'Leaner, meaner, fitter': Australian rugby in stronger position following COVID, says Clarke

International
by Christy Doran

Rob Clarke says Rugby Australia is “learner, meaner and fitter” to take the game forward because of COVID-19.

It was only six months ago that the professional game in Australia was under serious pressure to stay afloat.

Without a broadcast deal in place for 2021 and beyond, and COVID-19 threatening to blow up the southern hemisphere’s Super Rugby competition, the future of rugby in Australia was placed at serious risk.

But with the arrival of new leadership at the top, the hard work and tough decisions from Rugby Australia interim chief executive Rob Clarke and chairman Hamish McLennan are starting to bear fruit.

“Well, you wouldn’t have thought it at the beginning of COVID, would you?” Clarke told written journalists following the announcement that Australia and New Zealand would play each other in a trans-Tasman domestic crossover following their respective Super Rugby seasons in 2021.

“The dark clouds were very much on the horizon then and we’ve had some storms throughout, but I think we’re now starting to see the sunshine.

“And you’re right, Rugby Australia is leaner and meaner and fitter because of the decisions we’ve had to make around our structures, our resources, our cost base and I think that is a good platform to move into 2021.”

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It was in his own backyard in Manly that Clarke conquered the final frontier by announcing next year’s trans-Tasman crossover competition.

Only a few months earlier New Zealand Rugby had asked their trans-Tasman neighbours to submit an “expression of interest” to join their competition in the post-COVID Super Rugby competition.

But the bad blood was all but settled on Friday as Clarke and his counterpart, Mark Robinson, passed the Gilbert and walked barefoot on Manly Beach just a couple of nights after building a few bridges over a bottle of shiraz.

“Mark and I have had excellent discussions this week,” Clarke said.

“Comments from the past are the past, and we’ve been able to really get on the same page around how we might work more closely between our two nations and Unions to build a formidable force in the southern hemisphere and into the northern hemisphere.”

The Friday morning announcement on Manly Beach capped a week for Clarke and Rugby Australia to remember.

It follows the Wallabies’ stunning win over the All Blacks in Bledisloe IV, a new broadcast deal being sewn up with Nine Entertainment, which for the first time will see Super Rugby shown on free-to-air TV, the 2021 Super Rugby AU draw coming to light and, lastly, the news that New Zealand’s five franchises would take on Australia’s following their respective seasons.

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There is still, however, the matter for Australia’s high performances teams to perform on the park, and regularly.

Rugby Australia might now have their ducks in order, but Clarke emphasised the importance of taking the opportunity with both hands and performing on the field.

“Yep, and that’s our challenge and that’s our goal,” said Clarke, in response to being asked whether next year would be an opportunity to prove that they are worthy of five Super Rugby sides.

“I know - having spoken to each of our Super Rugby clubs CEO’s at length on this - that is their objective as well is to ensure that we will be competitive on the field and come the trans-Tasman crossover comp next year we’ll be able to see that.”

Robinson said it was “too early to comment on what 2022” might look like, but the former All Black backed Rugby Australia’s position.

“At present Rugby Australia are committed to five teams, and that’s their business around how they are funded and the depth and the talent around those teams,” he said.

“We’ll just get into playing next year, that’s what our focus is.”

Robinson is in Australia until the end of the but will have to quarantine for two weeks upon arrival home in New Zealand.

Even still, the first-year CEO said it was a worthwhile trip to travel across the ditch to catch up with the All Blacks ahead of their Tri Nations clash with the Pumas in Sydney and to see Rugby Australia officials face to face.

The All Blacks meet the Pumas in week three of the Tri Nations on Saturday afternoon (5:10pm AEDT) at Parramatta’ Bankwest Stadium.