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Revamped clubland the place to look for third-tier solution

There are times when a problem becomes so intractable that opinion-makers, well wishers and malcontents coalesce around the one solution. Say hello to the third-tier competition. In rugby circles it is the answer to under performance from the Wallabies and the Australian Super Rugby conference.

Let's not kid ourselves; creating a third-tier competition is more placebo than panacea.

It is the lotion that balms the burning frustrations of fans but not the genie to produce a rampaging horde of Hoopers and O'Connors to take the world by storm.

Trophies such as New Zealand's ITM Cup (and its predecessor the National Provincial Championship) and South Africa's Currie Cup are exceptional in the rugby world. Nowhere else is there a professional third tier and it is of no surprise they exist in rugby's biggest heartlands.

They were not competitions created to ensure a continuous flow of talent for Super Rugby teams, they are older than that. They exist because they demand to.

Super Rugby could not kill off, let alone eclipse, more than a century of history in the Currie Cup while New Zealand's insistence that the NPC should run concurrently with the 2003 World Cup was a big reason they lost co-hosting rights. In other words, these are not Mickey Mouse trophies.

There is nothing wrong with the notion of a third-tier competition in Australia but it has to stand on its own. With question marks about how rusted on the support is for Super Rugby provinces, it is dangerous to create a new batch of teams and expect engagement from fans.

The Australian Rugby Championship lasted just one season in 2007 before it was disbanded. Many believe it was a short-sighted decision. It may well have been, but the Australian Rugby Union also had to pay the ABC to broadcast it. It was not a competition that commanded attention. It begged for it.

The Australian conference in Super Rugby has lacked depth, but that's because two teams were added in the space of five years. In contrast, all the provinces in the New Zealand conference are foundation teams. The Kiwis have not had to accommodate growth but enjoy tut-tutting Australia's weakness. The rugby community should not be sucked in by the goading from the commentariat of its rivals.

The case for a new third tier may already be redundant. It was needed when the Western Force and Melbourne Rebels were being blooded, but now that they are established it may not be the best option. The lack of depth could just be a short-term problem - the Rebels have only existed for two seasons - but the newness of the situation has created a foggy landscape from which it is too hard to draw definitive conclusions.

There is no such fog around the state of club rugby. It has been going backwards in the professional era and cannot exist the way it has but nor should it be left to wither. A more accessible bridge needs to be built between it and the professional game.

The clubs are the existing third tier but are still a halfway house between the amateur days and the new era. If a new professional competition is to be created, it should be from clubland. Forget arguments regarding lack of depth, there should be no other motivation other than to strengthen and embolden rugby's core support.

The old tackling adage of "they can't run without their legs" can be applied to the state of rugby in this country. For too long Australian rugby has been running on weak legs, because its base has not, or could not, adapt to a new era. Let's give the legs some strength and see where Australian rugby runs to.

Perhaps the Kiwis have the answer. They split the NPC into the ITM Cup and an amateur league called the Heartland Championship. A similar solution could be transplanted to club rugby although with more amateur teams than professional.

Club rugby as a professional third-tier competition is a romantic solution but one that may work, because support of any sport is nothing if not irrational.

Stephen Samuelson is the Herald's online sports editor and editor of rugbyheaven.com.au

 

26 comments so far

  • Just an FYI quite a few northern hemisphere countries have professional third tiers - the english Championship being a recent testing ground for young talent.

    Commenter
    Conks.concannon
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    February 04, 2013, 8:46AM
    • Stephen makes the comment that for a 3rd tier, we need new teams/clubs which might create loyalty issues. I've often thought, while watching ITM/Currie Cup games whose teams often mirror the local Super 15 teams, that we already have a potential 3rd tier setup all ready to go. Use the existing teams, Brumbies, Force, Rebels, Reds and Waratahs. After Super 15 has ended, we usually pick the Wallaby squad to train on, of some 40 players. These would be ineligible to play for their S15 team in this competition. [They could play for their club if game time is needed]. With an injury toll normally of another 10 unable to train or play anyway, there would be some 50 spots over the 5 teams to fill with up and coming fringe rep players. Play 2 games per weekend, one team has a bye, Sunday afternoons only, get thje kids in. Two full round robins, top two play in the grand final. Use the existing infrastucture for the 3rd tier instead of re-inventing the wheel.

