Central North Rugby Union says the grassroots level of competition will be hardest hit by recently announced job cuts at New South Wales Rugby Union.
NSW Rugby Union is reducing its workforce by 27 per cent due to a pandemic-induced drop in revenue
The ABC understands regional development officer positions will be made redundant as a result
Central North Rugby Union is concerned about the impact on junior players and their development
The state’s governing body last week confirmed an organisation-wide restructure by making 12 development officers redundant and letting go almost a quarter of its staff.
Seventy per cent of its workforce has been stood down since April.
Chief executive Paul Doorn said the cuts were required to protect the organisation’s future.
“NSW Rugby came into the COVID-19 pandemic in a solid financial position, but with Super Rugby suspended, a loss in broadcast, sponsorship, ticketing and other revenue sources has seen reduced funding available from Rugby Australia as well as NSW Waratahs revenue, along with a loss of revenue coming into the community game,” he said.
‘Lifeblood of rugby’
The ABC understands the cuts will affect positions of regional development officers, who have played a prominent role in building and maintaining junior competitions in areas such as the central north.
CNRU president Tony Byrnes said the decision could have a devastating impact on the next generation of players.
“It certainly won’t help the effort that’s already been made by our development officer in assisting to get the regional competition going in the 14s, 16s and 18s, which really are the lifeblood of rugby.”
Mr Byrnes said he hoped the decision would be reversed before September, when the staff would be let go as JobKeeper runs out.
“It takes a long time to become a development officer and have all that expertise and skill, so if we lose them and when times improve they might have moved on and we’ve lost all that experience, all that knowledge, all that skill …”
Mr Doorn said NSW Rugby was still committed to the game in regional areas.
“Our commitment to supporting rugby from the beach to the bush is our top priority,” he said.
“That is why we have retained experienced staff that can support our clubs and zones and get the community game back and up and running, as well as support our NSW Waratahs teams, members and fans.
“We have ensured that staff retained have the skills and experience to support community competitions, referee and coach development as well as the different zones.”
Dan McKellar’s home side kept the Rebels try-less for almost an hour, while bagging four themselves to assume control.
Typically, the Brumbies’ first two five-pointers came after lineout wins.
Hooker Folau Fainga’a did superbly to back around after his throw in and then pop a lovely inside ball for winger Andy Muirhead to score untouched under the posts in just the third minute.
Noah Lolesio’s conversion gave the hosts a 7-0 lead, before Matt Toomua cut the deficit to one point with two penalties as the Rebels’ scrum surprisingly dominated the Brumbies’ all-Wallabies front row.
After conceding four set-piece penalties in quick fashion, the referee warned the Brumbies a yellow card was coming next.
But they overcame their wobbles to open up a 19-6 half-time buffer.
The Brumbies’ signature driving maul delivered a try for lively half-back Joe Powell, then Fainga’a barged over for his sixth five-pointer in 2020.
The Brumbies looked like galloping to an easy win when the impressive Lolesio burst free to put winger Tom Wright over three minutes after the break.
But back-to-back Rebels tries to hooker Jordan Uelese and skipper Dane Haylett-Petty and Tooma’s third penalty of the night reduced the margin to one point.
The Brumbies were up for the grandstand finish, though, with replacement forward Will Miller sealing victory with the Brumbies’ fifth try three minutes from time.
It’s fair to say there will be many more eyes on Australia’s new domestic rugby competition when it kicks off this weekend than just those of the diehard fans.
Super Rugby AU is Australia’s equivalent of New Zealand’s Super Rugby Aotearoa, and was quickly formed to fill the breach left by the 15-team, five-nations Super Rugby tournament which went into COVID-19-enforced hibernation in mid-March.
Australia’s four Super Rugby sides — the Queensland Reds, NSW Waratahs, Melbourne Rebels, and the Brumbies — will be joined by the Perth-based Western Force in a full home-and-away competition played over 10 weeks plus two weeks of finals.
