The Mole is of the strong opinion that the ARU have eyes bigger than their bellies when it comes to ‘growing the game’. They’ve expanded for the sake of expanding, not for the sake of winning more trophies.
Looking over the history of Super Rugby, it’s safe enough to disregard the so-called ‘Super Six’ era as more or less an irrelevance. The advent of South Africa’s return from sporting exile saw the introduction of the Super 10 in 1993 – still the amateur era, it should be noted – but it was in 1995, when the game went open, that SANZAR was founded, the Tri-Nations set up and the Super 10 expanded to the Super 12, the most successful incarnation to date.
[As an aside, The Mole was but a nipper in those days and Mole Hill went unequipped with Sky Sports until the 1997 Lions tour to South Africa. The Mole somehow – understandably in my opinion – fell under the impression that Super 10 (Supah Tenz!]) rugby was some sort of weird 10-a-side hybrid of Sevens and the fifteen-a-side game. There you go. Kids are stupid.]
In the amateur era, Australia rugby was dominated by the duopoly of Queensland and New South Wales. When the game went open, ACT [Australian Capital Territories, the area surrounding Canberra] were awarded the third Australian franchise for the newly expanded Super 12. Under visionary coach Rod MacQueen, the Brumbies finished fifth in their inaugural season, surprisingly coming in ahead of the long-established New South Wales Waratahs. The Queensland Reds were a monster outfit at the time, having won two out of three Super 10 titles between 1993 and 1995, but the Brumbies passed them out next season, finishing second on the log to an all-time great Auckland Blues team and propelling MacQueen onwards to the Wallaby job.
Over the next seven years, the Brumbies made a huge impact, competing in four out of five finals between 2000 and 2004, and winning the 2001 and 2004 editions. Why is this Brumbie hagiography relevant? Well, the ARU experienced enormous, unplanned-for success with its first expansion team. That has left a mark in the corporate memory that hasn’t easily been ironed out.
Weren’t We The Rare Old Stock?
Without a more in-depth historical knowledge of Australian rugby, it’s difficult to imagine the success of the ACT franchise occurring without some very fortuitous circumstances – call it luck – intervening. Firstly, both George Gregan and Steve Larkham were Canberra products [Gregan moved there when he was one, Larkham was born there]; Gregan would go on to win 139 Australian caps, and Larkham 102. You can’t plan that stuff, or make it happen with any amount of money.Other elements worked out well, and were less reliant on blind luck. Owen ‘Melon’ Finegan upped sticks from Randwick as a 23-year old and was a foundation member of the Brumbies, playing for the franchise for the next nine seasons; David Giffin played three games for his native Queensland Reds before moving south to Canberra to become another foundation member and fall one season shy of Finegan’s mark. That’s exactly the sort of thing that was envisioned: guys who couldn’t get a game in Queensland or New South Wales were encouraged to try their luck at the Brumbies. The fact that both players would go on to make the Wallabies Team of the Decade makes Macqueen look like an even bigger genius, especially in comparison to those coaches in New South Wales and Queensland who passed the two lads up.
Then you had a guy like John Langford, who only took up rugby in Sydney University, found he had an aptitude for it and went the long way to a pro career, representing NSW County [now officially part of the Brumbies’ catchment area] and Australian Universities before becoming a foundation member of the ACT team in 1996.
Joe Roff debuted for Australia as a 19 year old in May 1995 at RWC95 [scoring three tries in his first two tests against Canada and Romania] and was a foundation Brumbie the following season. Pat Howard missed out on the squad for that tournament and was coaxed away from Queensland, where his international career had stalled, to play second five-eighth outside the unpredictable David Knox, who returned as a 32 year old from a long stint in Italian rugby to take up the reins as outhalf; indeed Knox earned himself eight of his thirteen test caps while with the Brumbies.
As Wallaby coach, MacQueen picked Stirling Mortlock out when he was playing for his club Gordon in Sydney and selected him for the 1997 Wallaby tour. Mortlock had represented Australia at U19 and U21 level, but hadn’t been given a contract by the New South Wales Waratahs. On returning from tour, he signed up with the new ACT franchise and debuted for the Brumbies as a 21 year old back in 1998. He would go on to play thirteen seasons for them. That’s some eye, Macqueen.
You Can’t Unring A Bell!
Rod Macqueen is the foundation stone of professional rugby in Australia. They won the first professional world cup under him in 1999, and he somehow oversaw a series victory over a very strong Lions team in 2001, when the Wallabies were pretty heavily outgunned. It’s impossible to overstate his importance in the success of the Brumbies.
