Rugby Australia is banking on hosting the 2027 World Cup and a lucrative new broadcast agreement to save the game in this country, but it will not achieve its goal unless it focuses more on high performance outcomes.
Australian rugby was struggling financially before the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic earlier this year and is now doing it very tough, kept afloat in part by a $14m advance from World Rugby.
A potential multi-million dollar windfall from hosting the World Cup could help to secure the financial future of the game as long as it was not squandered like the $44m dividend from the 2003 World Cup which Australia successfully hosted.
RA has also unveiled the “largest and most comprehensive” package of TV rights for “prospective broadcasters” in an attempt to gain much-needed revenue, sparking speculation that telco Optus is back in the picture, which would be ironic to say the least.
The package has been designed so that broadcasters can pick and choose certain elements or buy the whole thing, which means Optus, current broadcaster Fox Sports and free-to-air network Channel 10 could all have a piece of the action.
Interestingly, the 2025 British and Irish Lions tour of Australia was not included in the package, presumably because RA intends to sell the rights separately, potentially receiving another bonanza.
The new broadcast deal is unlikely to reap anywhere near the $57m a year Australian rugby received from Fox Sports over the last five years, leading to more players heading overseas and stretching playing resources to the limit.
Unless Rugby Australia begins to place a renewed emphasis on high performance its endeavours to promote and market the game will be all for nothing. With the Wallabies currently ranked seventh in the world and Australia’s Super Rugby teams, by and large, uncompetitive with their trans-Tasman neighbours, high performance should be at the top of RA’s priority list.
Imagine if Australia hosted the 2027 World Cup and the Wallabies failed to improve on their current ranking. Australia would face the potential ignominy, like England in 2015, of failing to reach the quarter-finals of its own tournament.
Rugby Australia is placing a lot of faith in new Wallabies coach Dave Rennie to turn the national team around. It has been reported recently that Rennie is pushing hard to have South African scrum guru Petrus du Plessis on the Wallabies coaching staff, but Rugby Australia has baulked at the cost.
What price performance? Of course, there is no guarantee that the Phil Kearns-led Australian bid for the 2027 World Cup will succeed. World Rugby may prefer to grant the showpiece tournament to an emerging rugby nation such as the US or Russia – or even give it to one of the Six Nations countries – especially if Australian rugby continued to under-perform and alienate its fan base.
That is why the next broadcast agreement is so important to the future of the game in Australia.
The new product in RA’s TV rights package includes a National Club Championship, a State of Origin style “State of Union” match between traditional rivals NSW Waratahs and Queensland Reds and a Super Eight competition involving the top two teams from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa as well as one team from Japan and South America. The Super Eight is the most interesting of the concepts, but is also the most problematic in the age of coronavirus.
For all the new competition models and ideas Rugby Australia is spruiking, standard of play is paramount. And that comes back to high performance, which will be determined largely by the Super Rugby model Australia and New Zealand agree on, or not.
In its broadcast package RA has also included a five-team Australian domestic Super Rugby competition or a trans-Tasman competition which would involve five New Zealand sides and Australia’s five franchises, depending on the outcome of negotiations with the Kiwis, who indicated they preferred two or three Australian sides.
A three-week deadline has been given to New Zealand to commit to Australia’s trans-Tasman proposal for five teams or they will go it alone with huge ramifications, not least relating to high performance outcomes.
There was a lot of commentary about the “re-igniting” of the Super Rugby AU competition after the Melbourne Rebels upset the Brumbies and the Waratahs thrashed the Reds last weekend, but those games paled in comparison to the intensity, physicality and quality of the Crusaders’ win against the Highlanders in Super Rugby Aotearoa.
By going it alone the danger is Australian standards would fall even further behind, not only undermining the Wallabies’ performance in Test rugby, but also damaging Australia’s chances of securing the World Cup. It is fine for Rugby Australia to come up with new ways to sell the game, but there has to be a high performance strategy accompanying the marketing, otherwise there is little, or no, point to any of it.
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