Even in the toughest moments Dan McKellar could still see opportunity. Australian rugby's forced shutdown, he says, can be used to build something great.
"But we've got to get it right. They say never waste a crisis, and we've got a chance to come out of this with a product people love," McKellar said.
The ACT Brumbies coach and chief executive Phil Thomson spoke to The Canberra Times on the eve of their first game in 111 days, discussing coronavirus emotion, financial stability, an on-field revival and visions for the future.
THE DAY IT ALL CHANGED
The Brumbies had hoped a fast start to the season and a rivalry battle would lure fans back to Canberra Stadium on March 15. then the phones started ringing.
Super Rugby was cancelled late on a Saturday night, and the Brumbies' clash against the NSW Waratahs was to be the last game before everything was put on hold.
Players packed gym equipment into their cars and staff were sent home. Both players and staff took significant pay cuts.
"I think it was a blur [for the players] and then it struck them when they realised the impact," McKellar said. "There was stress and to a certain extent it's still there.
"It was important we looked after them physically and mentally because it was tough for everyone."
Thomson described a staff meeting at the end of March, where the bulk were stood down and put on the JobKeeper program, was the toughest decision he had made.
"It's something you never want to do. We had to deal with it, and I think the staff and players handled it very well. It was pretty emotional, nobody knew what was ahead," Thomson said.
"Things are still uncertain, but I'm happy with how the organisation has worked together."
The Australian rugby community turned against each other. The lack of a broadcast for beyond this year led to leadership divisions and the players were dragged into wage cut negotiations.
Chief executive Raelene Castle quit, jumping off the Rugby Australia ship before she was pushed. It became clear rugby needed a change and McKellar says it doesn't have to be bad.
"I'm confident the right conversations are happening. We've got to be honest and realistic: people weren't connecting with how Super Rugby was structured. it needed to change," he said.
"I think there's a huge opportunity for the game to come out of this with a competition people will love, as long as we can stick together and eliminate the factions in the game. We can come out of this in better shape."
Thomson adds: "I can see it moving forward. What does 2021 look like? I don't know, but I'm confident we will have a meaningful Super Rugby-style tournament where the Brumbies can thrive."
Five Australian teams will play in a 12-week domestic competition this year, with hopes a trans-Tasman tournament can be set for 2021 and beyond.
MORE CANBERRA SPORT
The uncertainty surrounding Australian rugby's financial viability and competition structure led to renewed speculation about the Brumbies merging with their round-one rivals, the Melbourne Rebels.
"It has not been discussed. No conversations whatsoever and absolutely won't be happening," Thomson said.
ARE THE BRUMBIES SOLVENT?
The competition hiatus has affected every facet of the business. Revenue streams have stopped, fans aren't going to games and broadcast funding dissipated.
Rugby Australia secured $14.2 million in World Rugby funding to help keep franchises afloat. The Brumbies banked end of year profits in 2017, 2018 and 2019, but the balance sheet outlook is bleak for this year.
Asked if the Brumbies were solvent, Thomson said: "Yes, Rugby Australia doesn't want any of the sides to fall over financially.
"We're under extreme pressure like a number of sporting bodies are. It's tough - revenue has been cut and it's hard to survive when that happens. But with the support of Rugby Australia we can get through this and build for next year."
PLAYER CONTRACTS ON HOLD
Rugby Australia has banned teams from starting contract negotiations until it has clarity about broadcast revenue and competition structure beyond this year.
The Brumbies were on track to have the smallest squad turnover in several years before everything was put in hold.
Senior players like Allan Alaalatoa, Scott Sio and James Slipper have signed long-term deals and a host of others have committed, but others are waiting for the moratorium to end to sort out their future.
"Very keen to get it restarted," McKellar said. "For both players and staff. They are all human beings. They're prepared to wait, but they can't wait forever."
Thomson adds: "We can't commit until we have certainty. The clock is ticking in a pretty fast manner. We need to get some answers over the next four to six weeks for the sake of everyone involved."
A SUPER REBOOT
The Brumbies will host the Rebels at Canberra Stadium on Saturday night on the first weekend of the Australia-only competition.
