A grassroots perspective on the ARU’s strategic plan


By Brett Papworth

Let me tell you a story.

Back in about 2012, the ARU decided to conduct an audit of the premier clubs in Sydney and Brisbane. I can’t tell you why, but I suspect it was a way for them to justify the reduction in the grants previously given to our clubs. But of course they didn’t tell us that. They just sent the highly paid wise men to tell us what we didn’t have or didn’t do. To justify why we didn’t deserve their financial support any longer, and to be able to tick that box.

Collectively, the three men would have been taking the best part of $700k in salaries out of the game, at a time when we at Eastwood were spending $500k in a whole season.

So they sat in our crappy little board room, pulled out their spreadsheets, and proceeded to tell us what we didn’t have, or do.

Full time coach? No, part time.

Full time general manager? Ah, no, Part time.

Colts programme? Head coach? Yeah, sort of.

Strength and conditioning? Yeah, we’ve got a bloke who does some things. Full time? No, but he keeps in touch with the boys.

Financial? Medical? Facilities? Equipment? On it went, until they were completely satisfied that we were rubbish. Or maybe that was just how I felt.

Except that we weren’t rubbish! We were the defending premiers, and had been minor premiers four years in a row.

But they never thought for one second that they might learn something, so it never occurred to them to stop and ask; how do you blokes do this? Intelligent men on big money, paid by the game, never thought they might learn anything from us.

But what they would have learned was that we had the best coach, who could manage it part time, and who, because of his quality, had a business that occupied a bit of his time and therefore couldn’t be full time. The best people make it work.

Our general manager, a retired (early) chief executive, was top shelf, and could do most of what was needed before 10am.

Our volunteers; managers, coaches, strappers, trainers, physios, doctors, etc, were all high quality people, who were doing it for the right reasons. I.e. it wasn’t about them. It was about the lads being in a position to give their best on Saturday. Nothing else.

They would also have learned, had they been interested, that we spent our money very wisely, and never on anything that wasn’t about winning rugby games.

And they would have learned about culture, about blokes wanting to play because it was their club, and their mates. Not for the money, not for the scholarships, to play in a club where first graders respect third graders.

Good blokes, all three, but to this day I don’t think they have given it a thought.

It was after this meeting I realised the problem in our game. My light bulb moment! My club, and many others, are run by a bunch of really high quality volunteers. Our board is made up of a CEO, a HR director, a senior partner at a major law firm (and former Wallaby), a former school principal, a successful businessman or two, and then me. Are any of them women? Yes, but that shouldn’t be relevant, but it is to the ARU. We are all there because we have a real connection to the place and we care about the success of our club. In Bill Pulver’s opinion, if he gave us money, we would “piss it up against the wall”! He actually said that at a NSWRU board meeting in January.

The ARU board is made up of big end of town corporate high flyers, who are on the board for the benefit of their own CV’s, and who in my opinion couldn’t give a hoot about how many kids play the game in 2035. Western Australia, through Geoff Stooke, gets as much focus and funding as NSW or Queensland, which is simply crazy when you consider that the latter two make up a good proportion of the game at all levels, and are what you might call rugby heartlands.

On top of that, the ARU has a salary bill at headquarters that stretches to $20 million plus per annum. I kid you not. They basically manage one team, the Wallabies. Granted, they do have a men’s and women’s sevens team, and an under 20s team every year (that generally finishes 7th! But I’ll get to that later), and they have to control the contracts of the professional game and dole out the cash to the Super Rugby franchises, but does that really require nine general managers? Let’s talk about pissing money up against the wall shall we?

Let me start with the Louis Vuitton overnight bags for the partners of Wallabies staff, post World Cup. Yes, really.

This is the same organisation who told anyone who would listen for three years “we are broke”. The same crowd who came to the Sydney clubs and asked for our help to put together the NRC, and run it with our people. For whose benefit exactly??

The same people who implemented a levy for ALL players, from every club, to help bail them out.

These same people, in 2014, when they were telling the world how broke they were, spent $16.5 million on “match day expenses”, which no doubt includes ground hire, but which will also include the fireworks and balloony things which are supposed to make the day more special. They also bought 25,000 gold berets for the French test series to hand out to fans. Or maybe they sold them?  So, clearly not as broke as we thought.

The same people who were paying the Rebels staff costs because they were broke, and the same people who bought back the Force’s licence recently, as a way to prop them up with the best part of a million bucks.

At the same time, the game at grass roots level was handed $4 million, nationally, out of total ARU expenditure of $106 million. No weighting towards NSW or Queensland, who essentially receive the same as Victoria and W.A. yet do most of the development work by definition of their size.

The same people who now have an extra $30 million per annum via a new TV deal. Guess where it’s going?

To the juniors? No. To the schools? No. To the senior clubs? No.