But it’s the law variations in place that will draw the extra attention, and from the moment the Reds and Waratahs run out onto Brisbane’s Lang Park on Friday night. Behind every one of the changes is an intention to make a more enjoyable spectacle of the game for spectators, fans and players alike.
A couple are already in place over the ditch, with Super Rugby Aotearoa implementing 10 minutes of “golden point” extra time in the event of a scoreboard deadlock after 80 minutes.
The other is the allowance to replace a player sent from the field with a red card after 20 minutes. The sent-off player can’t play any further part in the game, but the contest can be restored to 15 players on 15, 20 minutes later.
Neither has been seen in New Zealand yet in three rounds, but Australia’s leading referee Angus Gardner is a fan.
“You definitely want the players to decide the game and as a ref you prefer to not make a decision that decides it,” he said last week, of the extra time allowance.
Gardner has been busy over the past fortnight, running live familiarity sessions around the new variations with the Waratahs and Rebels. The focus on the breakdown contest in Super Rugby Aotearoa — and the sharp upsurge in penalties — were a cause for concern initially, and were undoubtedly a reason Gardner and his colleagues were utilised during these intra-squad sessions around the country.
“They’re really rewarding speed to the breakdown, I think for us that’s going to highlight our breakdown presence,” Rebels backrower Michael Wells said, his side spending this week of preparation in Canberra to escape the recent spike in COVID-19 infections in Melbourne.
“Attacking wise, you can’t be slow; you have to be really fast. Defensively, if you have a good on-ball presence you’re really going to get pay out of it. I think that was the biggest thing about having Gus [Gardner] here, just to be exposed to those new rules, because it’s different watching it in the New Zealand comp,” Wells said.
The crowds will be much smaller when Super Rugby AU kicks off on Friday night, but it’s certainly hoped the rugby is no less exciting. Rugby Australia is also hoping the decision to go a bit further with law variations will have an impact, too.
Several of them roll over from last season’s National Rugby Championship, in which a rampant Western Force ran away with the title. The line drop-out allowance, which rewards the defending team if they’re able to hold the attacking team up in-goal, works as a faster way of restarting play instead of a five-metre scrum that risks multiple resets.
And 50-22 and 22-50 kicks carry over too, borrowing from rugby league’s 40-20, which will force teams to defend differently at the back, as well as open up attacking opportunity.
“Does that open up more space in the front line to play ball in hand?” Rebels attack coach Shaun Berne wondered.
“And if they don’t defend that back field, are we then able to kick and find those 50-22s?”
The players themselves can already see opportunities.
“It’s going to break some teams when we find that space and take those opportunities, it’s going to hurt a lot of teams,” Brumbies centre Irae Simone offered from Canberra.
Waratahs coach Rob Penney loves the removal of calling for a mark in the defensive 22 from kicks originating in the same portion of the field. But he’s equally wary of the architect of the idea.
“I am a bit worried about Matt Toomua and the impact that he is going to have. He is such a talented 10 and he has the ball on a string really,” Penney said of the Rebels and Wallabies flyhalf.
“I thought it was a real breath of fresh air to hear Matt talking about what could be really good for the game.”
As Rugby Australia works to negotiate its way to new TV deal for 2021 and beyond, the hope is that these variations and the exciting rugby it anticipates will result will be really good for the game over a longer term. Arguably, the future of the professional game is counting on it.
But the condensed campaign means there won’t be time for the five sides to work their way into contention. Most agree the Brumbies start overwhelming as the favourites, given they were running second overall when Super Rugby was suspended.
Brumbies prop James Slipper says that just means the side is already determined to pick up where they left off back in March.
“It’s always important to start well,” he said.
“We actually addressed that this year in Super Rugby and we did start well.
“What you find is when you have a good start is you try and build on that momentum and that winning habit.”
Super Rugby AU Round 1 fixtures
Friday: Queensland Reds vs NSW Waratahs, Brisbane 7:15pm AEST
Saturday: ACT Brumbies vs Melbourne Rebels, Canberra 7:15pm AEST
That must be the thinking at the HQs of New Zealand Rugby and the Australian Rugby League, as reports emerged yesterday that both bodies were considering a proposal for a 14-a-side hybrid match between the two flagship teams in December.
