An Irish solution for an Australian problem

Australian rugby needs to up its game on and off the pitch, if it is to remain a heavyweight in the sport.

For the better part of 20 years the game in Australia has been coasting on the back of its two Rugby World Cup wins that bookended the 1990s. Admittedly the slow decline of Australian rugby has taken in a further two RWC finals, a series win over The British and Irish Lions, and four Tri Nations/Rugby Championship titles.

However, the weakness of the game here can be better seen through the underperformance of the ARU’s youth structures, particularly at Under 20 level. Since the introduction of the Under 20 RWC in 2008, Australia has reached one final (in 2010, when the team was beaten 62-17 by New Zealand), and played off for third place twice (in 2009 and 2011).

The ARU needs to address this dearth of success, and implement a plan that will restore success to a sports-loving people. While Australian sports operate in a highly competitive market in terms of attracting talent and sponsorship, it’s far from the only place on earth where people follow and play multiple sports.

Ireland would be a prime example of a similarly competitive market, with rugby vying with football (soccer), football (Gaelic football) and hurling, for participants, sponsorship, and with English Premier League clubs for audience share.

Invest in youth

Yet despite this competition the Irish Rugby Football Union has developed a plan that has delivered success to the country’s four professional teams (each having claimed at least one Celtic League/Pro 12 title since 2001, and the off the four collecting at least one Heineken Cup, despite the financial strength of teams based in France and England), and also seen the national team top the Six Nations three times in that period, while the under age teams have been on an upward curve over the course of the last decade.

Traditionally graduates of private schools in Dublin, Belfast and Cork, alongside those from schools and clubs in Limerick, have been bulk suppliers to the national team and provincial squads. However, as the administration of the game has become more professional there has been a focus on expanding the playing pool by investing in developing the game through state-run schools and regional clubs. It has generated a conveyer-belt of talent, making the Irish sides the envy of European rugby.

Own the clubs

Another key feature of the Irish structure is the IRFU’s ownership of the four provincial sides – admittedly in the early 2000s they considered dropping Connacht – which ensures players’ workloads are carefully managed, to ensure optimal fitness of the games that matter.

While non-Ireland-based players are not explicitly barred from the national team, they have a better chance of earning caps by staying in Ireland. First-five-eighth, Jonathan Sexton, was a rare exception, spending two years at Paris-based, Racing 92, having won three Heineken Cups, a Pro 12 and a European Challenge Cup, but it took the better part of a season to return to his pre-Racing form.

Under the current ownership structures in Australian rugby, with one team owned by the ARU, another privately owned and the remainder owned by the State unions… there’s little cohesion, and you are left with five separate interests going in five different directions. And more pertinently, private owners have a right to expect their employees will put their club/business first, and not be distracted by another “job” with a different team. That’s not to say private owners don’t care about the needs of the Union, but they’re going to care a lot more about getting bums on seats and guts in replica jerseys, by having their stars on the field at every opportunity. Whereas the ARU could take a more holistic approach, saving the best players for the most important games, generating excitement by blooding new players alongside established stars.

By taking control of the Super Teams and building development structures through school and club pathways that nurture an Australian game plan that plays to Australia’s strengths, the ARU can rebuild the sport in this country, in the same way their Irish counterparts have in Ireland.

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