World Rugby loan "imminent" for Rugby Australia, July targeted for rugby return: Clarke

Super Rugby
Beth Newman Profile
by Beth Newman

Rugby Australia interim CEO Rob Clarke says an "imminent" World Rugby loan will be a major relief for the organisation as he begins the large task of addressing the organisation's financial challenges.

Clarke officially returned to Rugby Australia on Thursday after being appointed interim CEO on Wednesday evening, three years after last working in Australian rugby as its chief operating officer.

Rugby Australia is awaiting a World Rugby loan believed to be around $16 million, that is likely to be ticked off at next week's World Rugby Council meeting.

That loan is part of the global body's $A158 million relief fund that will be available to varying degrees for unions affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

Sorting through the organisation's financial challenges is one of Clarke's priorities after officially beginning as interim CEO on Thursday.

World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont. Photo :Getty Images"Decisions were made three years ago primarily on financial sustainability priorities and I think the game has faced its challenges since then.

"That said, the coronavirus has obviously had a major impact since we've essentially had to shut down the business so those two worlds colliding is not healthy but I'm confident we'll be able to steer our way through it.

"I believe that World Rugby support is a key part of that but also there's been cost production mechanisms put in place within the game here and I think those coming together will help us to steer ourselves through, getting the KPMG sign off that we need, and then be able to concentrate to getting back to playing some rugby."

That World Rugby loan is dependent on the sign-off of Rugby AU's audited financial results by KPMG, something that is yet to occur but is expected to happen in coming days.

Clarke also moved to clarify that the deadline for their audited reports had been extended after initially being set for April 30.

"The government moved that deadline for all businesses such as ours," he said.

"We haven't actually missed a deadline on that and I'm very confident that we will submit our accounts appropriately to KPMG for sign-off well before the 31st of May."

One of Rugby Australia's largest revenue sources is its broadcast deal and Clarke will lead the negotiations on establishing a deal for a modified calendar in 2020 and also finalising a 2021 deal, which was yet to be completed before the pandemic shut down the sport.

Clarke was optimistic about the chances of having a broadcast deal by the time Rugby Australia is able to appoint a permanent CEO, expected to be in three to six months.

Rugby Australia was on the verge of beginning the final stage of negotiations in its next deal before the shutdown began.

Clarke has worked with the current broadcasters previously and said he hoped they could agree on a new arrangement moving forward.

"I'd be brave to say it will be but I'm going to give it a real shot and I do believe the opportunity could be there but we have a lot of work to do in a relatively short period of time," he said.

"Our broadcast partners are our largest sponsor and therefore they're our largest and most important commercial partner and I have good relationships with Foxtel and with Network Ten and I look forward to having dialogue with them as we get clarity around competition structures that we can put to them this year and 2020 and then most importantly '21 and beyond what that looks like," he said.

"There's still a bit of work to go there but we'll be reaching out to all our broadcast partners and working with them on that."

RUGBY RETURN TO PLAY

Clarke also confirmed Rugby Australia was targeting a July return for a domestic competition after submitting plans to the federal government this week.

Rugby Australia submitted its biosecurity plans to the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee earlier this week and it is hoped that they will be able to pinpoint a goal date for rugby to return next week.

Clarke said the tentative goal was playing in July, with training next month, but all of that is dependent on governments reducing restrictions.

"At the professional level, our plans have been submitted to the government and assuming that restrictions are lifted as we hope in the next week or so," he said.

"We would aim to be playing if at all possible in July, with training starting in June but of course it's all tied to the restrictions. the government has our proposal and views it favourably and that will be the rough time frame."

As part of their plans, Rugby Australia's return to play committee has prepared blueprints for the use of quarantine hubs but there are hopes that rugby will be able to avoid that option.

"As soon as we can get clarity around a start date then we can roll out our plan and if they give us clarity around a start date then it really does mean they've lifted restrictions that allows players to start training together and teams to start preparing accordingly," he said.

"I think it will naturally roll out."

Once there is a time frame for the return of the sport, Clarke's focus will shift to securing a broadcast deal for that amended competition and negotiations with the Rugby Union Players' Association will open up again around changes to their pay situation.

Part of the debate around the future of Australian rugby has centered on the Super Rugby format but Clarke was careful when discussing the process of potential change.

"It's not an autonomy in this situation," he said.

"We don't share the luxury that some other sports do to totally control those aspects.

"We will come up with some competition models and structures that will work well for Australia.

"We'll then work with our SANZAAR partners as they're indeed doing now at looking at it from their own point of view and talk that through and then we need to bring the broadcasters along that journey with us because they have some very clear objectives out of it and where we can the ultimate goal is to bring those two together.

"I'm sure we can do that but it's not a quick process and it's not easy because of just the complexity of all of those partnerships but I'm confident we can do it."

Earlier in the day, New Zealand's federal government announced its plans to allow professional sport to be played at level two restrictions, something that could come as early as next week.

With that announcement, NZ Rugby confirmed plans for a five-team, 10-week domestic competition to be played after three weeks of training.

This article does not necessarily reflect the views of Rugby Australia or its member unions.