      Commenter
      Scott Cole
      Location
      Rylstone NSW
      Date and time
      February 04, 2013, 10:34AM
      • I've had very similar thoughts Scott. It seems like an obvious solution. One thing I would add is play the games at a variety of venues i.e. the better club grounds and regional centres, for NSW at least and maybe QLD to bring in decent crowds. I truly believe a comp like this would be great for blooding new talent and giving opportunities that these guys could really use but currently aren't getting, not to mention providing a chance for the cream to rise to the top.

        Commenter
        Wozza
        Date and time
        February 05, 2013, 11:32AM
      • How about a 6-team comp co-financed by the current S15 sides, the Academy funding & direct ARU funds. Additional team being SA/NT/Taz. Money saved from no more overseas tours by State teams after the S15, Academy funds etc. This would be cheaper to run & more viable. No expensive hotels, flights needed.

        Have the teams play as a reserve grade sides their respective local Super derbies with SA/NT/Taz playing the OZ home team for the non derby local super game, where possible (OZ game against Kiwi/SA team) all games in OZ for & at local parks when super team is OS, can do exhibition matches in country & selected areas. Two comps possible, after & during S15 with & without non-Wallabies. Sevens players involves in their off season. Could do a State Of Origin style as well NSW vs. Qld as a final game to tie in a decent free to air contract.

        OZ needs a National Comp. It can be done gradually to conserve costs or all out for TV rights. Best 2 teams to play best to from ITM cup whatever there’s plenty of options to work on.

        Commenter
        Fred
        Location
        DY
        Date and time
        February 05, 2013, 1:38PM
    • Why not bring back the "A" state teams. Currently Australian Super 15 teams have 35 players. Each time an Australian team play another Australian team their A teams play the curtain raiser. If they dont have enough players they grab more club guys. This allows the A guys to play a higher competition and push for full selection.

      Commenter
      JimmyC
      Location
      Brisbane
      Date and time
      February 04, 2013, 3:03PM
      • Why not just play reserve grade games as curtain raisers at Australian team's home games for the first half of the Super rugby season, plus a final between the first and second placed reserves teams? No need to hire new grounds etc and it prepares fringe players well for Super Rugby. In the first 10 rounds of Super Rugby, the Aussie reserves teams would play each other twice - four home, four away, two byes. In Round 11, the reserves final could be played either as a curtain-raiser or in a country town as a feature game in its own right.
        Then reserves players return to club rugby for remainder of Super Rugby season

        Commenter
        Steve in Canberra
        Date and time
        February 04, 2013, 3:47PM
        • The answer is very simple. Bring back the Australian Rugby Championship, and don't say that it is to expensive to run. The ARU needs to get motivated and get out, promote and find the appropriate sponsorship that is required,for this competition. Isn't that how it works in the U.K., France, South Africa and New Zealand? There would be other countries, that I haven't mentioned that have this sort sponsorship in place. For F--- Sake it is a world game. Why is the ARU so stupidly ignorant, of that? It can happen here in Australia with the right people pushing the right buttons.
          Also Stephen Samuelson, N.Z. and Sth Africa are NOT the only places in the world, that these competitions exist at this level. Try looking at the French comp., the Hieneckin Cup etc. just to mention a couple.

          Commenter
          Muzzo
          Location
          Orange
          Date and time
          February 04, 2013, 4:17PM
          • Heineken Cup is an extension of Celtic League, Top 14 and Aviva Premiership not an extra tier as such.

            Commenter
            Ed
            Date and time
            February 04, 2013, 4:57PM
          • Wales and England have fully professional third (and fourth?) tier comps - The Principality Premiership and RFU Championship respectively. France has the Pro D2 comp below the Top14.
            The ITM Cup is semi-pro at best with a lot of the players without S15 contracts having day jobs. There is bugger all money in NZ, hence why most NH leagues are full of Kiwis.

            Commenter
            tpcam
            Date and time
            February 04, 2013, 5:38PM
          • @ Muzzo

            You said it brother...'I'm on THAT bandwagon' again and good onya !
            As I've stated before great idea but where does the money come from to run and fund the thing. We're a big country with a small population and 3 to 4 sports competing for YOUR attention. Having said that and not trying to go round and around on the subject maybe the answer is to make our Super 15 teams more successful....how ?... go figure as I'm a Tahs supporter. But I know that if all the States were more successful then good things would start to happen further down the food-chain. Otherwise, it's same old, same old I'm afraid.
            Keep-up the good fight though bro.

            Commenter
            Machooka
            Location
            inner west sydney
            Date and time
            February 05, 2013, 9:00AM

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