However, circumstances favoured him. There were more than two teams’ worth of high-standard players in Australia in 1995, and while the Tahs and the Queenslanders might have been busy in their tribal warfare, they had also gotten very comfortable living greedily off good stock. Good players could be discarded or go unused [as was the case with Finegan, Giffin and Mortlock] and nobody could estimate the opportunity cost of their lack of exposure to high level rugby.
You could make a very strong argument that it was the formation of the Brumbies that led to the Wallabies winning the Webb Ellis Trophy for a second time in 1999. Success at Super Rugby level – relative success, if you must – springboarded Macqueen to the top job, and the wider opportunities provided by three teams gave his squad the depth he needed to replace key individuals like Michael Lynagh, David Campese, Ewen McKenzie, Rod McCall and Willie Ofahengaue who had been vital components of both the 1991 and the 1995 World Cup sides.
But They Haven’t Come
So it’s fair to say – indeed, it’s all but impossible to argue otherwise – that the creation Brumbies was a hugely positive move from the ARU. However, as we’ve mentioned above, circumstances conspired in its success. The union’s recent expansions into Perth [Western Force, 2006] and Melbourne [Rebels, 2011] haven’t met with the same success, largely because building a professional franchise through a top-down approach – the “Build It, And They Will Come” school of thought – is extremely difficult. It looked easy in 1996, but it shouldn’t have.
Australian rugby definitely can’t support five professional teams, and it’s contentious whether it can even support four. The strength just isn’t there. Back in 1996, there were enough fringe players around to drive a wedge into the Reds/Waratahs hegemony via the formation of the Brumbies. Under a brilliant, hungry coach – one of the two or three greatest coaches of the last quarter century, in The Mole’s opinion – that panned out in the primoridal soup days of pro rugby, but it’s not a formula that can be endlessly repeated. Why not?
Firstly, ACT is actually in NSW, which is a relatively densely populated state [for Australia] and one that is pretty mad for both codes of rugby. It’s under 300km between Canberra and Sydney, which is a short drive in Australian terms.
Setting up a franchise in Melbourne, where Australian Rules football dominates Victorian sport – a full 10 of the 18 AFL teams are based in Victoria, and nine of them in Melbourne – isn’t the same as setting one up in Canberra, where there was only one pro sports team [the NRL’s Canberra Raiders, set up in 1982] with which the Brumbies had to compete.
Perth was a better bet in terms of market share, even though it’s more than 4000km from Brisbane and Sydney. Perth’s a big city – populated by over 1.7m people when you take into account the wider metropolitan region – and has grown very wealthy from the mineral boon in Western Australia. There’s an AFL club [the West Coast Eagles], but their rugby league franchise had a short and tortured existence from its birth in 1992, going through two name-changes [the Western Reds and the Perth Reds] over its six year span before it closed down following the ARL/Super League conglomeration in late 1997.
The AFL’s Eagles average almost 38,000 fans per game, but up until the Force were founded, they were the only show in town … and a city of 1.7m people in sports-mad Australia can do better than one professional footie franchise over three codes.
Founding The Force
There were five major on-field figures in the first five years of the Force who are still active: foundation captain Nathan Sharpe [who arrived from Queensland as an established Wallaby in 2006]; David Pocock, who was signed as a 17 year old, straight from representing Australia Schools, and had to wait until he turned 18 in April 2006 until Super Rugby regulations would allow him to take the pitch; Matt Giteau, who arrived on a huge money deal in time for the 2007 Super Rugby season; Drew Mitchell, whose international career began with a roar in 2005, but had stalled badly while with Queensland, and who was looking for – and found – a new lease of life when he signed up with the Force at the same time as Giteau; and James O’Connor who, like Pocock, was signed as a 17 year old on the back of his performances as a schoolboy.
Now, 2006 isn’t yesterday [seven seasons of Super Rugby have passed], but none of those players will be with the Force next season. Giteau returned to the Brumbies for the 2010 season after fulfilling his contract, and Drew Mitchell moved on to the New South Wales Waratahs at the same time; James O’Connor left after the 2011 season for the newly formed Rebels; Sharpe has announced his retirement; and David Pocock – after much soul-searching – has announced that he’s heading to the Brumbies. In short, the Force have lost the five best players of their first five years, and haven’t been able to replace any of them adequately. They were pretty appalling in 2012, and the signs are significantly worse for 2013.
Spread Too Thin
If you were looking at the performances of the Force and the Rebels disinterestedly, you’d come to the conclusion that, taken as an experiment, it has proved that there isn’t a limitless supply of talented rugby players in Australia. The rosters of the Force and the Rebels are dominated by jobbers, and the Brumbies aren’t much better these days. Grand, those players get exposure to high quality rugby, but what good does it do them? The real talent is spread too thinly.
