Opinion: Self interest is killing Australian rugby but there’s time to turn things around

By Toby Tancred

Ariel Durant wrote, “a great civilisation is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within”.


She was referring in the Story of Civilisation to the Roman Empire but her words equally describe the current climate of our game.  Australian Rugby is not yet dead, but it’s doing a pretty good job at killing itself – sadly from within.

In my eyes, one of the major problems with the game in Australia presently is the general negativity and mood of pessimism among long-time supporters, former and current players and former and current administrators – except of course for those on the board of Rugby Australia.

It is hard to know how to lift the collective out of this mood particularly when there is objectively not much about which to be happy.

Only recently one of the shining lights in Australian Rugby, the Sydney Shute Shield competition, has killed one of its own. It has excluded the Penrith Emus only five games into the season.

The merits of that decision are probably beyond debate. Penrith has not been competitive for the entire time the club has participated in the Shute Shield except for the 1998 season when Peter Fenton was first grade coach and recruited a hard core group of first graders to the club. It was however only a short-term Band-Aid solution.

It is the reaction to the exclusion of Penrith Emus that betrays much of what is currently wrong with the game in this country.

The narrative goes as follows: ARU and NSWRU have ignored Western Sydney for years, Private School take all the good schoolboy players, Sydney Uni takes all the rest, we’ve been done over by a bunch of latte sipping North Shore types.

Well that just ignores objective evidence, it is emoting, complaining but not offering solutions, contending that money is a fix all, and of course blames others for one’s own inadequacies.

I personally feel that forcing Penrith Emus to regroup and participate in the first division of subdistrict rugby and permitting a competitive and probably winning culture to develop, will do more for the game in the region then continual and inevitable floggings.

And it will obviously improve the week to week standard of the Shute Shield; and Subbies rugby.

That is absolutely not a knock on the good people involved; they would have been doing their very best. Unfortunately that has just not been good enough to compete at the level. It is hoped that all involved at Penrith Emus are not permanently lost to the game. They should not be.

To argue that in some way Penrith’s failures are due to variously the governing bodies for failure to develop and other clubs for poaching talent is difficult to understand.

Penrith has not succeeded because it has not had enough quality players and coaches. It is no more complex than that.

I believe that the reaction to the exclusion of Penrith Emus is a symptom and product of 20 years of the professional era in Australia.

I don’t wish to be overly nostalgic but there is a certain something that has disappeared from the game since professionalism was introduced.

What has emerged is the “what is in it for me” attitude.

This can be seen right across the game from juniors through to the leading elite players.

The professional era also seems to have bred a culture of jealousy. It seems that every one associated with club rugby in Sydney hates Sydney University, including some lower grade players at Sydney University who leave because they want to play first grade elsewhere.

I don’t understand that. University is a club that was in a similar position to Penrith Emus in the mid 1990s but through hard work and deployment of its various advantages has developed a culture of success and has produced numerous representative players.

The culture of jealousy and blame shifting is pervasive. I read a social media comment by the president of a rugby club in a small town two years ago bemoaning the state of rugby and blaming the situation in his town on the clubs in larger neighbouring towns.

His comment was to the effect that clubs X, Y and Z have done bugger all for the game in his town.

When I challenged him to substantiate his comments, days before the large town was set to play preseason trials and a junior gala day at his club, he was unable to do so.

I bet that does not stop him mouthing off and peddling fake news.

You cannot go anywhere without hearing complaints about rich private schools taking all the good players.

Right….and?

What is to stop Public Schools starting their own competitions. What is wrong with a young man being given an opportunity he would not otherwise have? It has a few downsides put I hardly think the GPS Rugby competition is why the Wallabies cannot consistently beat the All Blacks.

This Saturday a Shute Shield game is being played in Orange.

An initiative of the Easts Rugby Club in Sydney sees Easts playing Parramatta. Easts played Gordon in Orange last year and it was a magnificent success.

Last year the two Orange clubs played the game after the Shute Shield game. This year one of the Orange clubs is to play Forbes.

Forbes Rugby Club is a great story; a consistently successful Club with hard-working people involved, and the Central West premiers in 2017.

However for some impenetrable reason Forbes objected to playing this weekend after the Shute Shield game despite it having been scheduled for many months, insisting that the game occur before the Shute Shield game.

I asked for a spokesperson of the Forbes Club to comment and none was provided. There may have been other reasons that may have had merit but where was the eye to the greater good of the game?

This is but one example of the prevailing attitude that ignores what is good for the game as a whole and prefers self interest.

A groundswell of rusted on goodwill still exists for the game. This weekend, as it happens in the small town where the complaining club president resides, there will be over 300 junior rugby players participating in their first game for the season.

That scene will be replicated across the country. A lot of people in Australia love rugby and want to see it succeed and prosper. I do not suggest anyone is deliberately sabotaging the game, but perhaps more concern for the bigger picture might not go astray.

I am not suggesting that what ails the game in Australia will be solved by joining hands and singing Kumbaya My Lord.

Rivalry is important, healthy and inevitable.

Jealousy, empire building, naked self-interest and dare I say financial gain is not.

The game is at a tipping point. Unless people involved in rugby work together it will exist only as a mere curiosity in twenty years.

Maybe there needs to be an all comers invited forum facilitated by an elder of the game with broad respect, where no idea no matter how hare brained is off limits.

Someone like Michael Lynagh, who has achieved everything there is in the game, and is removed enough to bring a healthy perspective.

And if you ask me – make black boots compulsory, and all problems will be solved.

Toby Tancred