New chief backs Wallabies return for loyal Canberrans
Australian Rugby Union CEO Bill Pulver. Photo: Getty Images
CANBERRA is back on the radar to host Test rugby and new ARU chief executive Bill Pulver wants to reward the capital for its ''loyalty'' to the sport.
And while Pulver has backed Robbie Deans in asking Super Rugby teams to rest their Wallabies to prepare for the British and Irish Lions tour, he conceded he would need to be ''flexible'' if the ACT Brumbies' finals chances are hanging in the balance.
Pulver was on a fact-finding mission in Canberra this week and met with Brumbies management, coaching staff and players as he begins his tenure in Australian rugby's top job.
One of his highest priorities is to re-establish a third-tier competition and he wants a Canberra team involved to ensure the Brumbies have depth for the future.
After less than a week in the job, Pulver spoke to The Sunday Canberra Times about his plans to increase rugby's popularity and juggle the need to perform in Super Rugby and in the Test arena.
Canberra's Test hopes
Canberra Stadium will host the British and Irish Lions when they play the Brumbies in June.
But the capital hasn't been on the Wallabies Test schedule since they trounced Italy and Fiji in 2009 and 2010 respectively.
Canberra was the only Super Rugby playing area which did not have a chance to see international rugby last year.
Instead of coming to the capital, the ARU held its Test between the Wallabies and Scotland in Newcastle.
Test matches don't have a cheap price tag, but Pulver wants to see international rugby return to Canberra Stadium.
''I think there is a chance it can be a Test venue, we want to do everything we can to reward those wonderfully loyal rugby communities and Canberra is absolutely one of those,'' Pulver said.
''I don't know precisely which games we would consider playing down here.
''But we recognise Canberra as a great rugby community … I want to make sure Canberra is rewarded for the loyalty surrounding the rugby program.''
Resting the Wallabies
Pulver has already declared his intention to put the Wallabies first when it comes to preparing for the British and Irish Lions tour of Australia.
Deans is trying to plan a three-week camp before the series begins in June.
The Brumbies play the Melbourne Rebels on June 7 in their second last game of the season. The clash is 15 days before the first Wallabies-Lions Test. It could prove crucial to the Brumbies' hopes of making the finals for the first time since 2004.
Brumbies coach Jake White is determined to reach the play-offs this year and he wants his best players available to ensure they don't stumble again.
''That call [on whether Super Rugby players are available] will be made by me,'' Pulver said.
''We need the Wallabies to win those games against the Lions and need them performing at their absolute best.
''In terms of player availability for the Wallabies, it's an easy decision [to support Deans] in my mind.
''I'm pretty confident you'll see me be very supportive of my coach. Making the finals for Super Rugby teams is a big deal.
''If we get to the point where that game will be the difference between the Brumbies getting to the finals or not, we'll open up a dialogue. Clearly it has to be flexible.''
Third-tier in Canberra
Australian rugby lacks a quality feeder competition to get players ready for the jump into Super Rugby.
The Australian Rugby Championship was abolished after just one year and the ARU lost almost $5 million on the competition.
The Canberra Vikings were part of the ARC and Pulver is keen to have another team from the capital involved as he attempts to establish a viable third-tier option. White has started a mini Brumbies academy with the best players in Canberra's first-grade competition training and playing together regularly.
He has also tried to boost the premier grade by assigning Brumbies-contracted players to each local club.
But there is still a giant leap from amateur rugby to the professional arena.
''It's important to develop a third tier to develop the right pathway because right now the step from club rugby to Super Rugby is too big,'' Pulver said.
''I'll be working very hard to find a financial model that makes a third-tier competition work and in my thinking Canberra has a very important role to play.
''You need a link to the Super Rugby teams and I would expect Canberra to be a centre for a third-tier opportunity. The idea is to have it up and running next year, but I don't know if that's achievable yet.''
The ARU contract system
White wants to put long-term faith in his players to help him rebuild the franchise and claim a Super Rugby title.
However, some players are reluctant to commit to extended deals because of the separate Super Rugby and ARU contracting systems.
If a player commits to Super Rugby, they fear their ability to earn a big ARU contract will be affected.
White is in negotiations with the bulk of his squad, but Pulver was reluctant to commit to any changes to the contracting system.
''It's an interesting one, the player contracting system will be reviewed and that's an ongoing process,'' Pulver said.
Challenges for Brumbies
The Brumbies have recorded financial losses in the past two years, but are predicting a $1.1 million turnaround this year. They are preparing to move later this year to a new $15 million facility at the University of Canberra which will be jointly funded by the Brumbies, the ACT government and the university.
''I think this franchise has done very well,'' Pulver said of the Brumbies. ''I feel if they have a good couple of seasons, the fans will come back and everything will move in the right direction.
''The ARU will work incredible closely with the Brumbies, they're an important part of Australian rugby and I've got a lot of confidence in their ability to manage their franchise very well. That includes helping them build an even more financially stable model.''