Q&A: Eastwood GM explains club’s new direction following sale of TG Millner

Earlier this year, Eastwood Rugby Club announced it would sell it’s beloved long term home TG Millner Field and relocate to a new base. Rugby News caught up with general manager Robert Frost to find about why the sale occurred and what the club will do with the proceeds in the years to come. 

A lot has happened off the field at Eastwood this year, including the sale of TG Millner and a new partnership with the Greater Sydney Rams. Why are you getting involved with the NRC now? 

Initially, we weren’t overly interested in getting too heavily involved with the Rams for a number of reasons but a lot has changed since then. The sale of TG Millner has given us quite a bit of money and allowed Eastwood as a club to change our strategic focus. Partly the club wants to stretch itself but we also want to do something good for the game and we’ll be doing something with juniors, in schools, with women’s rugby and with Sevens. Our involvement with the NRC is part of that.

We’ve known that the sale of TG Millner has been coming for a long time and we’ve spent a lot of time thinking and talking about what we are going to do with the money. We’re now at the stage where we’ve got a very clear idea and direction as a club of what we want to do and it’s largely about fostering the game within our catchment area.

If you look at our region, it is a natural rugby demographic and if we don’t support it, our kids are going to go and play league or AFL or something else. If we don’t nurture the game particularly in the developing areas north of Eastwood, there won’t be any rugby played there soon. Obviously there is some self interest because as a club, that is where our future lies but we also feel that if we don’t do this now, rugby in Sydney is going to end up being played in a little pocket in the eastern suburbs and a little pocket on the northern beaches and no where else. We want to make our region a true rugby area.

Obviously selling TG Millner was a tough decision but did the positives outweigh the negatives?

Clearly, by a very long way. There’s a sentimental aspect, don’t get me wrong and I’m probably one of the most sentimental of all – I grew up in Vimiera Rd! But the truth is, owning a ground has just about killed the football club and it hasn’t given us any of the advantages that the blokes who set it up thought it would. The whole intention wasn’t to have a ground for the sake of it. It was to make the rugby club strong but it actually made us weak. Selling the ground, will allow us to focus on being a rugby club rather than worrying about running a club.

Yes there is a lot of emotion involved but in a sense, the ground was sold 20 years ago when a 100 year lease was given to North Ryde RSL. That’s the reality of the matter, we’re just taking the inevitable second step in that process.

Has a decision been made on where Eastwood will relocate to? 

The sale agreement with North Ryde RSL allows us to continue playing at TG Millner and thats what we’ll be doing while we go through the process of working out what our best long term option is.

Obviously for the club to flourish in the long term, we need to have a base that is a rugby demographic and that’s what will drive our decision.

The demographics of the Eastwood region has continued to evolve over the years, do you find more of your supporter base now comes from the north west region? 

As part of our planning process, we did a lot on analysis about where our players, members and sponsors come from and very roughly 60-70% are coming from north of Cherrybrook. About 10 years ago, that was 40-50% so the trend is certainly increasing. The junior clubs in the Eastwood area are shrinking and the schools aren’t playing rugby much anymore. In the north west, all the schools are playing rugby and the junior clubs are booming. They are still Eastwood District clubs, but at the moment we are a long way away from them.

The demographics in Eastwood have changed but the new railway is the game changer. When people ask where we are going, I point them to that new railway line. We’re not sure exactly where, but it will be someone along that line.

Once the sale of TG Millner is complete, what will Eastwood do with the money?

All the funds from the sale will be placed in a trust or something similar and the club won’t be able to access the capital at all. The trustees will make a yearly allocation to the football club based on a budget and a business plan. If our plans are in line with the objectives of the trust, the trustees will grant us the money.

The trustees will come from people involved with the club as well as those with the expertise needed to handle the money.

What is the vision for Eastwood in the near future?

In our strategic plan, we call it the integrated model. Bit of a daggy name but we had to call it something. At the moment, we run a senior club, then there is the juniors then we’ve got an informal relationship with the community based mostly on personal relationships and individuals. The new model integrates all three of those elements into, I hate to say it,  a corporate model. Underneath Eastwood Rugby will be five or six divisions including juniors, schools, premier rugby, women’s rugby and sevens. Eastwood Rugby will oversee all of those programs.

We’ll hire a full time rugby manager who will handle schools visits and gala days. We’ll work a lot closer with our juniors and place a particular focus on training our coaches properly. We’d like to create a pathway for coaches as well as players. We’re also going to do an awful lot more work with women. John Manenti will be coming on full time and also continue his work with the Australian Women’s Sevens, which will be great.

