Rugby Union

License article

Why we need to stop looking at the ARU as both the cause and solution of Australia's Super Rugby issues

Show comments

While the lawyers collect their fees and the alpha males swing their egos at each other in the stoush over whether to chop or keep a Super Rugby franchise, the bigger picture for Australian rugby is competitiveness.

How do you make Australian teams competitive across the board, regardless of whether there are four or five Super Rugby teams?

Analyst Rod Kafer made a valid point recently. He said that Australia shouldn't just mimic the New Zealand model. That's absolutely correct but there are still things that can be learnt by peering across the ditch.

Australians may be surprised, and encouraged, to learn that the model in New Zealand isn't as centralised as they think.

Of course the All Blacks take absolute precedence in the New Zealand rugby structure, and there is a huge amount of information sharing between the franchises and the All Blacks.

However, the idea that Super Rugby sides in New Zealand are nothing more than satellites for the All Blacks is far too simplistic.


Each franchise has its own distinct culture and methods – and not all coaches see eye to eye with the All Blacks. For example, the chances of Steve Hansen and Chiefs coach Dave Rennie swapping Christmas cards are zero.

So how did New Zealand get to today's point of dominance?

Well they did something in 2010 that transformed the landscape.

They introduced franchise contracting and it spread talent throughout the country and led to five strong Super Rugby teams feeding into the All Blacks.

Let's not forget that before that, the Kiwis were quite capable of producing some ordinary Super Rugby sides.

What's franchise contracting? It's the ability of a franchise to recruit outside their traditional catchment areas.

For example, the Highlanders recruit massively from all around New Zealand. If they were dependent on talent from Otago and Southland, their "local" areas, as they were pre-2010, there is no way in the world they would have won the title in 2015.

Aaron Smith, Malakai Fekitoa, Liam Squire, Waisake Naholo, Lima Sopoaga – none are from the deep south.

New Zealand franchises are in competition for players and it has forced them to improve the product they offer them. They sell their culture and quality of coaching to persuade players to join them.

It was the creation of this national player market, along with the equalisation of the salary cap to about $NZ4 million ($3.7 million) a franchise, that sparked New Zealand's quiet revolution.

That salary cap equalisation is important. It allows franchises some wiggle room in bidding for players they want and levels the playing field a bit.

But it's also a bit of a misnomer, because it doesn't include the top-ups that NZ Rugby gives to All Blacks.

This is a key area, because in Australia there is a bit of talk about how the Waratahs disproportionately benefit from Australian Rugby Union top-ups and how that money should be spent in Perth or Melbourne, or how a heavy-handed device such as a player draft might help.

That's a false argument.

In fact, what happens in Australia occurs in New Zealand.

The All Blacks-laden Crusaders, for example, would have received far more money from NZ Rugby than the Chiefs or Highlanders in the past five years but how many Super Rugby titles have they won in that period?

So it's not the top-ups that Waratahs' players receive that account for the Force, Rebels or Reds' recent struggles. It's because over the past five years their recruitment and coaching hasn't been good enough.

That also means the product they can offer to promising players has been weak.

Problematically for the ARU, of course, the Force has got its act together this year. If I was the father of a talented teenager right now, I'd send him to Dave Wessels.

But the broader point is this, let's stop looking at the ARU as the cause and solution of Australian rugby's issues.

Let's be a bit more demanding of the franchises. They have to make players better and explain to them how they will do that.

If they do that the players will come. And the best thing is, the Wallabies will be better for it.