Ruck'n Maul
Third tier will drain not save Australian rugby
Greg Growden
October 24, 2013
Greg Growden offers common-sense solutions to save Australian rugby © ESPNscrum with Getty Images

Bill Pulver is unveiled as the Australia Rugby Union's new CEO, Sydney, Australia, January 9, 2013
Bill Pulver could do worse than listen to Greg Growden © Getty Images

These days Australian rugby continually cries poor: they are well down the international pecking order; the Australian Rugby Union (ARU) repeatedly states it is in a financial mess (with the new regime blaming the old regime for all its woes); and interest in the game has dropped off, primarily due to the Wallabies' recent poor form.

Australian rugby has lost its mojo, but Greg Growden has some common-sense, if occasionally radical, ideas to get the code back on track. Today we publish the second point of Greg Growden's Manifesto To Save Australian Rugby. Join the discussion by leaving a comment at the foot of the page, or by tweeting Greg Growden @GregGrowden.

Return to ESPNscrum on Friday, October 25, to read the third installment of Greg's four-point plan to get Australian rugby out of the mire

Push for an Australian team to be included in the ITM Cup

Australia's Beau Robinson puts Bay of Plenty on the attack, Otago v Bay Of Plenty, ITM Cup, Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin, August 18, 2013
Beau Robinson played for Bay of Plenty Steamers in the 2013 ITM Cup © Getty Images

"Hey dad, there's someone on the phone, saying he's from the Australian Rugby Union, and he has this whizz-bang idea he wants to sell to us where teams or tiers or jousting sticks or something play in these new colours, have these fancy names, and it involves fringe talent, and it's going to provide all these new great players, and this unbelievable new competition could even be shown on commercial television."

"Tell him, he's dreaming."

The old rugby chestnut revolves around Australia being disadvantaged because it does not have the equivalent of South Africa's Currie Cup or New Zealand's National Provincial Championship, now tagged the ITM Cup. There's a simple reason for it: rugby in New Zealand and South Africa is a highly prominent, nation-defining sport; in New Zealand, it's No.1; in South Africa, it's No.2 behind soccer. In Australia, it is No.4 of the football codes; in Australia, the numbers are simply not there. South Africa and New Zealand have the resources, the infrastructure and abundant players to ensure their national tournament is strong and viable, and remains the perfect vehicle to nurture talent.

Australia has made some feeble attempts trying to replicate the NPC and the Currie Cup. Several years ago, the Australian Rugby Championship (ARC) was launched, involving made-up teams. It was a financial disaster. It failed to get support, lacked tribalism, and had no edge. Super Rugby officials made the fatal mistake of giving the teams silly names, which the multitude of fans still struggle with. The ARC just added new fizzy marketing names to the mix, and it became even more confusing. The ARC meandered along for a year, and then was mercifully cut. The folk most upset that it went were those who enjoyed the gravy train while it lasted, or those who were desperately trying to jump on before it was derailed.

It's not as if the National Rugby League (Warriors), A-League (Wellington Phoenix after other previous incarnations) and the National Basketball League (Breakers) have not set a trans-Tasman precedent.

There have since been endless proposals for an Australian third-tier concept. Most have been hare-brained and doomed for disaster - with numerous experts blindly believing the Australian public, already overdosed on an endless supply of provincial and Test rugby matches, would be eager to follow yet another competition that relies upon a fake sense of belonging. Again, less is best.

Virtually each week, a new proposal is thrown up. The latest, approved "in principle" by the ARU board on Tuesday, includes a farcical Super B curtain-raiser competition involving revamped laws - as reported in May's ESPNscrum exclusive one-on-one interview with ARU chief executive Bill Pulver - and a tournament revolving around amalgamated Sydney and Brisbane teams. Neither sounds enticing, and you cannot see crowds, sponsors or television executives rushing to be part of a cobbled-together event involving made-up sides. The punters aren't dumb. Teams have to actually mean something, represent something tangible. Otherwise they are simply cardboard cutouts.

One obvious alternative is to become part of the strength: if the ITM Cup is the be all and end all, why not try to become part of it? Fringe Australian representative players for some years have played in the ITM Cup, discovering the benefits of hard, grim, tribal football week in week out. Most have benefited from the experience. Why not attempt to convince New Zealand Rugby officials of the benefits of having an Australian team in the tournament? It's not as if the National Rugby League (Warriors), A-League (Wellington Phoenix after other previous incarnations) and the National Basketball League (Breakers) have not set a trans-Tasman precedent.

Liam Squire of Tasman makes a half break, Counties Manukau v Tasman, ITM Cup, ECO Light Stadium, Pukekohe
Liam Squire is another of the young New Zealand players graduating through the ITM Cup © Getty Images

An Australian team - two if New Zealand officials are feeling really sympathetic (unlikely, but they may be swayed by the possibility of broader and increased television audiences because of Australian involvement) - could be used as a way to develop talent, with a squad involving experience and youth focused on players the Wallabies selectors believe will benefit from playing against performers whom they may later confront at Bledisloe Cup level. It could work around an Academy team philosophy, with a few extra experienced hard heads included to give a bit of backbone. It would act as a handy alternative to the Australia-New Zealand age matches, which had the desired effect of bringing along newcomers, even producing stars such as David Campese.

And as the ITM Cup is broadcast already on Australian pay television, it would attract a local audience - because it actually means something. The proposal, however, requires Australian officials basically "crawling" to their New Zealand counterparts, and at the moment that will be difficult because the relationship between the countries is somewhat fractious. Again it requires certain ARU officials to pull their heads in.

Friday, October 25: give club rugby the support it deserves, and improve the quality of coaching at junior and schoolboys level.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Join the conversation with Greg on Twitter @GregGrowden

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