Rugby Australia might have just had their most impactful month in years, only for this to have been effectively been undone by their latest attempt at innovation. Drafting surplus New Zealand players may stunt the growth of Australia’s promising young talent, so Finn Morton asks why jeopardise a system that’s already starting to work?
After months of debate, speculation and financial frustration, Rugby Australia might have just had their most impactful month in years, only for this to have effectively been tarnished with their latest attempt at innovation.
Earlier in the week, RA unveiled a broadcast package proposal that looked to clear up all uncertainty about the future of Australian rugby, giving New Zealand the deadline of September 4 to join their plans.
The proposal for 2021 and beyond includes a Champions League-esque series featuring the best sides from the southern hemisphere, a National Club Championship and the ambitious inclusion of a three-game ‘State of Union’ series, which is seemingly identical to rival code rugby league’s State of Origin.
RA also outlined plans for either a 10-team trans-Tasman or an Australian orientated competition.
Either way, five Australian teams is their expectation, so breathe easy Western Force fans.
Interim CEO Rob Clarke clarified that Australia needs a competition that “has integrity to it”, so that the game could grow Down Under.
Players and fans alike were impressed with their stance on the matter and the pressure put on New Zealand. Wallabies hooker Jordan Uelese was a notable player to publicly praise the governing body as they look to address the financial state of the game.
But on Thursday, all their good work – all their examples of revolution, progress and passion – have effectively been undone by the latest idea of what Australia could do differently.
It was reported that RA chairman Hamish McLennan will look to include a draft in whatever format Super Rugby is played in from next year. McLennan believes that Australian teams being able to draft surplus New Zealand players would be a solution to the apparent gap in quality between the trans-Tasman rivals.
His idea could also lead to the creation of rugby’s Big Bash, which has proved so successful in cricket over the last decade with players on short contracts.
This comes nearly a month after New Zealand Rugby invited Australia to join their proposed Super Rugby competition from next year, even though that might have seen them field as few as two teams.
“Not interested,” was partly how McLennan responded to NZR’s plans.
RA stood their ground in saying that it was either five teams or Australia would go at it alone. But now, by even suggesting the draft concept, the chairman is all but acknowledging that there might not be enough talent to field five competitive franchises next year.
Super Rugby AU has been highly competitive up until this point, with the most recent round seeing two underdogs record famous victories by significant margins. Despite their winless record, even the Force have impressed, coming close against the Reds at Suncorp, and pushed the Rebels to Super Time.
Young players have stood up in these games as well, showing in breakout campaigns that the future for Dave Rennie and the Wallabies could well and truly be something special.
2019 Junior Wallaby Will Harrison has scored the most points in the competition so far, while his 22-year-old teammate James Ramm has the most clean breaks. 20-year-olds Harry Wilson and Byron Ralston have also been standouts.
But the draft would see players from New Zealand cross the Tasman and potentially take the places of lesser known up-and-coming players before they even get their chance to shine. Younger players coming through the ranks may be left to ply their trade in the National Rugby Championship and park rugby depending on the talent coming from abroad.
These remarks from the chairman comes just a year after the Junior Wallabies equalled their best ever record at a World Rugby U20 Championship, finishing runners-up to France. In the same year, Australia recorded a historic 24-0 win over New Zealand’s Baby Blacks on the Gold Coast, and the Australian Schools and U18s also beat their Kiwi counterparts 18-14 in Hamilton.
As RA try and usher in a golden generation, stunting their progression doesn’t seem logical, especially with the lure of league facing prospects as they come through the ranks.
While competition for places is healthy, Super Rugby AU is a product that works and the quality is only getting better. The Australian talent on display is energetic, youthful and exciting, with a number of players already putting their hands up for higher honours.
So why jeopardise a system that appears to be working?
But let’s not forget why RA may be considering a draft in the first place: while the loss of talent to league is a factor, players staying in Australia and not heading overseas is arguably more significant.
That’s a problem that needs to be solved, and it looks like RA are doing some of the right things at the moment.
It’s not going to be a quick fix, but if foreign talent is the way to reignite the passion for rugby Down Under, then the sport is already lost.
So, if RA have to bring in talent from abroad just to compete, then they owe the Australian rugby community an apology and explanation on why they’re the ones who’ve surrendered their integrity.
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