Brett Papworth: What Rugby Australia could learn from the Shute Shield clubs

By Brett Papworth

So, where were we, since we last spoke? Well, it feels a bit like Groundhog Day.

Another outstanding season of club rugby where eight teams were genuine contenders to play semi finals, and any of the top six could easily have been worthy grand finalists. But we are left with Warringah and Sydney University to battle it out, and it is bloody difficult to separate them.

University missed the finals last year for the first time in forever, and have responded as we might have expected. Young, fast and fit, they go hard for 80 minutes and just keep coming at you. And that is in every grade!

Warringah have become in many ways the benchmark for how we might run a club (or a game?). Defending premiers, third in second grade, and minor premiers in third and fourth grade. But it starts off the field, and they have done a superb job in that regard.

Northern Suburbs were my pick from a fair way out (besides my blokes at Eastwood), as they simply do the basics so well, and are better at the non sexy stuff than almost anyone: defensive spacing, line speed, hard at the breakdown, they hang onto the ball; and they are very well balanced with speed when needed. But winning is hard at this time of the year, as they found out last Sunday.

Eastern Suburbs may well be the story of the season. In 2017 they had no home ground, and struggled to create what was needed to be a contender in any grade. This year, with a new surface at Woollahra, and some really good people in the right places, they were a revelation. They came oh so close against University in their semi final and at times this season it looked like nothing was beyond them. Add to that the fact they were minor premiers in second grade, second in third grade, fourth in fourth grade, and finalists in all three colts grades, and you have a club to be reckoned with.

Eastwood and Manly did in 2018 what Manly and Eastwood do consistently, and that is find a way to be a contender across all grades. At times this season they looked like they would be very hard to beat. Injuries have played a part this year, at the wrong time, and they both came up a fraction short.

But the margins are tiny, as West Harbour and Southern Districts will tell you. On their day, Wests and Souths were as good as anyone, and will be planning for 2019 with optimism. And I haven’t even mentioned Randwick, who for much of last century no-one could beat! They will be plotting revenge, and a return to the top. It’s just what they do.

What does that tell us that we didn’t already know? Nothing really, other than our competition is as strong and close as it has ever been. Our clubs are being run by people who know what they doing, and doing it well without any help from anyone. Amateur volunteers who know the game and know what is important when it comes to creating a good environment for our young blokes to be their best.

At the other end of the rugby spectrum, Groundhog Day is also very apparent. Wallabies are two – nil down in the Bledisloe, and got thumped last Saturday at Eden Park. I can’t remember ever going into a test match feeling like we had only a slim chance of winning.

The gap is as wide as it has ever been (in my opinion), and yet at Rugby HQ we have essentially the same people, spending the same money, on the same things! I and others have been banging on about this for a few years now, but nothing has changed. Our new CEO appears intent on maintaining the status quo, whilst being a good listener, saying the right things, and being particularly PC. The board are essentially the same people who have never rocked the boat, and tellingly, have never known what it is like to put a successful rugby team or season together at any level. But they can build an empire!

Rugby AU spent $130 million last year, precisely zero on grassroots rugby. The rugby community is us; mums and dads, brothers and sisters, aunties and uncles, who make our game work and make it possible for kids to play. And we pay a levy for the privilege! My club paid an invoice for $9500 this year, and every junior club, Subbies club, country club did the same to some degree. Paid to an organisation who refuses to accept they need to tip it on its head if it wants to close the gap between New Zealand and Australia.

Our new CEO tells us that any issues should be directed to our governing body, which is NSWRU (or more accurately NSW Waratahs). That is simply a “crock”! NSW and every other state are absolutely at the mercy of the decisions and funding of Rugby AU, yet they refuse to take responsibility for those decisions, and for the long-term health of a game in decline.

And they are not prepared to let us poor amateurs, who know, have any say in the running of the game, and the spending of the money. Our money.

You will know that our competition is on free to air TV, and how good is it! You may not know that it costs the Sydney Rugby Union $300k per annum to pay for it. It was the Sydney clubs that decided, a few years ago, that it was imperative for the health of our game, that it stay on FTA TV. The ARU at the time refused to spend the money on our behalf and NSW didn’t have any, and it was left to the SRU to make the sacrifice. You also may not know, that the ONLY income the SRU make is from three weekends of finals every year. And if we don’t make at least $300k, we will be in breach of our contract with CRTV, and essentially insolvent.

So, back to Groundhog Day. Our Sydney grade rugby competition is arguably the only bright spot on the rugby landscape, full of quality people who create a contest that is meaningful, tribal and affordable. It has always been that way, and run by people who know what they are doing, for nothing. The rugby community just quietly getting on with the job of looking after the rugby community.

At Rugby HQ a month or two back, they appointed a new General Manager of Community Rugby. Really. The question is why? I’m sure he is a decent bloke, but he is from a soccer and athletics background, and has no budget to help any of us. So what does he do, and why would any of us listen?

And for the same money, they could have covered the cost of keeping the game on free to air TV in the game’s biggest market. That’s what we are dealing with! Priorities? Go figure?


Wallaby, Eastwood President, and SRU Director.

Read: The broadcast deal crippling Sydney Club Rugby

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