So the problem is this:

The more people there are who take from the game in high paying roles, the more they think they have to know everything. They can never be seen to take advice from someone unpaid, as it will make their role irrelevant, so they don’t. So you get a bunch of inward looking people who are understandably very keen to protect their very special job, and who only listen to each other.

The pathways business is a classic case in point, and it is instructive that we regularly can’t beat too many at U20s World Cups.

We now have Junior Gold programmes, and an under 20s competition that takes the best youngsters out of the club system, and creates an elitist group who are told by the endless list of paid development coaches how special they are. Because they believe no one can develop a young player quite like they can. It is just rubbish, and creates a culture of elite teens, who frankly couldn’t make first grade, and often think they don’t need to.  We are spending huge money on the wrong things!

For example, the norm these days is that if you want to win an under 16s game of rugby, you simply pick the biggest blokes. Simplistic, I know, but that is what happens. A coach gets a job, gets ambitious, needs to win (for his benefit, not the kids), so he selects the biggest boppers he can find, because 90% of the time they will win. The smaller lad who may develop in his twenties misses out, and once you have missed out, it requires an admission of error by the paid development coach for you to ever get back in, and those admissions are very rare.

What makes it worse is that we know with some certainty that our best players are more mature players, often approaching 30. The best in the world in both rugby codes are over 30, yet we spend millions on empires trying to find the genius 18-year old. Not because it has any benefit, but because it’s someone’s job to perpetuate this myth.

Most senior clubs have coaches who would run rings around these paid servants of the game, and who develop not only the playing abilities of 150 young men, but also a culture whereby these young blokes don’t get ahead of themselves. Most of the paid development empire couldn’t survive in the club world, because you actually have to win something, and be accountable. Much easier to fill in a spreadsheet showing the training habits of 17-year olds, and arrange meaningless matches where the result doesn’t matter.

The fact is that our best players ultimately find their way to the top, regardless of how much money is wasted on the “pathway” system. Why? Because they have a different mindset to those who almost get there. They know they are talented, but they work harder, and do the things required without being told to. They don’t need a paid development coach to tell them to get to the gym or the track, they are already there! It is the way the world works.

So the ARU’s strategic plan is essentially to expand all these aspects of their empire, and have more elite groups, doing more elite things, so the Wallabies can keep winning and the cheques can keep rolling in. All of which is entirely flawed. It is a paid employee driven culture, designed to keep more people in good jobs, rather than a player driven culture, like New Zealand, where players know to never get ahead of themselves.

There is no mention of club rugby in the ARU’s strategic plan. They have simply bypassed it in their thinking. There is no mention in the strategic plan that NSW and Queensland are critical to the success of the game in Australia, and no extra funding to those states who have always been, and will continue to be, the heartland of the rugby codes, and will always provide the bulk of the players.

It appears that the ARU board is locked into a national strategy, and seems determined to treat everyone equally. That is because they have a board made up of people who simply don’t understand that NSW/ACT and Queensland will always provide a much bigger bang for the buck than Victoria and W.A. For the simple reason that the elite talented 15 year old in NSW/QLQ is a much greater chance of choosing rugby as his/her sport than the elite kid in Victoria/WA, who is much more likely to choose AFL. It is just a fact.

As the ARU spends nothing on development at a grass roots level in NSW, they are managing to even the playing field. In western Sydney, population 2 million plus, rugby is not even in the contest. The board of the ARU believes their cash is better spent in Victoria and W.A, even as they tell us they are broke. They are living in fairy land.

AFL posts are up at GPS schools in Sydney, and where some traditional rugby schools had ten open age rugby teams, they now have five. The ARU’s response is to spend less.

The ARU’s strategy is Viva 7s. A one day primary school rugby day, where the boys and girls get to spend some time running around with a rugby ball, and hopefully learning about the game. A really nice thought, except that if and when a child decides they really love it, there are no junior clubs left for them to go to!

Be careful when you next see Bill Pulver espousing the growth in the game, and an increase in player numbers. His numbers will include every child who had a one day kick around in all the primary schools that were exposed to Viva 7s. And it will be a big number.

So whilst there may be a view out there that Intrust Super Shute Shield clubs are only interested in getting a few dollars, and full of self interest, I can assure you that many of us are only interested in the big picture, and the survival and growth of our great game. Clubs are run by enthusiastic volunteers, many of whom are successful, intelligent people, and because they are not paid have no vested interest.

Would we like a few dollars to make our lives easier? Sure. But what we would like more is for the guardian of our game, the ARU, to wake up and think about where our 2035 Wallabies might be coming from. When the salary bill at head office is 500% of the total investment in the game’s grass roots, it is time for them to hand the game back to people who have a clue.

And please turn off the light and close the door on your way out.

Brett Papworth is a former Wallaby and president of Sydney club Eastwood.