Let’s call it half time in the Australian Super Rugby saga. Or a drinks break at least. So who’s winning – and what’s the score? And where is the game headed in the all-important second half?
Here’s how I am seeing play from the sideline, sharing a beer with Westie Man.
1. Key players in the ARU team are facing red cards for repeat infringements. In today’s corporate world you simply can’t preside over a shambles such as that created by the ARU’s botched attempt to cull an Australian team from the Super Rugby competition without there being casualties. Chairman Cameron Clyne and CEO Bill Pulver might not be around for the next game.
2. The ARU is wedged between a ruck and a hard place. They can’t execute their game plan because of the legal challenges faced at both ends of the field. Malcolm McCusker QC, who has a hint of a cauliflower ear on his left lug from his playing days with Uni, is ready to take it up the guts for the Force. And as Clyne, Pulver & Co will be acutely aware, legal wrangles are protracted and hugely divisive. They are also expensive – and the ARU has no money. And then there is the prospect of Rebels owner Andrew Cox taking the stand under oath to explain to the court who told him the Rebels were safe from the ARU cull and that his team should go ahead and start picking the best players from the Force squad.
3. In these circumstances, the only real option for the ARU in the second half is to seek to negotiate in good faith. And the obvious starting point in any negotiations will be a merger between the Rebels and the Brumbies, sharing their games between Melbourne and Canberra to retain their individual identities. The elephant in that negotiating room will be Cox, who has put a $5 million price-tag (call it $4 million and a carton for cash) on his Super Rugby franchise. The ARU doesn’t have a lazy $4 million to buy out Cox – but it doesn’t have money to waste on a legal brawl either. The deal is there to be done, without blood on the floor.
Lastly, in its post-match analysis, the ARU might consider acknowledging that the game in Australia is not being played on a level playing field. It has been estimated that in the 12 years since the Force have been around, the amount of extra top-up money paid by the ARU to Wallaby players in the Waratahs, Reds and Brumbies totals around $30 million. Coincidentally, that is about the same figure that the ARU has been suggesting it has cost it to bail out Australia’s Super Rugby teams in its attempt to justify culling a team.
If the ARU wanted to level the playing field, they have a perfect case study across the Tasman. Back around 2011, the Highlanders and the Chiefs started to ark up with the NZRU about the Crusaders and the Blues getting so much extra cash to support the conga line of All Blacks on their respective playing rosters. In response, and after a reasonable blue, the NZRU introduced a system called equalisation whereby all NZ Super Rugby franchises were allocated the same money (currently around NZ$5.3 million per team, I’m reliably informed) to pay for their players. So the incentive went from stacking your team with All Blacks, to identifying young talented players who wouldn’t break the salary cap.
And what was the outcome? The Highlanders went from the Super 15 cellar to champions in 2015. And two of the other Kiwi franchises who benefitted from equalisation, the Chiefs (2012-13) and the Hurricanes (2016) have also gone on to win Super Rugby titles. And, of course, the All Blacks got stronger too.
Sounds simple doesn’t it. Just like rugby.
See you all at the game on Saturday.
Be there, Be loud, Be proud. GO THE FORCE!!