It’s not a new idea.
According to New Zealand Rugby boss Mark Robinson, the most recent approach from the Australian Rugby League was as recently as 2017.
And although the likelihood of any match actually getting off the ground was remote for a whole host of reasons, what made this time different enough for Robinson to say it was considering the proposal?
Money, or lack thereof thanks to the coronavirus pandemic.
The perilous financial state of one of the most famous brands in sport was exposed later on Thursday when New Zealand Rugby announced a total of 40 job losses, 25 per cent of the union’s staff members.
That was an improvement on the 50 per cent job losses that were predicted in May, but an inevitable result of the forecast $120 million decline in revenue for the current financial year that has only been slightly alleviated by the emergence of the Super Rugby Aotearoa competition.
“We must be very clear that our priority is we want the All Blacks to play international rugby for the remainder of the year,” Robinson said.
“[The Kangaroos match] is one of many different scenarios in a unique year like this that we’re considering with looking to be innovative and having a focus on trying to consider revenue-generating ideas at this time given the financial climate we’re in.”
What would a contest be like?
Cross-code battles are not a new phenomenon, even considering the notoriously frosty relationship between the two codes of rugby.
Historically, hybrid rules were the norm when it came to the early games of football — a tradition that has continued most notably by the AFL and GAA with their intermittently played Gaelic/Australian football matches.
The most famous ‘clash of the codes’ from a rugby context took place back in 1996 in the UK, when Bath and Wigan, the dominant sides in each code took part in a two-match series — one game taking place under each codes’ unique set of rules.
Predictably, Wigan trounced their union counterparts under league rules at Maine Road, before Bath returned the favour at Twickenham under union rules.
Even then though, union was forced to make concessions due to the technical nature of the sport.
Full, union-style scrums were an impossibility even in the late 90s, justifiably judged to be too dangerous.
Given how much scrummaging has changed in the professional era, it would be madness to even consider throwing inexperienced league props into that bear-pit.
That would be a concession in this hybrid game too.
With early suggestions that it would be 14-a-side, no scrums or lineouts and there would be an eight-phase limit on forward progress, the game would inherently favour league.
League players all for it
Aside from the admission from New Zealand Rugby that they are investigating the possibility of a match, most of the positive noises appear to be coming from across rugby’s Rubicon.
Kangaroos star Daly Cherry-Evans told NRL.com, “I would love to play something like that. It would be unreal.
“Anything like that where there is an opportunity to grow the game of rugby league, in particular in a time like now, I think is a great idea.”
Kangaroos coach Mal Meninga was similarly enthused, highlighting the international implications in his interview with the Courier Mail.
“We want to play the All Blacks, hopefully, we can get the concept off the ground,” he said.
As one of the world’s most recognisable sporting brands, anything the All Blacks did would create headlines around the globe, a reach league is simply not able to harness due to its limited geographic spread in relation to union.
As such, perhaps it was understandable that interim Rugby Australia chairman Hamish McLennan said he would “not lose sleep” over a cross-code clash, saying he had “bigger fish to fry”.
That indifference, feigned or otherwise, contrasts starkly with the eagerness at which Meninga and Cherry-Evans have appeared to jump onto the bandwagon, which could suggest something of an inferiority complex when it comes to global recognition.
The irony is that international rugby league has never looked better.
Seizing a golden opportunity
International rugby league is, relatively speaking, on the rise — and Australia is best positioned to take advantage of an under-resourced rugby hotspot as a result.
Not only that, but it is on the rise in the Pacific — the one region on the planet where a coronavirus-free travel bubble could theoretically exist.
It is a region the 15-man code has wilfully ignored for decades.
Fiji, Samoa and Tonga were excluded from the one-time riches of Super Rugby and the Rugby Championship at their inception, and have been similarly ignored in favour of new, more lucrative markets in Japan and South America in the meantime.
