The day the music died.

This article first appeared in the Sport Section of the Weekend Australian on 25 November 2023.

As I walked forlornly from the stadium in Lyon after the thrashing dealt out by the Welsh – (Wales beat the Wallabies 40 to 6 and thereby effectively knocking the Wallabies out of the Coupe de Monde) the Don Maclean tune “American Pie” came to mind. He sang ‘The day the music died’ but in my mind it was the words “the day Australian rugby died.”

That match on 25 September 2023 should mark the inflexion point in Australian Rugby and a catalyst for wholesale changes in the everything from not only leadership but competition structures, strategy and execution.

You don’t need to be a rugby analyst to know rugby in Australia has declined in popularity over the past decade – whether it be broadcast ratings, crowd attendance, sponsorship and – in the case of the Men’s xv game – participation numbers. The younger generation are not embracing the game. It’s a slow, insidious, and debilitating decline that if not arrested soon will need palliative care.

Why this decline many ask. There is no singular reason. Some of the reasons are beyond the immediate control of Australia’s rugby administrators. For example, the overly officious approach to refereeing the game. Referees are required to manage to the letter of the Laws of the game rather than its spirit. This has produced a stop start game that lacks the creative and free flowing nature that made it entertaining in by gone years.

There’s limited scope for Rugby Australia to lobby for changes to international Laws and referee’s interpretation of them–. There is however scope in domestic competitions and Super Rugby to bring about innovation through experimentation. Former National coach Rod MacQueen did this very well back in 2007 with the experimental law variations he helped introduce . Sadly, World Rugby did not embrace them all.

The rise of player safety issues such as repeated player concussions and fear of CTE is another reason for rugby’s decline – but it is not the only sport to face this challenge – and its managing that space much better than in the past.

Rugby Australia’s administrators are pinning their hope on the introduction of a centralised high-performance approach to the development of players and coaches for an uptick in performance. The idea being that Rugby Australia will be able to manage player talent and coaching programs from a wholistic longer term perspective.

At present it is the state unions who pay coaches and players. Rugby Australia upgrades some select players’ contracts if they are in the national coaches thinking. The objectives of the State coaches and players are, naturally, to do what is best for its state team. Objectives between State teams and National teams can often conflict causing a less than desirable high peformance output. For example, a State coach wants to play a player in a certain position, but the national coaches see that player best suited to another position.  The national coaches want to introduce new drills and techniques (best practice) but a state coach may not allow it. The national coaches want to periodise players rest and fitness regime to meet national objectives, but the State coaches don’t. It goes on.

The centralisation of high performance as a concept is not something new. Rugby Australia was talking about this back in 2010 when I was running RUPA and yet none of Rugby Australia’s leaders (past and present) have managed to win the trust of the state unions to go on that journey.

With the exception of the NSW Union (who are financially broke) – the State Unions are balking at the idea of giving up such control – some of it is because the national body has failed to outline the detail. As we know the devil is always in the detail. Yet it is the relationship of trust between State Unions and the National Union that is clearly broken. This played itself out in grand fashion this week with the ousting of Rugby Australia’s Chairman Hamish McLennan.

McLennan didn’t grasp the complexities of the federated structure Rugby operates in. It’s about respecting the State Unions influence and position in the game and working with them on a journey that is best for all.

New Chairman Daniel Herbert has the capacity to build this trust. He understands the many tiers of rugby, is a cool head under pressure and has the best interest of the sport in mind.

A centralised high-performance regime is important but it won’t be the panacea for all of Australian rugby’s problems. There is a danger if Rugby hangs their hat on that change alone.  Other reasons for Australia Rugby’s decline exist.

Super Rugby competitions that spread Australia’s limited playing and coaching talent base across 5 teams instead of say 3 or 4 teams has diluted Australia’s small talent base making it difficult to compete against the Kiwi Super teams. This dilution has been exacerbated by the player drain overseas in recent years where financial rewards on offer are lucrative.

No Australia team has won the Super Rugby competition for 10 years. Statistics show that when Australia fielded only 3 rugby teams in Super Rugby between 1996 and 2005 the win rate for Australia super rugby teams was 68%. When this went up to 4 and 5 Australia teams between 2016 to 2019 the win rate was only 45%. [1] Nobody likes supporting losing Waratah and Reds teams’ year in and year out.

Some people say the latest broadcast deal was a good one. That is misguided. By offering broadcasters 5 Australian Super teams Australian rugby effectively signalled the death knell of their success in Super Rugby. It was an act designed to appease various stakeholders instead of making the hard decision to cut one or two teams.

