Brett Papworth: ARU ignored findings of ‘club rugby’ report

radyrshadowBy Brett Papworth

“The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man, if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before him.”

Leo Tolstoy, 1897.

These are the very first words in the book “The Big Short”, a true story by Michael Lewis. I strongly encourage you to read it. It is a cracking read and if I could only read the work of one man for the rest of my life, it would be his (sorry Fitz).

You may have seen the movie, but the book will rock you with the details of the biggest credit bubble of all time, and the smart people on Wall Street earning millions who knew, or should have known, what was about to happen, and the even smarter people who took advantage and made billions.

It is a story about people making huge bets with other people’s money, and the serious mismanagement of some of the world’s biggest financial institutions, by people who we all thought knew their stuff, but just didn’t.

I found myself saying out loud, as will you, things like: “holy shit”, “you must be joking”, “I don’t believe this” and best of all, “they bloody well knew!”

But this is not a book review, and why is it even relevant? I think you already know where this is going.

In late 2009, an “expression of interest” document was issued by SANZAR, inviting applications for inclusion in the 2011 Super 15 competition.

I headed the bid for a team called the Western Sydney Rams to be included. We pulled together some quality people and made our pitch to the ARU.

To be based at Blacktown Olympic Sports Park, with matches to be played at Parramatta Stadium, we pitched a community based team to be driven and funded through membership, sponsorship, and the usual channels.

We were, in hindsight, naïve, and to be honest we were just a bunch of rugby blokes doing our best with limited resources. We couldn’t really compete in the age of glossy, Olympic bid style pitches of our competition, and we didn’t get anywhere.

The bid was won by Victoria, and the Rebels were born. Oh what might have been! Think Western Sydney Wanderers or the GWS Giants.

The CEO at the time was very keen on a “private equity” model. We were against such a thing and were committed to a team owned by the game and its stakeholders.

The Victorian bid was going down the private ownership path, and was successful.

Now, in my fairly simple mind (both a blessing and a curse), when something is good you buy it, and when something is bad you sell it.

Why, if the licence for the new team is going to do so well, would you sell it to someone else?

Why? Because they were hedging their bets. If someone else owned it, it was off the balance sheet and any losses would be carried by others. If it went well, the benefits would flow anyway because it was a new market and the TV dollars would flow to the ARU.

The other reason Victoria won the bid was because the Victorian government got involved, and they can be persuasive.

It came to light later, through some connections, that the Victorian Government were in receipt of a letter from the ARU, basically saying they were sorry that we didn’t give you the franchise back in 2004, but that you will be next!!

So, all of us who jumped through hoops to apply for the 15th Super Rugby franchise were basically just for show. So the ARU could say they had been through an exhaustive selection process.

It was already a done deal! They bloody well knew!

It wasn’t about what was good for the long term health of the game, it was about politics, and the big end of town.

But wait, still more…

I was contacted via email in recent days by a former (very) senior guy at the ARU. He explained to me some facts that are worth sharing here.

He was in fact the author of the “Premier Rugby Task Force Report”, which I told you about last week, and was the reason for the audit of premier clubs in Sydney and Brisbane, which made me feel like rubbish.

In the few years since that report was published, Sydney club funding was reduced from $100,000 to $30,000 and then again to zero.

We obviously believed that the report recommended what has come to pass; that we clubs, at all levels, are not really a relevant part of the rugby ”pathway” any more.

But no, we would be wrong!

While the comprehensive report highlighted many shortcomings the  clubs have, along with the need for a new competition, it was overwhelmingly in favour of continued financial and structural support from the ARU.

According to the email from the former senior ARU figure, it also stated:

– The importance of the premier competitions in Sydney and Brisbane to sustaining the professional game.

– That Sydney and Brisbane clubs were the engine room of rugby in Australia.

– That the ARU’s very clearly articulated position at the time was that the clubs played an important role in the professional player pathway and the essential need for this to continue.

– The report noted that in addition to supporting high performance requirements, clubs at all levels play a role in sustaining and expanding the audience and keeping people interested in rugby. Therefore, deliberate attention to the part clubs can play in this as part of an overall marketing effort is also important.

– The Sydney and Queensland premier competitions were responsible at the time for more than 73% of the participant player base and supplied/serviced 133 of the 175 professional players.

– Narrowing down the participation base to the 40,000 senior players, when split by states with a Super Rugby team the numbers were very stark; NSW: 19,000; Qld: 10,000; ACT: 3,000; Victoria: 2,500; WA: 3,300.

– As important were the financial numbers, where on average the Sydney and Queensland clubs were annually investing a total of $12.45 million (Sydney: $7.91m; Qld: $4.54m) in their respective clubs and competitions not including the significant commitment by volunteers.

– The report noted that the value of the volunteer base that the clubs bring to the table is not simply in cost savings but in the wealth of knowledge, experience and passion for rugby.

– Professional rugby could not replace this investment, so the report recommended that club rugby needs to be retained, nurtured and supplemented in order to achieve a greater return for the game.

So, what do we make of this? How did this stuff stay hidden?

What I make of it is this. There has been a deliberate ignorance by the people who take from our game, but whose job it is to nurture our game.

They have deliberately ignored the recommendations of their predecessors. Why?

I’ll tell you why.

Because there is no mileage in doing something for which I can’t receive credit, or make a buck. It is the over-riding mindset of those who take advantage of us, and the way the world works at that end of the corporate spectrum.

The ARU is not like a big company, or a government, whereby you have shareholders or voters who call you to account. They are effectively accountable to no one, and that is why they are able to get away with it.

And just like Wall Street, these people make big money, and when the game is dead, will be sailing around on their yachts in retirement, having taken advantage of all of us.

And just like Wall Street, they bloody well knew!