Australia A back on radar as World Rugby look to strengthen 'tier two' schedule

by Iain Payten

The Australia A team could be revived as part of a World Rugby plan to provide more international fixtures for ‘tier two’ nations in the Pacific Islands.

Rugby Australia boss Raelene Castle discussed the possible return of the “A” team - after a 12-year absence - as she also confirmed Townsville was a leading contender to host a Test between the Wallabies and Fiji in July.

A report in Queensland's Courier Mail newspaper on Sunday indicated Townsville’s new $250 million North Queensland Stadium could play host to the Wallabies in their scheduled clash with Fiji on July 18.

Other regional centres like Newcastle and Wollongong have also been considered.

"When we look at our Test match schedule every year, we have to balance trying to maximise our revenue out of those Test matches, because that’s how we make our money to invest back into the game, and at the same time we also have a desire to want to take the Wallabies to places we don’t traditionally play,” Castle said.

"There are a couple of new venues and Townsville has just built a new, world-class stadium and that’s a part of Australia that we haven’t played in a long period of time.

"So it’s certainly an area that we have considered very carefully, and we will look to announce more about that Test in the near future.”

With the Nations Cup proposal having been killed off by northern hemisphere nations last year, World Rugby has sharpened its focus on ways to help ‘tier two’ nations build more consistent Test schedules, and to get exposure to major Test nations as well.

Castle said Rugby Australia worked “really closely with our Pacific Island neighbours” and the topic of playing more games in the region was one of the topics discussed with World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont during his visit to Sydney last week.

"We have a responsibility to deliver to our tier one Test schedule, but tier one nations also have a responsibility to deliver to tier two - and tier two is not the greatest language - to make sure they’re growing and developing, and getting regular Test schedules,” Castle said.

While finding space in a existing international calendars to send the Wallabies can be tricky, Castle said the prospect of Australia A playing meaningful matches in the Pacific Islands as early as 2021 was an option.

"There is no doubt the option of Australia A playing a fixture in Fiji or Samoa or Tonga is something that is achievable and doesn’t mess with the straight Wallabies schedule,” Castle said.

"So we are working with World Rugby, as are New Zealand with the New Zealand Maori team, and as are South Africa, around seeing how we can build the wider scope to make sure we grow all of that big international content.”

Australia A played regularly in the 2000s against touring teams or in midweek games during Wallabies tours, and the side proved to be a stepping stone towards full Wallabies honours for many promising players.

They beat the British and Irish Lions in 2001, and the Australia A coach that year was Scott Johnson, who remains a fan of Australia having an active second team.

Australia A played two full seasons in the Pacific Nations Cup - against Fiji, Samoa, Tonga and Junior All Blacks/New Zealand Maori - in 2007 and 2008, before the program was shut down by the ARU due to cost. Australia has only fielded a 'Wallaby XV' a handful of times since.

New Zealand also withdrew from the Pacific Nations Cup after Australia but the competition has continued, and now includes USA, Japan and Canada.

It’s unknown whether Australia A, and similar teams, would be involved with the PNC or play separately but Castle indicated World Rugby would be involved in funding the fixtures.

“It (Australia A) is in for discussion, with the support of World Rugby,” Castle said.

"They’re all looking for the top nations, to see if they can find that Australia A level or New Zealand Maori level, in a way that helps and still has that significant profile.

"For us there would be upside in exposing players to that international platform and transitioning them into the Wallabies.”

Castle was speaking at the announcement of a new partnership between Australian rugby and the Benestar Group.

Rugby Australia, in conjunction with its Member Unions, RUPA and the Classic Wallabies will work with Benestar to implement a holistic health, wellbeing and performance assistance program for all staff, players and their families across each organisation.

"This conversation started off with Rugby Australia started off looking to do something for its employees, and an employee assistance program is something big corporates have,” Castle said.

"But they need to be relevant and help, and when you start thinking about mental health issues, yes of course we have them in every day life in an employee environment like we do in Rugby Australia.

"But we knew is that we have those very same issues with our players, so it seemed sensible to roll it out, and then we had the conversation why wouldn’t we roll it to our states and territories.

"So all players, Classic Wallabies and all staff employed in rugby. It’s an all-encompassing program, it doesn’t matter what level of the game you are engaged in, you can have this level of support whether it be from personal to professional, for you and your family.”