Q&A: ARU Exec Ben Whitaker discusses the future of professional rugby in Australia – Part 2

It’s been an interesting year or two for Australian rugby, particularly from a professional sense. As the 2017 draws to a close, Rugby News sat down with ARU High Performance Manager Ben Whitaker to discuss the future of the professional game and all it’s elements in Australia. 

CLICK HERE: Part 1: Whitaker discusses the current state of Australia rugby, the future of SANZAR, the 2020 broadcast deal, the Asian rugby market, the NRC and Sevens.

Can you tell us more about the changes to the Australian U20s program and National Championships? 

We’ve looked closely at that 18-20 year old bracket and obviously the Super 20s competition was attractive to our young players and it worked in certain ways but it didn’t help our national team in the ways we would have liked. You actually spend more time training with your state team and that leaves limited time for preparation heading into the Junior World Cup.

It also took the 19 or 20 year old kid away from playing club rugby and that’s really important for their development. Unfortunately, we can’t determine when the World Cup gets played in June each year and that creates challenges but we’ve decided to work backwards and turn the Super 20s competition into an under 19s competition that gets played in October at the end of the club season.

At this stage, we’re looking at playing them as NRC teams to broaden that competition. So eight sides will come together and play over 12 or so days and from that, we’ll select our Australian U20s training squad. Those players will stay playing and training at their clubs and in state based groups, but they’ll be able to spend more time together heading into the World Cup.

People have been critical of the U20s performance at the World Cup but I think they’re usually critical of the result not the performance. You’ve got to crack into the top four to improve your seeding and we haven’t been able to do that. This year we were a minute away from beating the eventual finalists so I don’t think we’re far off.

More importantly though, with the new system, we’ll get 40 odd players together who can spend time training with our national coaches so we’ll be able to work on their overall development, instead of just preparing for the tournament.

We’ve seen two promising schoolboys recently sign to play elsewhere, do we need to look at a national academy to keep our best young talent in the game? 

We’ve done a lot of work to regulate the signing of young players. It might be nice to get a contract as an 18 year old, but throwing them into a Super Rugby program at that age is not right, so we’ve stopped that.

We’ve always been under pressure from other codes to secure our best young talent and it’s a constant challenge and this year we’ve been able to retain the majority of the players from our schoolboy sides besides a few. We’re never happy to see players leave, but Nick Frost isn’t lost to the Australian game, neither is Charlie Rorke for that matter. Charlie has chosen to have a crack at rugby league and it’ll be interesting to see how he goes but hopefully we’ll get him back in rugby sooner rather than later. Nick obviously saw something in the offer over in New Zealand and we’ll be keeping a close eye on him over the next few years.

It’s something we need to keep working on but we’re certainly working together to find ways to retain and develop young talent.

What can we do to stop 23-year old stars from taking up contracts overseas before they fulfil their potential in Australia?

I think to start, we need to provide an environment here that is as best as it can be. We’re not going to fool ourselves, we know we can’t compete money wise but I think the other thing we can do it educate players, because the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. Even the financials aren’t as good as they sound sometimes. For example in France, the tax situation is very different to here in Australia and particularly if you go over there single, you can end up losing out pretty bad.

We’ve got a talent scout based over there in France and he can show players exactly what a French contract looks like and most of the players are shocked when they see what they are actually left with.

If you look at Jakey McIntyre, who is a great young kid who has been in our system since he was 15. He ultimately ended up with an offer that was a little too good to refuse, but straight away we hooked him up with Anthony Hill, our talent scout over in France and they will stay in contact the whole time.

I think that’s what we’ve done well since 2014/15. When a player does go, for whatever reason, we don’t write them off, we stay in contact and keep them connected to Australia rugby.

Can you tell us a bit more about the role of Anthony Hill? 

He was in town with the Wallabies last week actually, he’s the biggest bloke you’ll see walking around with the group. He has worked in France for a number of years, he speaks the language and knows the game well. He played a big role in getting Will Genia and a few other guys back to Australia after the 2015 World Cup and he’ll continue to play an important role for us going forward.

How important was the national coaching conferences that have been held over the last few weeks? 

I’m hoping in 12 or 18 months, we’ll look back and say it was hugely important but right now, it’s just been a few meetings. We took a lot of notes, wrote a lot of things down but now we all need to act on it. The coaches actually decided at the first conference to come in again and that happened last week. 30 coaches stood in a room and tried to find a way to standardise what we’re calling ‘habits’.

They are huge steps compared to where we’ve been in the past and its only happened because we’ve got coaches who are willing to be open and to share. We haven’t had that before and the leadership that has been shown by everyone in that regard has been outstanding.

How much can we still learn from New Zealand rugby? 