A truncated Super Rugby competition involving fewer Australia teams will, along with a centralised high-performance program, produce stronger teams wining more games and, in the process, attract more fans, sponsorship and broadcast interest. Broadcasters in Australia don’t want to pay much for a rugby competition in which the Australian teams are losing more often than they are winning. They know Australian audiences won’t be watching it. It’s a case of less is more.

Australian Rugby administrators must “defend the heartland”. Those remaining areas comprising traditional rugby populations in Australia – the schools and clubs that historically help develop the most male players – before it’s too late. At a time when resources are thin attempts to spread the gospel to new frontiers is a poor allocation of resources.

Administrators have neglected grass roots rugby for far too long. Perhaps it’s because they do not have a deep association with it. Running a large commercial business and running a multi-faceted stakeholder federated sport in which 98% of it comprises community amateur participants requires a completely different skill and mind set. You can only have this skill set if you have had a long association with the game at its various levels.

Paying $5 million for league player Joseph Sua’ali’s is an example of this lack of understanding. The Suaalli decision won’t win the Wallabies a world cup nor instil enthusiasm from Australia rugby fans. Rugby’s administrators must desist from chasing league players…. Its fool’s gold and serves only to disillusion rugby’s heartland.

Truncating Super rugby and having Australia’s Wallabies and Super players and coaches participating in the likes of the Sydney Shute Shield and the Brisbane Hospital Cup between say March, April, and early May before then playing Super Rugby would not only enable the transfer of rugby “know how” and techniques from the professional ranks to First Division Club rugby but enliven interest in those competitions from fans, sponsors, and broadcasters.

Super Rugby teams could reduce the size of their “pre signed “roster to say between 25 to 30 players leaving positions to be filled from the performance of players in the March to May Club competitions. Coaches would have the chance to see the wares of players pitted against the established Wallaby and Super Rugby players. This would create a more transparent pathway from grassroots to the professional ranks and incentivise players to remain in Club rugby.

Australian rugby would need New Zealand Rugby buy in on this restructure but it’s clear the Kiwis recognise the importance of a strong Australian rugby for their own interests to advance. They are a powerful rugby nation but the winds of global forces don’t augur well for them if Australian rugby falls away.

Too many of Australia’s young elite professional players are playing too few high-level games.   They lack the experience and game sense needed to play at the next level. These players need to play more battle-hardened games against hardened first graders. That is where you develop, that is where you learn. If a Super team has a home game on a Sunday, the reserves (“finishers” they like to call them these days) should be playing for their clubs on the Saturday before. If the Super Team has a Friday night home game these finishers should be playing the next day for their club. If they get injured bring up another squad member. At present 20 mins game time for finishers each super round won’t make a player.

State coaches need to stop being so protective of players being exposed to playing Club rugby.

Australian Rugby’s financial position remains precarious. Whilst the latest published accounts showed a return to operating surplus of over $8M, there exists a loan of $24.8 M attracting interest at 7% above the Bank Bill Swap Rate and an obligation to repay advanced funding of $10 M provided by World Rugby…. also attracting interest.

Attempts to repay these debts and or fund future objectives through private equity are troublesome. Future selling potential revenue streams always comes at a discount to consider the risks associated with attaining the predicted future income. Those of us who have worked in private equity know there is big trade-off between the culture and values of a corporation, on the one hand, and the return on invested capital on the other. Rugby’s culture and values is what sets it apart. It must safeguard this.

Debt financing is not as attractive as it once was given the interest rate climate but remains a necessity in the short to medium term until the revenues of the British Lions Tour of 2025 and RWC of 2027 are realised.

Some have floated the idea of a National Rugby Foundation with clear stated objectives designed to attract the “White Knights” of rugby who have the means and desire to invest in the game’s development. This has many attractions. If structured correctly it could attract people with deep pockets not focused on a return on their invested capital but rather on how their investment is progressing the game. It should be open to many and in the process prevent one White Knight investing all the money and thereby having an undue influence on the big decisions and directions of the game.

Finally, it must be said – Australian rugby needs to break away from its predilection of appointing people to leadership roles who attended The Shore School and or live in Mosman on the Northern Shores of Sydney Harbour. Australians are egalitarian. They expect appointments through merit.  It is not possible for any fair-minded rugby observer to conclude that the appointment of Michael Hawker, Bill Pulver, Rob Clarke, Hamish McLennan and Phil Waugh into positions of either Chairman or CEO of Rugby Australia in recent years is anything other than “boys club” appointments. Were they the most suitable candidate available?

Australian Rugby can’t afford any more “Eddie Jones” mistakes. Its needs to get the big decisions right. It will only do this with the right people in the important roles. There are plenty of hard-working volunteers at the grass roots who keep the sport ticking over weekly in the background. They deserve better.

Tony Dempsey is a former Wallaby, and founding President of both the Australian and International Players Associations.


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