA can’t wholly strip back Giteau Law. If we do, we’ll have no leverage to retain our top players. We need to have a strong domestic competition to have strong Wallabies. Without any leverage, it would undermine a centralised system as the academy system would graduate players to overseas clubs. At that point, we lose any ability to guide their long-term development.

A centralised system is a step in the right direction. But, it’s the first step in what I hope is a larger plan.

We don’t have an elite pathways competition to underpin Super Rugby. We’ve tried with the ARC and NRC, but neither succeeded in capturing the fans imaginations. It’s honestly a shame because the on-field product was starting to get good. But those teams seemed to lack a genuine connection to their communities.

And, as good a job as Club Rugby (particularly in Sydney and Brisbane) does at bridging the gap, the jump in professionalism, expectations, speed, strength and skills are still enormous.

So I had an idea. And, maybe it’s crazy, it would undoubtedly be a costly exercise, but I think it could capture the imaginations of Rugby fans.

Think about this for a second. What if we created a legitimate Australian Club Rugby Championship? I’m not talking about the pre-season game Shute Shield and the Hospital Challenge Cup Premiers play each year. I’m talking about a fully-fledged 8-10 week national Club Rugby Championship.

And, what if instead of creating new entities, we use the ones we already have? The Clubs. And, we create a competition played between September and November (or wherever) made up of the top clubs in Australia?

Here’s my idea.

The Concept

I’m not interested in a competition where only five states are represented. It’s why I love the Aon Uni7s series. The only states not represented in that competition are the NT and Tasmania (tassie did have a team in the first two seasons). So if we’re doing this, I want each state to have representation.

NSW and QLD will get three teams each. Why? Because that’s the only way, you’ll get them to agree to a competition like this. Every other state gets one.

Teams gain entry to this competition by how they finish in their local competition. If we were to launch this competition today:

QLD

University Of Queensland

GPS

Wests

NSW

Sydney Uni

Norths

Easts

ACT

Tuggeranong Vikings

Victoria

Endeavor Hills

Tasmania

Devonport

SA

Burnside

NT

South Darwin

WA

Cottesloe

The competitions administration would randomly select two pools of 6. Each team would play all the other teams in their pool once; the top 3 teams from each pool would qualify for the finals. The first-placed team in each pool gets the round one bye. 2nd in pool A plays 3rd in Pool B and vice versa. The winners of those games play the top teams from each pool, and the winners of those games then play each other in the Grand Final.

In this format, the Australian Club Championship would be finished in 8 weeks.

Players

As I mentioned above, the big reason we’re creating this competition is to underpin Super Rugby and allow more players to play at a high level. As such, we need a mechanism to allow for Super Rugby players to participate.

Can you say Draft?

Before we get into the Draft, I can already hear Sydney Uni screaming, “we can’t let our players play for another club!” Clubs can protect Super Rugby players in two ways:

1. If a Super Rugby player has played more than 50% of the club’s games in that season, he will remain with that club.

2. If a Super Rugby player came through the club junior or senior pathways system, he would remain with that club.

However, if a club protects a player, they give up a draft pick in the early round of the Draft. For example, if a team were to protect 5 of its players, they wouldn’t make a pick until the 6th round. This mechanism will help even up the competition as teams from non-franchise states will likely choose the top Super Rugby players in the early rounds.

Notionally there are around 150 contracted Super Rugby players and about 100 Academy players. Let’s say 100 are unavailable because of injuries and Wallabies commitments. That leaves roughly 200 players to be distributed between 12 teams—around 16 players per team. The rest of the squad would be comprised of registered club players from that season. We are capping the squad size at 30.

Logistics

Logistics is where it starts to get a bit costly and maybe a little bit unrealistic.

Players would ideally relocate for the duration of the competition. Eight weeks isn’t that long in the grand scheme of things. I mean, the All Blacks will be away for 12 weeks once they return from Europe and the States. But, for players with young families and other responsibilities, it’s probably not all that feasible.

The other challenge here is that someone will have to pay for the player’s accommodations. The cost would either be the responsibility of their Super Rugby Franchise or the clubs to organise themselves. It would be a considerable cost without an accommodation partner.

Assuming we solve the accommodation issue, each team would be guaranteed two homes games with the possibility of 3rd depending on how the draw shakes out.

Clubs would play games on Saturday and Sunday. Games would occur at 1 pm, 3 pm and 5 pm Australia East Coast Time.

Clubs would have travelling parties 28 (24 players and four staff). Teams are offered one night of accommodation and can arrive the evening before their fixture and leave after their game or arrive the day of their game and leave the next day.

Costs/Partnerships/Opportunities

Costs for a competition like this would be astronomical. I mean, we’re talking about flying and accommodating six teams each week to different locations around Australia. Some places (like Darwin) are hard to get to and are expensive. We could offset some costs with good travel and accommodation partners (cough cough Qantas and Accor Hotels). However, there would have to be some additional investment from the private sector, the clubs, Rugby Australia or all three to cover the travel costs.

There’s money to be made from ticket sales, hospitality packages and some additional corporate sponsors. However, it may not be enough to have gamedays wash their face.

There could be some TV money distributed between the teams (and RA) but maybe not much (if any) in the first few seasons. For me, there are three different TV products which might open up some unique possibilities. The Draft, the Pools draw, and the games are all different TV products.

Given the time of year with three of the big football codes finished. There’s a sweet spot in the calendar before the A-leagues start where this competition could have a captive audience.

There’s also scope to try some new laws to open the games up and make it exciting for casual fans.

I’d also love to see a team picked of the top unsigned players who then maybe get a chance to play the franchises academy teams or some of the NPC teams in New Zealand.

Final Thoughts

A competition like this would be challenging to put together. The costs associated would be huge.

I love this competition because it’s the perfect platform to launch the careers of up and coming players, coaches, referees, administrators, and medical staff. Simultaneously it provides much-needed game time for fringe Super Rugby players and appeals to a broad national fan base.

Will we ever see a competition like this? Probably not. Is it a good concept? I don’t know. But it’s certainly the kind of competition I would actively support. Right now it’s a pipe dream but if enough people get behind maybe I could start a Kickstarter campaign to fund it?

If there’s anyone out there who can model the costs up for me, please reach out. I’ve got some rich friends who are always looking for dodgy investment opportunities.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

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