I think on the field we can learn plenty from what they are doing and what they have done. Whether that be at Super Rugby level, age grade level or in women’s rugby. At times though you can get caught looking at New Zealand and thinking “wow, they’re unbeatable” but you’ve got to snap out of that like our guys did up in Brisbane because at the end of the day, they are beatable. I’m hoping that will be the case in Super Rugby next year as well.

What I take from it, is that they’ve put in place systems over a long period of time that have enabled them to gain huge benefit out of collaboration, because if you don’t have the systems in place, you can come together like we’ve done in recent weeks but nothing gets achieved. You’ve got to have the systems in place to enable it.

The other thing is that they’ve been really consistent. Now, their standards and expectations are so set, that it just rolls on and that’s where we need to get to.

We want to emulate their consistency and some of the formal systems they have in place and from there we want to take over in terms of winning.

Is it the role of the professional game to feed and support rugby at grassroots level or vice versa?

We need to get to a position where it is a balance of both. At the moment, there could be the view that the professional game drives a fair bit of the revenue and that is invested back in to the development of the game and then used to prop up our professional programs to ensure that we are winning. It becomes a bit of a never ending cycle and it’s hard to get out of that. On the flip side, I think there are sports in this country that have proven that you can work it the other way. Scale obviously has a bit to do with it, but other sports have created a system where they’re not reliant on the success of the professional game. In a lot of cases, club rugby has found a way to do that. Some clubs are doing it better then others but they’ve found where they need to sit to do just that. From a Super Rugby perspective, it’s not easy either, but we need to find that middle ground so that it can become sustainable.

At the end of the day, you’re not going to win all the time. You want to win all the time, but it’s not always going to happen. So we need to be working on the development side of the game as well to make sure we’ve got that balance.

I’m involved with my junior club and it’s only a very small operation, we’ve probably got a $10-12,000 budget per year but still we’ve got to keep a very close eye on that. I’ve never heard anyone at that club say that the professional game is effecting the way we run that club. In saying that, we need to be careful to make sure we stay on top of things.

A lot of people have turned away from rugby in recent times. What do you say to those people and how do you go about regaining the trust of the wider rugby community? 

I think everyone has the right to choose if they support the game or not, everyone has a right to an opinion. Some people may have turned away from certain parts of the game but are still active in other areas, like their junior club or school rugby. The reality is though, the punters that were turning up to games in the late 90’s early 2000s, aren’t turning up to games in the same numbers anymore and there are probably quite few factors to consider there. Other codes are having similar issues but you’d have to think that the success of our teams is probably one of the leading factors, particularly when it come to getting bums on seats. You’ve got to provide the supporter with the belief that we can win and we will win.

A lot of people have pointed the finger at the ARU and that should happen because the national body needs to be accountable for the key elements of the game. One way we’re approaching things now is to say, sure, we have lost the trust of some of the community and one way we can fix that is to solve a problem together. Let’s come together and fix the game and by doing that, we can earn the trust of the wider community. We want people to buy in to what we are doing and maybe there are different ways we can do that but we need to work together to do it.

Can rugby in Australia return to its “glory days”?

Absolutely and I think to start, you need to address what that means. If you went around and asked people what they considered to be Australian rugby’s glory days, the first thing they’d talk about is winning. They want to see our national teams winning.

We’ve gone back a little bit and said we all need to find a united purpose. We need everyone to think that there is something bigger than what they are currently involved in.

If I’m the head coach of the Waratahs, I’m doing everything I can to help the Waratahs win but I’m also part of something bigger then that and I should be working to assist that. It’s no different to me coaching the under 9s. How can the game give me a sense of belonging so that I know where I fit and how I can contribute? That extends to players and referees and that’s something that we are working hard on.

But it’s interesting that when we talk about the “glory days” people almost always talk about the 90s when the Wallabies were winning. So we can’t take our eye off that. That makes it tough with the public perception but right now, whether we like it or not, winning at a national level takes money, we can’t shy away from that. People can criticise how we spend our money, but compared to our competitors, we’re no where near it, so we need to be really smart about how we invest and what we invest in.

It needs to be a balance, because we need to spend time and money on winning at the top end but at the same time, we can’t ignore the development of the game. I have a view that winning at the top level, and that might be the Wallabies, Sevens, or a club side, helps all parts of the game. When the top side is winning, there is a different energy and vibe and we need the Wallabies to be leading that for Australian rugby. That can drive game development because you can’t be 100% sure that development drives performance. I’m not saying it’s more important, but it plays a very important role.

CLICK HERE: Part 1: Whitaker discusses the current state of Australia rugby, the future of SANZAR, the 2020 broadcast deal, the Asian rugby market, the NRC and Sevens.