We’re looking at hiring our own development officers part time and one of John’s suggestions is to actually hire some of the Sevens girls a few days a week, which would be brilliant.

We’ve also been talking to The Rugby Club who created a foundation after they sold their premises last year and they want to fund some grassroots programs as well so we’re looking at joint funding some of the development officers.

The major issue we all have with the ARU’s programs like Viva Sevens and Game On is that there isn’t a connection from the initial program to the local rugby club. If a kid doesn’t have a team to go play for on a Saturday morning or doesn’t want to go and play, then what is the point of spending the money on the schools program?

The whole idea is for Eastwood to provide the funds and expertise to help grow the game, primarily in the north west of Sydney.

Are there specific targets for the short, medium and long term future of the club? 

In the plan there are numbers against all of our initiatives and ideas. The short term goal is to make the move and try not to lose too much in the process. In terms of a medium goal, we want to foster new rugby clubs in these new areas that are created from the railway line. It’s almost impossible to start a strong rugby club from scratch so we want to provide professional help and resources to people in these new areas so that they can get these clubs off the ground.

We also want to work really hard to get involved with the state schools. The two biggest state schools in Sydney are in our region and neither of them play rugby. Cherrybrook High School has 2300 kids, Pennant Hills has 1800. They are massive schools and we need to fix that.

In the longer term, we want to get Eastwood Rugby running like a machine so that the commercial value of the club is enhanced. We want every kid in our region to want to wear an Eastwood jersey. If they are good enough, they’ll go on and play for the Wallabies but we want them to want to play for Eastwood first.

Commercially, we need to capture more support and at the same time, we want to be the strongest sporting club in the area. The region is obviously on the AFL’s radar, so we need to grow our presence now to make it sure it’s a rugby area forever,

When you do find a new home, what will you build? 

We’re looking to build a rugby specific high performance headquarters for Eastwood and our local community. That will include multiple fields, including a synthetic pitch, spectator facilities, a grandstand, etc. Plus our version of a high performance training base with a top class gym and medical rooms. The entire thing though will be based on rugby, we don’t want a multi use facility, we want it to be for rugby.

We obviously can’t afford to do all of this ourselves because we aren’t going to spend our capital so we’re in talks with both the state and federal governments and that is looking positive.

We need to also acknowledge the ongoing legacy of the Millner family.

From this year, Eastwood will run the Greater Sydney Rams NRC franchise. Why are you getting involved now? 

When we looked at our integrated model, it was fairly clear that we needed to give our players access to the pathway and we couldn’t afford to just sit on the sideline. Initially, we decided to explore our options with both the Sydney Rays and the Rams.

The Board initially certainly weren’t united on the idea, but they all thought it was worth taking a look at and that is what we did.

We also understand that the ARU are evolving with the NRC. They’re not just looking at using the competition to bring new people to the sport anymore, they want to get people already in the system coming to NRC games and that’s something we’re a lot more interested in.

We’ve got a strong connection to the rugby community in our area and that’s why the Rams will be playing matches at TG Millner this year. We want people who enjoy watching footy all year to come along and support the Rams. We’ve got four home games and two of them have big add ons, including an Australian Schoolboys Test against New Zealand so hopefully we can create some great events.

We also want to build some tribalism and the obvious way to do that is to build a strong rivalry with the Sydney Rays.

The side will be renamed the Greater Sydney Rams, be coached by John Manenti and you will play all your games at TG Millner this year. Is it essentially an Eastwood NRC side? 

The instructions we’ve given the coaching staff is to win. That’s the only way we are going to grow our supporter base and if that means there are no Eastwood players in the side, then so be it. When you see the squad, you’ll realise that it won’t be dominated by Eastwood players and we’re doing our best to get the most competitive side on the field.

The most important thing for the Rams this year is to win. And if we can’t win, then lets look like we can win. If we can do that, the supporters will come.

It’s not known what will happen to the NRC or Super Rugby at the end of the current broadcast deal in 2020. Are you positioning Eastwood for what may come next? 

It’s certainly not the main reason why we are doing all of this but you’re right, there is a lot up in the air at the moment. No one knows what is going to happen after 2020, but we wouldn’t be doing the right thing by Eastwood if we weren’t thinking about it and keeping an open mind about what may come down the track.

Where will Eastwood Rugby Club be in 20 years time?

We’ll be deeply embedded in the community and have a high performance centre and base which is dedicated to rugby at the centre of an area where rugby is thriving. That’s the plan.