ARU review will help game get its mojo back
"If we want to be the best rugby nation in the world - not just at the elite level but also as a community game - we can't circle the wagons" ... General Peter Cosgrove. Photo: AFR
An Australian Rugby Union corporate governance review is long overdue and an important step towards convincing all that the game's administration at the top end is actually professional and no longer suffering from the hangovers of the amateur era.
Prompted by government threats funding could be cut if the ARU stuck with its antiquated ways, General Peter Cosgrove and Mark Arbib, the former federal minister for sport, will head the review, which is expected to lead to a major overhaul, including a fully independent board and each state being on an equal footing.
As numerous sports, particularly Australian football, have transformed themselves through an independent commission, Australian rugby has been laughed at. For decades, NSW and Queensland have been the big brothers. At last week's annual meeting, NSW had five votes, Queensland three, while the other states and territories had one each.
NSW and Queensland also have a major say on the ARU's nine-man board, each having two representatives, while the other states have one.
Knowing their power base is under threat, NSW and Queensland will provide some resistance to this review but it was clear from Cosgrove's tone a few days ago they won't succeed.
''If we want to be the best rugby nation in the world- not just at the elite level but also as a community game - we can't circle the wagons. We've got to be as creative and energetic as we expect our players to be. This is not a time for old men in blazers to say: 'Not on my watch.' It's quite the reverse,'' Cosgrove said.
Ever so slowly, the leather patch blazer brigade, the alicadoos, are being hounded out of Australian rugby. So too the backroom politicking that has marred the game's development, often leading to the ARU and the major states being suspicious of each other and working in opposite directions.
The archaic voting system has even led to left-field candidates winning the Wallabies coaching position and others being ousted.
In 1988, Alan Jones was hopeful of holding onto the Wallabies job, as the NSW Rugby Union had instructed its five delegates to vote for him. However, one NSW delegate rebelled, casting his vote for Bob Dwyer. That was enough for Dwyer to win.
After the 1995 World Cup, Queensland coach John Connolly was highly favoured to replace Dwyer, as his record was far superior to the other two NSW candidates - Greg Smith and Chris Hawkins. However, the NSW delegates ensured Connolly had no chance.
John O'Neill, then about to join the ARU as its new chief executive, was at that delegates meeting and explained what happened in his biography, It's Only a Game. O'Neill had been told before the meeting Connolly was a ''shoo-in'' and that it was a ''done deal''.
When it was announced that Smith had won the vote, ''pandemonium ensued''.
''Fists hammered on the table; there was a rush of noise; papers flew in the air,'' O'Neill wrote. ''QRU chairman Dick McGruther could be heard about the din claiming treachery. His fellow Queensland delegates, John Breen and Norbert Byrne, were finger pointing and the language was blue. [ARU president] Phil Harry called for order and the three Queenslanders simply stormed out of the room. They eventually returned, still seething, while NSW delegates sat there with heads down and the hint of a smile playing at the corners of their mouths.''
O'Neill was suspicious a deal had been done between NSW and one southern delegate to get Smith over the line.
Nowadays the appointment of the Wallabies coach is more professionally conducted. But elsewhere in its administration, improvements are required. It mustn't end there though. After this review, other crucial areas including player development, law improvements and commercial opportunities should be investigated.
Then, at last, Australian rugby, struggling for identity due to AFL and rugby league dominance, may regain some of its mojo.