The Australian Rugby Union is shrugging off criticism of the National Rugby Championship and is planning an opening-round match between the Sydney Stars and Brisbane City at Ballymore on the Thursday night before the second Bledisloe Cup Test.
With just seven weeks to go until the first game is broadcast live on Fox Sports on August 21, the ARU is also on the verge of locking in a $350,000 per year naming rights sponsorship deal with Sydney construction company Buildcorp.
Buildcorp, founded by husband-and-wife team Tony and Josephine Sukkar, is club premiers Sydney University's major sponsor.
Eyes on the prize: Israel Folau. Photo: Getty Images
Securing the privately owned firm's support for what is believed to be a three-year deal fulfils a crucial ARU requirement that the competition "wash its own face", along with a $2 million broadcasting deal and strict self-funding conditions on the nine participating teams.
The exciting stuff is still to come, including rule changes and the announcement of the draw which, The Breakdown understands, will give each team exposure in the coveted live spot on Fox Sports within the first five rounds.
But in the midst of sustained criticism by Eastwood president Brett Papworth, and persistent murmurs the competition is being pushed too far too soon, a firm sponsorship arrangement for the competition is a welcome development.
Pride (in the name of rugby): Israel Folau with Sydney Convicts’ Brennan Bastyovansky, Adam Ashley-Cooper and Macquarie Uni’s Donovan Baker. Photo: Ryan Stuart
As is news that the four teams involved in the Greater Sydney Rams – West Harbour, Parramatta, Penrith and Southern Districts – have signed a memorandum of understanding and secured a consortium of up to six investors prepared to put up the $300,000 needed to run the team.
It means the nine teams involved in the long-awaited professional third tier are locked and loaded and ready for kick off.
The Breakdown has also learned the weekly broadcast game will start at 7.30pm on Fox Sports 2, running out of an ITM Cup game out of New Zealand and into the broadcaster's rugby panel show Rugby HQ, which will move to a 9.30pm live slot.
The first match, between the Stars and Brisbane City, will be sandwiched between the two biggest Test matches of the international season, five days after the first Bledisloe Cup clash in Sydney and three days before the second, potentially deciding Test in Auckland.
Papworth, a long-time critic of the NRC, said he was "astounded" other Sydney clubs had jumped on board the competition when there was "not one thing" in it for them except for financial stress.
NSW Rugby Union chairman Nick Farr-Jones acknowledged the concerns of Eastwood, who are supplying players and first-grade coach John Manenti to the Rams but who have withdrawn from any formal participation in the consortium.
"There's an argument to say it is being rushed, there's an argument to say that it's putting pressure on clubs to find the finances, but I fully support [ARU chief] Bill Pulver's need to go to the SANZAR negotiating table on broadcasting rights with something less than black twos," Farr-Jones said, referring to a weak poker hand.
"That's a huge reason to support the strategy and I do for that reason."
ARU, WARATAHS MAY CO-HABIT
Bill Pulver has been vocal about the Waratahs' importance to the overall success of Australian rugby, but the relationship is set to get even cosier if ARU's plans to moveits headquarters to Moore Park go ahead.
The Breakdown understands the ARU has been checking out office space around Sydney but is keen to move into some spare square metreage in the Waratahs building in the Allianz Stadium-SCG precinct.
A move there from its current St Leonards headquarters would add another big brand to what is a bona fide sporting precinct as it would join the NRL, Sydney Roosters, Sydney FC, Swans, Sixers and Cricket NSW.
MALONEY STILL LIKES TAHS
Further to news Randwick man and businessman Jon Collins has thrown his hat in the mix to run the Waratahs, the Breakdown hears mining magnate and long-time Southern Districts figure Kevin Maloney has been sniffing around the Super Rugby side as well.
Maloney put six figures into the Waratahs via a sponsorship deal a couple of years ago and was also a well-known supporter of the Reds in their time of need, effectively sponsoring then-coach Ewen McKenzie and other staff through a deal under the auspices of his company MAC Services Group.
The Sydney-based magnate was also part of a group which made a bid for ownership of the Rebels. Maloney's group withdrew before the final hurdle and the licence eventually went to Harold Mitchell.
The Breakdown tracked down the colourful Maloney at Perth Airport while on his way to one of his group's goldmining interests. He told The Breakdown he was not formally involved with any of the bidders but was happy to help out.
"I've said to them all if you get [the licence] and want to talk to me then by all means but I'm not at the forefront of it," Maloney said.
OUT, PROUD AND IN THE CURTAIN-RAISER
Australian rugby will make history when the Sydney Convicts, Australia's first gay rugby team, play Macquarie University in the curtain-raiser to the Waratahs' clash with the Highlanders on Sunday afternoon.
It will be only the second time in the world a gay team has been invited to play a curtain raiser before a professional game – we're told the first time was at a football match in France – and the first time for rugby.