Australian Rugby – Enjoy it while it lasts

James MortimerAnalyst IApril 23, 2009

LONDON - DECEMBER 03:  Bryan Habana of the Barbarians squeezes through Adam Freier (L) and Dean Mumm of Australia during the 1908 - 2008 London Olympic Centenary match between The Barbarians and Australia at Wembley Stadium on December 3, 2008 in London, England.  (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)



As the Super 14 enters its final month, the harsh reality is that beyond the Wallabies, top level rugby in Australia is about to end.



John O’Neill has been his typical vocal self in stating his and Australia’s requirements for Super 14 expansion.  He is pushing for a fifth team, firmly stating his requirements for a season calendar shift, and advocating a backup plan if the South Africans do not come to the table.


It has been suggested that the NZRU are backing up the O’Neill, but this is only really being made obvious by the Australian CEO himself.


New Zealand chairman Jack Hobbs and chief executive Steve Tew have remained impartial during the ongoing conflict within the SANZAR ranks that still sees us no closer actually to knowing as a rugby public what will occur with our premier competitions – Super rugby and the Tri Nations – from 2011.


Add to this the documented lower crowd levels and television viewing audience, and this will affect the commercial and financial viability of the renegotiations.


Only one country holds a relative trump card in all of this, ironically South Africa.  It is the country of some 44 million that boost the lion’s share of both stadia based audiences and television numbers.


And in this, there is one aspect of the South African proposals that will not be compromised; that of their premier domestic competition, the Currie Cup.


They also believe that they should receive a sixth franchise, based not only on their wish not to have their own tournament infringed upon, but on the evidence that they wield the largest pure rugby market.


Irrespective of the above, it is hard to agree that South Africa warrant a sixth team, the Eastern Cape “Southern Kings”, or a hybrid team of the mistreated Southern Spears.  Especially with two or three of South Africa’s five teams consistently bringing up the rear of the Super 14 table.


As former Southern Spears CEO Tony Mckeever stated roughly some time ago “it is not fair that South African rugby rewards mediocrity”.  Essentially the original agreement with the Spears and the SARU was that they would replace the worst performing South African franchise.


This did not eventuate, and legal battles and existing franchises' stubborn stances caused ugly rifts in the South African rugby landscapes.


It is here that O’Neill is missing the point.


He talks of a lack of compromise by South Africa, and vehemently states that Australia has made a concession in their negotiations.  But in what?


The reality is that it will be South Africa (with the Currie Cup) and New Zealand (with the Air New Zealand Cup) that will be making the compromises.


Australia made theirs a long time ago, which had nothing to do with their fellow SANZAR partners.


When O’Neill came on board for his second term as Australian boss in June 2007, he said the rugby landscape was in “deep ****”.    In 2007 the ARU was in deficit to a horrific tune of $8.48 million.


In the financial report of 2008, they had announced a stunning $9.19 million turnaround; recording a surplus of $712,000.  Expenditure was cut eighty per cent, and no doubt it was a formidable display of O’Neill’s vaunted administrative capabilities.


But it came at a cost; one that will only really be felt this year.


There is no more Australian Rugby Championship, which was a complete fiscal disaster, posting a near $5 million dollar loss after administrators ran it over $2 million over budget.  


But also the Australia A program, essentially the Wallabies B team, was scrapped. 


While there is a significant Wallabies program this year, with a six match Tri Nations and likely Grand Slam tour, that is it.


As O’Neill said, “We (Australia) don't have a Currie Cup or an (New Zealand) NPC but at the end of the day the driving force of our success for 13 or 14 years has been Super rugby or Tri-Nations, we can't forget that," he said.

"The other stuff makes up the numbers but the revenue, if you ask Fox Sports what do they pay the big money for, they pay the big money for Super rugby and Tri-Nations.”

But the foundation of South African and New Zealand rugby power is the success and history of their respective national competitions, and O’Neill must remember this.

For all of the talk of a Plan B, if South Africa is not included in Australia’s and O’Neill’s grand scheme, then the Super 14 as we know it ends - as does the Tri Nations, possibly the world’s premier international tournament.

Australia is not compromising in their proposals for SANZAR as South Africa and New Zealand will need to with the Currie and Air New Zealand Cups.


Thanks to O’Neill, they have already done that.


And it is the Australia rugby public, and quite possibly eventually Australian rugby, that will be poorer for it.