The Western Force have never finished higher than seventh; their seven years of competition have seen two fourteenth place finishes [including dead last in 2006, their debut year], a thirteenth and a twelfth. The Melbourne Rebels became the fifth Aussie franchise in 2011, when the Super 14 became the Super 15, and promptly finished dead last, winning just three of eighteen games. They did a little better in 2012, finishing thirteenth and winning four.
In the 2012 Super 15 season, the Tahs finished 11th, the Rebels 13th and the Force 14th; the year before the Brumbies finished 12th, the Force 14th and the Rebels 15th.
Whilst a number of docile, Declan Kidney-fascinated Irish rugby hacks might peddle the line that having strong provinces or franchises causes problems for your national team, that should very obviously strike most people as a load of bollocks. The five New Zealand franchises won 46 games in this year’s competition [i.e. an average of about 9 games out of 18, for a winning % of 50%], while the five Australian teams won 32 [i.e. an average of about 6 games each for a winning % of 33%]. No Australian team appeared in the semi-finals, the Reds being handily defeated by the Natal Sharks in the qualifier. Guess who has a stronger international set-up? That’s right, the country with all the good teams in it.
Playing Numbers And Third Tier … What Third Tier?
Despite the IRB’s dubious playing numbers, Australia simply don’t have the same playing resources as their major rivals in the southern hemisphere, New Zealand and South Africa. They can’t afford to lose players to NH club rugby like those countries can – they have a much smaller playing base and no third tier competition [i.e. equivalent to ITM/NPC or Currie Cup and Vodacom Cup] in which more players can experience pro rugby.The ARU set up the Australian Rugby Championship in 2007 in a bid to provide a third tier of professional rugby, but it folded within a year; the ARU had to pay the Australian Broadcasting Channel to screen it, and they couldn’t get the numbers through the gates in any case. It lost them a bundle, and they killed it dead before it lost them more, or had the chance to turn itself around. Click the link above; it’s an interesting read.
The fact that there’s no middle level between playing amateur rugby in the Shute Shield and playing against the Crusaders in Canterbury or the Bulls in Loftus Versfeld … well, you can see how that might be a big issue. In Irish terms, it’s AIL to Heineken Cup.
Jumped Too Far, Too Quickly And With No Safety Net
The ARU have erred badly with their expansion policy, certainly on the rugby performance side of things; the commercial side is more or less unknowable from the other side of the world.
If a fourth franchise was beneficial for Australian rugby union – which is arguable – a fifth wasn’t. The Western Force should have been allowed mature as a professional team, rather than introduce a fifth Australian franchise within five years; while it’s geographically distant, Perth is a wealthy city with an under-tapped sporting fan base.
While the other is in existence, neither the Rebels nor the Force will build the critical mass of quality players and strength in depth that is needed to win enough matches to be regarded as successful in Super Rugby. Spreading international calibre players across too many teams dilutes their effectiveness in combining as units, and seriously impacts the performance of the test team. Rugby teams are composed of units – centre partnerships, half-back partnerships, second-rows partnerships – whose effectiveness is increased by familiarity. Gregan and Larkham [Brumbies], Horan and Little [Queensland], Eales and McCall [Queensland] – and further afield, Nonu and Smith [Wellington], D’Arcy and O’Driscoll [Leinster], Matfield and Botha [Bulls], O’Callaghan and O’Connell [Munster] – are all examples of provincial/franchise partnerships translating to more than the sum of their parts at international level.
SANZAR officials – both together and in the individual unions – are always keen to milk more money out of their two major tournaments. Up until the introduction of Argentina to the Tri-Nations, the previous three alterations [the expansion from Super 12 to Super 14 and Super 15, and the three-headed Tri-Nations fixtures] were transparently driven by avarice rather than the good of the game. The Tri-Nations was perfectly formed with home and away fixtures before the absurd introduction of a third; Super Rugby’s strongest format was the Super 12.
There are enough quality players in New Zealand to support five franchises; in the Super 14/15 era [i.e. since 2006] only once has a New Zealand team finished in the bottom three [the Highlanders finished 12th of 14 in 2010]. That’s simply not the case in Australia. The best players are spread amongst too many teams; they play too much bad rugby in losing teams. However, Australians shouldn’t feel embarrassed that they don’t have the depth to field five competitive Super 15 franchises; South Africa can’t either, and they don’t even have State of Origin or AFL to contend with.
It’s wildly unrealistic to imagine that the ARU would countenance shutting down either the Force or the Rebels, but neither are particularly popular teams in terms of attendance, and the period of sustained Australian success at both Super Rugby, Tri-Nations and World Cup levels [1999-2004] occurred when the players were concentrated in three sides. Five franchises are hurting the game in Australia, not helping it. But that’s not the end of Australia’s problems either, as Part 3 will illustrate.