Kafer: Balance the key in Rugby Australia's new competition offerings

Super Rugby - AU
by Rod Kafer

Rugby Australia's competition offerings for 2021 and beyond are striking an important balance.

With options for a domestic or trans-Tasman competition, as well as the introduction of ideas like the Super Eight and State of Union series and even the inclusion of a national club championship, the plans are very much in Australia's interests.

On the flipside, these same initiatives consider the commercial challenges that the sport needs to address as it looks for a new broadcast deal.

Australia has always been confident there is enough talent within our system to support a professional game that ultimately produces a competitive Wallabies team, we have demonstrated that over our history, notwithstanding our most recent period.

One of the weaknesses Australia has seen is the dilution of talent as teams went from three to five professional outfits.

Having so few professional teams in some ways made it easy for athletes mulling a professional career to look to rugby league or Aussie Rules, with 16 and 18 professional teams to choose from, or be recruited too.

Australian rugby simply hasn't had enough opportunities for the best young sporting talent to be professionals in our game and this has impacted the performance of Wallaby teams over the last 20 years.

It keeps getting harder and harder to compete when we are not capturing the best young talent as they choose other sports in lieu of rugby because we simply may not have a spot for them.

The proposal Rugby AU CEO Rob Clarke presented this week, I think, strikes a bit more of a balance when it comes to delivering opportunities and a pathway to some international competitiveness.

The introduction of that Super Eight concept really addresses that gap, giving the chance for the most competitive sides to go up against international clubs and addressing the issues of previous Super Rugby formats from an Australian perspective.

Rugby AU's State of Union concept is another interesting one and the devil will really be in the detail in how it functions.

Australian rugby talent does largely come from Queensland and New South Wales but there are talented players who are from the ACT, WA and Victoria. 

Establishing an eligibility system that gives as many players the chance to be part of it, whether that's aligning other states to the QLD/NSW banner or something else, will be critical to making sure it is a successful concept but also captures the national scope of rugby – perhaps its a Barbarians style team made up of the rest – this could really add some flavour to a three team competition. 

On a broader level, what this process has really revealed is that New Zealand needs Australia more than Australia needs them.

In every negotiation there's an element of looking at the situation from a partnership and broadcast perspective but also delivering on the needs of Australians is very important.

And that may need to come at the expense of the needs of New Zealand.

In the dialogue we've seen around prospective competitions, the overwhelming sentiment I feel has been the Kiwis need us more than we need them.

That makes sense from a fundamental basis, even just looking at the high performance side.

I've touched on this in previous columns but there has been no material benefit for Australian rugby on-field out of playing New Zealand teams regularly.

On the flipside, the results Kiwis have had against Australian sides means they absolutely would want Australians involved in their competition.

From a pure high performance perspective, you have to ask why Australia would even contemplate a trans-Tasman competition?

These proposals, though, do have to consider the broader commercial and revenue elements, so that's where a trans-Tasman option comes into the discussion for Australia.  It will be a compromise of sorts, picking the best option that meets most of the needs will be critical.

Looking at the proposal Rugby Australia announced on Monday, there's a good balance of commercial considerations where you want international teams but ensuring you have a competition on Australia's terms.

The dynamic is beginning to become clear and Australia must leverage the powerful position in which  it finds itself.

This article expresses the views of the author and does not necessarily represent the views of Rugby Australia or its member unions.