The Western Force have joined the Brumbies, Rebels, Waratahs and Reds for a three-month season. The Brumbies have been installed as heavy favourites after they enjoyed a stellar start to the traditional Super Rugby season, winning five of six games and scoring more tries in the first six weeks of a season than they had since the 2004 title-winning campaign.
"You don't want to play in a comp where you get things your own way - Super Rugby is tough. But pressure doesn't worry us," McKellar said.
"In certain ways, pressure is a privilege because it's recognition of what you've done. We're not worried about that, we just know we have to prepare well and we'll give ourselves a chance. We're excited about that."
There was a time during the shutdown McKellar thought his team wouldn't get a chance to play again this year. It would have been an opportunity wasted given the foundation in place.
"We had a few conversations about that. It would have been an enormous challenge for the game to come back from that," McKellar said. "That's the exciting part about now, we at least get a chance to restart and see if we can regain the momentum we had."
Rugby Australia has introduced law variations in an attempt to make the game more attractive for fans, including rewards for attacking kicks and referees cracking down on time wasting.
WORKING FOR LESS
All staff are still working on reduced hours, players have agreed to a 30 per cent pay cut until September and JobKeeper is ensuring the Brumbies can keep staff.
But the return of games means staff having to work more for less as the club prepares to welcome 1500 members to the season-opener.
"The wellbeing of our people was always the main focus," Thomson said. "I must say the vibe has been amazing going into this first game. And the community rugby staff have done an amazing job to have senior and junior competitions restarting on July 18."
McKellar, a former orthopedic implant salesman, said the Brumbies implemented for flexible working arrangements.
"We've all made sacrifices and people turn up because they love the club and the game. Is that tough? Yeah. To work in this industry is a privilege. I don't want to go back to sell orthopedic implants," McKellar said.
THE FUTURE STARTS NOW
Thomson and McKellar agree Australian rugby will never be the way it was. The coronavirus break has forced a rethink for on and off the field plans.
McKellar says new Wallabies coach Dave Rennie and his staff have been proactive in generating collaboration. "It's more communication than we've had in the past," he says.
McKellar could join Rennie as an assistant coach while also juggling his Brumbies job. It's a job-share template that could be applied across high performance and back-room staff roles to reduce duplication across the franchises and head office.
"It won't be the way it used to be financially, so we have to be smarter about how we do things. Sharing things across the board and the business model to put us in a financially viable position long term," Thomson said.
But the biggest lesson? "A lot of rugby people have been guilty of kicking rugby when it's down. People at the coalface understand there are positives, if we get things right everyone will see them," McKellar said. "The opportunity in front of us is huge. If we get it right, people will connect with rugby again."
SUPER RUGBY AU ROUND ONE
Saturday: ACT Brumbies v Melbourne Rebels at Canberra Stadium, 7.15pm
Brumbies: 1. James Slipper, 2. Folau Faingaa, 3. Allan Alaalatoa, 4. Darcy Swain, 5. Murray Douglas, 6. Rob Valetini, 7. Tom Cusack, 8. Pete Samu, 9. Joe Powell, 10. Noah Lolesio, 11. Tom Wright, 12. Irae Simone, 13. Tevita Kuridrani, 14. Andy Muirhead, 15. Mack Hansen. Reserves. 16. Connal McInerney, 17. Scott Sio, 18. Tom Ross, 19. Tom Cusack, 20. Lachlan McCaffrey, 21. Issak Fines, 22. Bayley Kuenzle, 23. Len Ikitau.
Rebels: 1. Matt Gibbon, 2. Jordan Uelese, 3. Pone Fa'amausili, 4. Matt Philip, 5. Michael Stolberg, 6. Josh Kemeny, 7. Richard Hardwick, 8. Michael Wells, 9. Ryan Louwrens, 10. Matt To'omua, 11. Marika Koroibete, 12. Billy Meakes, 13. Reece Hodge, 14. Andrew Kellaway, 15. Dane Haylett-Petty. Reserves: 16. Efitusi Maafu, 17. Cameron Orr, 18. Jermaine Ainsley, 19. Trevor Hosea, 20. Esei Haangana, 221. Rob Leota, 22. Frank Lomani, 23. Andrew Deegan.