That is a pattern that has been reflected in the paltry number of top-level matches the Pacific nations face against top-level opposition between Rugby World Cups.
The All Blacks have played just 18 official Tests in their history against the Pacific triumvirate of Fiji, Samoa and Tonga, with just one game taking place outside of New Zealand (and that came as recently as 2015 in Apia against Samoa).
The Wallabies have been more supportive, playing 32 matches against the Pacific nations — although just three of those have been as visitors — with three trips to Suva in the past 67 years of competition against Fiji.
League, on the other hand, has recently embraced the Pacific, riding the wave of enthusiasm that has greeted the emergence of the Tongan team and establishing challenge matches between Papua New Guinea, Fiji and Samoa.
Tonga may well be as miffed as New Zealand Rugby League boss Greg Peters, who said, “If the Kangaroos play anybody, we want them to play the Kiwis.”
On the other side of the fence, for the All Blacks, perhaps a better use of its precious resources would be to give the ARU a further, mutually beneficial leg up in the form of extra Bledisloe matches.
After all, the long-term implications for the All Blacks of the Wallabies demise, against a backdrop of the diminishing viability of the trans-continental Super Rugby competition, are far more serious than the potential short-term financial hit any cross-code challenge would provide.
Of today’s players, Soward rates the best game managers as the best field-goal kickers, and singled out Maloney and Daly Cherry-Evans as standouts.
“The best are the guys that understand how to put their teams in position, and usually come up with the play,” he said.
Field goals of the future
Promising Panthers’ five-eighth Matt Burton bounced back earlier this season after his infamous second game, in which he missed five field-goal shots.
Soward believes Burton will become a better player than he ever was, but the former Panthers five-eighth got itchy field-goal feet watching the misses.
“I don’t want to be harsh on him but I thought his ruck recognition on one of the sets was poor,” Soward said.
“They made a break, and he had the perfect time with a retreating defence, to be able to step up and take it.
“Again, the misconception of ‘I have to be back 25 metres’ and all this stuff … you go on the quickest possible play-the-ball.”
Soward, who now records a podcast with former Sydney Swan Nick Davis, is happy to share his knowledge gleaned across 26 field goals.
But he cautions against others copying the approach to his famous 2010 attempt precisely.
“In 2010, how far back I was didn’t matter because I was at the top of my game, but there are times where you need a little bit closer, and to generate play-the-ball speed, someone carrying the ball with a bit of footwork.
“Sometimes you don’t always have to get a deep pass back, you can step up and take it when no-one’s expecting it.”
And he’s clearest on one point.
“Kids these days thinking they have to wait to the last? That’s stupid.”
England rugby bosses say they are reviewing the singing of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot by supporters due to many fans being unaware of the song’s slavery origins or “sensitivities”.
The song was originally written by American slave Wallace Willis in the 1860s
The Rugby Football Union says it is is reviewing the historical context of the song
Rugby supporters have been accused of cultural appropriation
Rugby supporters have been accused of cultural appropriation in recent years for the customary singing of the song at games played by England’s national team.
The unofficial anthem of the team was originally written by American slave Wallace Willis in the 1860s.
In response to suggestions that the song could be banned by the Rugby Football Union (RFU), an spokesperson said: “The RFU has stated we need to do more to achieve diversity and we are determined to accelerate change and grow awareness.”
“The Swing Low, Sweet Chariot song has long been part of the culture of rugby and is sung by many who have no awareness of its origins or its sensitivities.
“We are reviewing its historical context and our role in educating fans to make informed decisions.”
Earlier this week, black English lock Maro Itoje told the Daily Mail there was a “complicated” history to the song and the RFU needed to do more to make English rugby “open to all”, but he did not think anyone was singing the song with “malicious intent”.
The song has been sung by supporters of England’s national rugby team since at least the late 1980s.
The first use of the song is believed to have been inspired by black winger Martin “Chariots” Offiah’s appearance with the team at a tournament in Middlesex.