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Assessing each Australian Super Rugby club's stance on centralisation

By Ned Lester
Alan Alaalatoa of the ACT Brumbies poses with Jake Gordon of the NSW Waratahs during the 2023 Super Rugby Pacific Season Launch at Sydney Opera House on February 15, 2023 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Jenny Evans/Getty Images)

Rugby Australia has a vision for how to get the game back on track in the country, but it demands alignment from each of the Super Rugby clubs and local unions on multiple issues.

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So far, the Waratahs are the only team to put pen to paper in backing the vision and making the required sacrifices.

Those sacrifices may look slightly different for each club. The Waratahs deal signalled that high-performance operations, assets, liabilities, and commercial arrangements would all be handed over to the governing union.

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While there is seemingly unified support over the alignment of high-performance pathways, the commercial side of the game is a sticky point.

Hamish McLennan’s role in the new governance model also looms as a contentious topic, with the chairman not overly popular throughout the local rugby community.

Two of the clubs’ responses to date have hinted or directly addressed a varying underlying distrust for Rugby Australia’s management ability, given the financial management of the game and isolated decisions like the Wallabies’ recent coaching selection.

But, since the in-principle agreement was announced by RA in August – where all clubs agreed to work towards a new alignment model – there have been plenty of signs of progress. What compromises RA and the unions are willing to make will determine the timeline and final policies of the partnership in the coming months.

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In signing the deal this week, the New South Wales Rugby Union encouraged their counterparts to join them and get behind the deal so that Australia can once more be a powerhouse of the international game.

“We are taking this bold step because we strongly believe the federated model for professional Rugby in Australia is unsustainable and that meaningful reform is long overdue,” said NSW Rugby Union CEO Paul Doorn upon announcing the deal.

“We are not content to sit on the sidelines any longer on this much-needed reform, and I hope all Super Rugby clubs will follow our lead as we push forward on an aligned Australian Rugby ecosystem.”

So, where exactly do their fellow clubs sit on the matter?

ACT Brumbies

Rugby Australia is under no illusions there is anxiety about submitting to their new framework, and the potential consequences of larger-scale leadership.

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“We’ve already given that guarantee and that’s already been committed to the Brumbies,” RA CEO Phil Waugh said when asked if he could guarantee the Brumbies would stay in Canberra.

Many assurances need to be given for a deal to be done, and Waugh says “I think it’s around trust” for the Brumbies to get fully on board.

“It’s about the security of the Brumbies remaining in Canberra and the IP, which we’ve given. I think that now it’s about working through what a structure looks like from a day to day management but overlaying and underpinning all of that building trust.

“We don’t see it as a takeover. It’s (about) integration, partnership and alignment. I think some of the concerns around the location of the Brumbies are seen as a takeover but we do not see it that way.

“At the end of the day, the member unions and community own Rugby, not Rugby Australia. We’re here to do the best we possibly can for Rugby in the country and that’s about driving the high-performance elements as well as looking after our community game.”

Earlier in the year, Brumbies chairman Matt Nobbs didn’t mince his words when reacting to the proposal.

“We have said from day one, we are happy to lead the charge [for an aligned high-performance system] and get it sorted. Because everyone accepts there has to be change. We have all seen the results. Things have got to change,” Nobbs said.

“But the issue we have got is the way we have been treated by RA has been appalling. They had us over the barrel, financially, and the only reason they had us over the barrel goes back to the reduction in funding from the last broadcast deal. The 30 per cent they reduced our funding, by $1.7 million, is the reason that we are in financial difficulty.

“They inflicted it on us and to add to it, we are doing more now. We have a Super W program and that’s a significant investment to get that up and running. We are doing far more with less money.

“So for them to turn around say, ‘You have to hand back everything, we will take full control of the Brumbies’, is not acceptable.”

Waugh’s comments on “trust” came earlier this week, signalling “good progress” had been made in the time since Nobbs’ initial reaction.

To summarise the Brumbies’ status, Waugh says: “There’s a lot to do but I do feel fairly optimistic about the direction we’re going.”

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Queensland Reds

Queensland Reds CEO Dave Hanham offered a transparent criticism of the proposed deal in an interview this week with SENZ.

Hanham outlined the Reds’ concerns, indicating clearly where discussions with RA had hit barriers, after also signalling frustration over the union’s recently scrapped plan to throw money at rugby league talent to entice big names to switch codes.

“There is merit in working together in a better aligned high-performance system,” Hanham said on SENQ.

“We agree that it is a path forward but it needs to be a collective decision (but) there needs to be more detail. There has been an absence in detail in some of those areas.

“Our frustration comes from (RA) talking about a model with the buy-in (from all states). We know the on-field performances from Australia have to improve and we are not sitting with our head in the ground.

“The area we don’t agree with and the element that we are particularly frustrated with and that we’ve pushed back on publicly is this view of a commercial takeover.

“It’s where all assets, liabilities, staffers, contracting for sponsors and all relevant income generation sits under RA and the Reds would turn into a subsidiary of RA and we wouldn’t exist.

“We don’t feel that’s the right model (and) we are going to retain that. We have no interest in giving that over.

“There has to be a clear separation of improving on-field performances and taking over our assets.

“I don’t believe that’s viable.”

Melbourne Rebels

The Melbourne club are rumoured to be the next to sign on the dotted line with RA. The club have kept any obstacles or disputes under wraps.

Melbourne chairman Paul Docherty said the Rebels “are strong supporters of the right structural change to enhance the professional game, while ensuring we retain our national footprint and a greater inclusion and pathway from community through high-performance and into our National teams.”

Western Force

The Western Force have been quiet since August’s initial in-principle agreement, having perhaps the most to lose from an unfavourable deal.

Western Force chairman, Anthony Flannery said two months ago: “Rugby is healthy and growing in Western Australia and has much to offer Australian Rugby. We believe the changes that RA is proposing will allow all clubs and RA to work together to develop a high-performance program that ensures a successful future for the sport in Australia – something all rugby fans in the country can be proud of and want to be part of.

“What that looks like in each province could be different, and we have plenty to work through as a group – however, it is an exciting opportunity for the game ahead of some major milestones that we have coming up.”

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