One of the enduring conundrums in Australian rugby is what to do about an elusive ‘third tier’. Throughout the professional era all major roads have led to the Wallabies. But with the 1999 World Cup win and the Bledisloe Cup both distant memories, has that financial and emotional investment been adequately repaid?
Super Rugby has proven problematic, with fans and administrators increasingly polarized on matters such as the exit of South Africa, the number of Australian franchises, or even whether Australia should continue to participate.
For some, the justification for that is Australia’s continued lack of success, while Rugby Australia’s recent reticence has been based on what they perceive is an inequitable split of broadcasting revenue.
Others see an exit from Super Rugby as an opportunity to reshape the domestic landscape; either to build on the traditional strength of club rugby in Sydney and Brisbane, or by adding new sides to Australia’s existing five franchises.
In the opposite camp, coaches and players involved in high performance rugby understand that to win, or be competitive in global professional rugby, you must continue to expose yourself to the best.
That entails regular international competition at professional franchise level (Super Rugby) and, preferably, the presence of a so-called ‘third tier’ which bridges the gap from club rugby (previously the NRC).
Despite speculation to the contrary, the smart money is on retention of the status quo. But if Super Rugby Pacific is to stay, the question remains; what does Australian rugby do from June onwards, with all of the professionally contracted and emerging players who don’t make the Wallabies squad?
The Australia A program this year saw participation in a series of matches against Tonga, Samoa and Fiji. A further fixture is scheduled in Japan.
That’s beneficial for those selected players and for the Wallabies, who were able to transition players like Fraser McReight straight into the main squad to replace injured Test players.
But it’s also another example of resources being thrown at the top of the pyramid, with not enough left in reserve to shore up the lower levels.
It’s a problem unique to Australia. New Zealand for example, has their NPC to keep fans engaged with rugby, and to keep players not only on the pitch, but in many cases, cohesively working in combinations that they carry through into Super Rugby.
Australia’s position is acutely different, because it lacks sufficient number of traditional rugby provinces, spread across the country, and because it lacks the money to construct anything new, and a large enough committed rugby population to sustain it through ticket sales and TV subscriptions.
The National Rugby Championship (NRC) was an attempt to bridge the gap between Super Rugby and club rugby – and make no mistake, the gap is a chasm – but that competition met its demise in 2019; a result of apathy, political white-anting and unaffordability.
In the years since, Australian rugby has not got any richer. Even with a private equity capital injection in the offing, money is required to retire debt, to fund the growth of women’s rugby, to support grass roots rugby and to underpin salaries to ensure that the majority of elite players play at home.
In that context, a fully-fledged NRC or similar, is considered a luxury the game can’t afford.
For the Melbourne Rebels, a 12-year-old franchise yet to achieve and sustain success, meekly accepting the situation or waiting around for things to change, is something they can’t afford.
With cohesion and TWI (Team Work Index) all the rage in rugby at the moment, how can that possibly be developed, and the Rebels hope to be competitive against long-established rivals, if there are no rugby matches for their squad to play in from June until February?
It’s a situation where, if the mountain won’t come to Mohammed, Mohammed must go to the mountain. General Manager of Rugby, Nick Stiles, explains how the Rebels strategically set about arranging a program to provide them with the best platform for the 2023 season and beyond.
“It’s a two-pronged problem which needed a two-pronged solution,” he says. “How do we get our guys out of the cycle of being paid to train all year-round into playing more rugby, and how do we manage that in a way that allows us to build cohesion and combinations that will benefit the Rebels?”
“So, the first part of the solution was to get guys into club rugby in Brisbane, not just willy-nilly, but working in combinations that they can take forward. And the second piece was trying to put together a schedule of ‘A’ matches that has a cohesive and progressive element to it.”
Audiences for Brisbane’s Hospital Cup will have seen this in action. Grand-finalist Wests, contain Rebels front rowers Cabous Eloff and Jordan Uelese, loose forwards Daniel Maiava and Zac Hough, halves Moses Sorovi, Carter Gordon and Mason Gordon, and outside backs David Vaihu and Ilikena Vudogo.
Their opponent in next week’s final is UQ, who include the 12-13-14 combination of Nic Jooste, Lukas Ripley and Joe Pincus.
Along with these players, a number of the Rebels academy members have been grouped together in age-group teams, and all players, including Australia A halfback James Tuttle, come together each week at a Rebels satellite training centre, hosted at Wests.
Arranging a sequence of matches for the squad didn’t come easily, with the Reds and Waratahs in particular heavily focused on their metropolitan club competitions.
The Brumbies and Force are more similar to the Rebels in that while each city has healthy local club competitions, which their developing and academy players compete in, they see greater value in getting those players into their own professional environment and playing together.
In the case of the Rebels, there is a run of three matches, beginning with a fixture in Melbourne against the Axemen on the Friday 23rd September public holiday, and a match against the Brumbies in Albury on Thursday 6th October, before they meet the Kintetsu Liners in Osaka, on the 15th October.
Players will then have a three-week break before convening again for the Super Rugby pre-season on the 7th November, to be joined by the Wallabies squad members immediately after their designated end of year break.
The planning around cohesion doesn’t end there, but feeds down into the emerging players. The national U19 competition will be played over October and November, with the Rebels side to contain a mix of their own age-eligible contracted emerging players, plus players from the junior academy which is currently run by Rugby Victoria.
Taking into account inter-franchise matches already played this year, a run of club games, plus the national competition, this group of players will contain a sizable cohort who will have played in the vicinity of 12-15 matches together over a 12-month period.
As Stiles says; “When these players – almost all of them born and developed locally – start to flow through into senior ranks, the benefits of them having played as teammates and having developed combinations, should become evident.”
“It’s a model that we’ve seen be very successfully implemented by the Penrith Panthers in the NRL, in the way they’ve developed their local juniors, held them together, and then bought them into first grade as quality performers, all used to each other, not having been diluted or exposed to a whole raft of different coaching messages and styles,” he concludes.
When the blowtorch is applied to the underperformance of Australian franchises, it is almost always the Rebels who are the first singled out for attention.
And while there have been any number of impediments in recent seasons (an horrific injury toll, living and playing away from home for extended periods due to COVID restrictions), it rankles the club that they are yet to make more of a positive impression on the competition.
No matter how many times frustrated fans might shout “sack the coach” or “buy player X”, there are never any simple answers. Consistently successful organisations like the Crusaders and Leinster are so, not just because of their elite playing and coaching group, but because of the rock-solid structures they have in place, and the cultural and rugby pathways that tie talented local players to their way of being.
And while development from within is such an important mantra, those franchises are also not afraid to supplement their sides with a judicious high-profile signing when the opportunity arises – witness the value that Pablo Matera brought to the Crusaders in 2022.
In that vein, the Rebels will today announce the signing of their own international addition; Melbourne-born, 14-Test standout Six Nations winger for Italy, Monty Ioane.
Whatever outcomes await in 2023 and beyond, it is clear that there is an enormous amount of hard work and innovation going on behind the scenes. Win or lose, nobody can accuse the Rebels of sitting on their heels.
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