The Wallabies current woes have highlighted the lack of strategic depth in Australian rugby and the side effects of the ongoing drain of Australian players to lucrative overseas competitions. For many years now the issue of how to provide a quality competition post Super 12/14 for players who are not required for Wallaby duty has been debated ad nauseum without resolution.
Driving this debate are questions of: how to provide a professional structure for developing players; how to slow the exodus of quality players to overseas competitions; how to ensure players who are called into the Wallaby squad have sufficient condition, and how to provide Australian rugby with the sort of strategic depth that New Zealand, England, South Africa and France draw from their domestic competitions.
Adding to the debate is the desire of the WA force to keep their new squad together in Perth following their Super 14 campaigns, rather than release their players back to the NSW and Queensland club competitions as the other three provinces do.
In recent months the discussion about the International Rugby Board’s (IRB) proposed Super 8 competition involving Australia’s four rugby provinces and Japan, Fiji, Samoa and Tonga, has given renewed prominence to the regular debate on how to create a national club rugby competition in Australia.
The IRB had been proposing to underwrite the Super 8 which was to have been played on a home and away basis during June, July and August, following the completion of the Super 14. This proposed competition had the dual aims of helping the Pacific Nations and Japan develop by providing them with regular competition against good quality opposition, and providing a second tier competition for Australian provincial players not needed for Wallaby duties.
A key problem with this proposal, as pointed out by former Queensland coach John Connolly (Sun Herald July 10, 05), is that taking the top 150 players out of Australia’s rugby heartland - the NSW and Queensland club competitions - could lead to their collapse. These two competitions have been successfully developing excellent provincial and international players for well over a century. To consign them to irrelevance could inflict irreparable harm on Australian rugby.
As a result, NSW were adamantly opposed to the Super 8 proposal in its current form and were unlikely to take part unless its proposed scheduling was changed. From an islander perspective there were also likely to be problems. The cream of Fijian, Samoan and Tongan players who are not contracted to European clubs, were likely to pass over a winter scheduled Super 8 in favour of more lucrative contracts with New Zealand NPC sides. This would have resulted in the professional Australian provinces, missing only their Wallaby players, regularly running up large scores against inexperienced islander squads. Such an outcome may well have hindered rather than helped with the development of islander rugby.
Another complicating factor is the 30 game per year limit placed on Australia’s professional rugby players. As a result a player who, injuries permitting, managed to play a full Super 14 season of 13-15 games followed by a full Super 8 season of 14-16 games, would not have been eligible for club rugby, or for that matter the end of season Wallaby tour to Europe.
Realising the potential problems, the IRB have now replaced the Super 8 idea with a proposal for a one round tournament to be played in June and July between Australia A, the Junior All Blacks, Fiji, Samoa, Tonga and Japan. This new proposal has, however, been rejected by the Australian Rugby Union (ARU) who are instead looking into holding a tournament involving just the four Australian provinces, minus their Wallaby players, played during June and July.
The problems with this idea are twofold. First, its’ been tried before and was an abject failure. It was only a few years ago that NSW, Queensland and the ACT played an October tournament minus their Wallaby players. The fans stayed away in droves and there was little interest from sponsors or broadcasters. Second, it would still run the real risk of neutering the NSW and Queensland club competitions.
Of course the “have your cake and eat it too” way around this is to revive the Super 8 concept but play it as a one-round tournament concurrently with the Super 14. Currently NSW, Queensland and the ACT organise half a dozen one-off games during the Super 12 season for their second string squads. Having these squads play a more organised competition against islander squads able to access their NPC players, as well as Japan and the second string WA squad, would result in a much more even and entertaining Super 8 and be a far better development vehicle for all concerned.
Such a structure would also be a great marketing opportunity for Australia’s four rugby provinces. They could play some Super 8 games before Super 14 games and some as stand alone games, thereby increasing the quality and value of their membership packages. Other Super 8 games could be used for enhancing the development and exposure of rugby by being taken to regional areas such as Townsville, Bunbury, Wagga Wagga and the Central Coast.