Folau ... chose Sydney University, the wealthiest of the premier rugby clubs. Photo: Getty Images
NOTHING better demonstrated the yawning gulf between the haves and have-nots of Sydney club rugby than Sydney University's announcement on Friday that Israel Folau had chosen to play with them for the duration of his time with the Waratahs.
The former rugby league and AFL player lives in Kellyville in north-west Sydney and could have signed with one of three clubs based nearby. But Folau chose Sydney University, the wealthiest of the premier rugby clubs, and who could blame him.
''The Students'', as they are known, offer superior infrastructure, one of the best semi-professional rugby programs in the country and the benefit of its extensive network of professional and sporting connections. But with each new high-profile player that chooses to drape themselves in the Sydney Uni stripes - they boast 11 of the Waratahs' squad alone - the gap between the rich and poor men of Sydney club rugby widens, while a competition that was a foundation stone of Australia's rugby success over the past four decades edges closer to the brink of collapse.
''We are the backbone of Australian rugby, we've provided the country with two World Cups and ensure the Wallabies remained in the top three rugby nations in the world,'' Sydney Rugby Union president Rob Millner says. ''I don't like to speculate on what the ARU may or may not do but, going forward, if the club competition is still required to be a feeder system they will probably need some support to be run more professionally.'' The extent of club rugby's problems was set out in some detail in an ARU, SRU and Queensland Rugby Union review almost 10 months in the making.
Among other observations, the Premier Rugby Taskforce Review found real risk of the entire sector collapsing because of the ''poor financial state of the majority of clubs'' and the failure of the competitions themselves to generate revenue (the SRU is still searching for this year's Shute Shield sponsor).
There was much consternation among club and union presidents this week that the report found its way off their desks and into the hands of the public.
The discussion it generated, mostly from clubs on the receiving end of less-than-glowing endorsements, also included suggestions the taskforce methodology was less than adequate.
Others wanted their hard work over the past year - after most of the data was collected - recognised.
A spokesman for Gordon Rugby, one of two Sydney clubs deemed to be ''at risk of financial failure'' pointed out the club had arrangements in place or close to finalisation with its creditors, had upped its sponsorship funding and had, in the footsteps of Sydney Uni, Manly and Randwick, entered into a scholarship agreement with a Sydney university (in their case, UTS).
''Gordon has been through difficult times, that is undeniable and has no doubt had a negative effect on our ability to attract and retain players,'' club president David McGilvray said. ''We have, however, turned the corner, and look forward with confidence to regaining our place and stature within premier rugby.''
Randwick, too, a club with a proud history of producing Wallabies, said it had made many changes since the taskforce panel observed its rugby program and gave it the worst ranking possible.
''We changed coaches last year and are also the only club in Sydney with a specialist sevens squad,'' former Wallaby and Randwick club acting president Simon Poidevin said.
''We don't think the due diligence was done on the review, they missed a lot, and all of the clubs are on the same page on that. Even though it is tough, running a rugby club is like running a business, there is a lot of detail involved and some clubs are doing it better than others.''
From the clubs' perspective there was more to worry about this week than the public airing of their finances.
New ARU chief Bill Pulver made it clear he was open-minded on the future of Australia's new third-tier competition.
A universities-based model is on the drawing board plus a Super rugby ''B team'' competition, favoured by Pulver, using the ARU-run national academy players and not necessarily club-rugby talent.
Pulver's comments mean premier rugby's future as the official - and therefore funded - breeding ground of Wallabies is by no means assured.
The review and Pulver's brainstorming have sent shivers down many spines in clubland.
''The ARU and the ARU board should have a much closer look at how the clubs work and the resources they devote, including thousands of volunteers, on behalf of the sport of rugby,'' Poidevin said. ''Then they will understand why a [third-tier] competition that shuts out the clubs is a death sentence for rugby.''