How to grow the game beyond Australia’s traditional rugby ‘hot spots’ – The Roar

The rebels are dead! Long live the rebels!

The proverbial bell has tolled, the curtain has fallen; and the Melbourne Rebels, Rugby Australia’s newest franchise, is no more. Despite talk of uniting against the dying of the light and having nothing to lose, unfortunately, the Hurricanes did not read the Australian script and put the final nail in the coffin.

Much has been said, not necessarily all correct, but with emotion and sadness about how the Victoria-based team was created and operated throughout its 14-year history.

Mistakes have been made on both sides of the pulpit and, regardless of who is at the altar, punishing the other’s faults, no party leaves the field of play with a clean shirt.

Were the rebels in the right place in Melbourne? Should the players have played in the Dewar Shield instead of traveling to play in the Shute Shield or Hospital Cup? Was too much money spent on big-name signings who didn’t or couldn’t commit to growing the game’s foundation? Was the marketing good enough? Have the most recent events arrived late or did they take time to establish themselves?

When the Rebels were created, Eddie Jones said “it will be bad for Wallaby rugby in the short term, for the next 10 to 15 years.” This begs the question: at 14 years old, did Rugby Australia come too soon?

Roads were developing at a significant rate in Victoria, with a growing number of Victorian-bred players representing the Rebels in both Super Rugby Pacific and Super W, with a constant stream of gold Wallaby or Wallaroo jerseys.

If only the rebels could find their own forest among the trees; that could help sustain your operation with a long-term commitment and a drive to have a fully representative team. The consortium is clearly better at public relations than Rugby Australia, but that may be because they are on the side of local public benefit without having to respond to pressures from central governance.

This whole scenario has made me reflect on the structure of rugby in Australia. As a Pom, I’m not burdened with game history or local structures like many people who grew up in the system; but at first glance, if RA had to start over completely, this wouldn’t be the setup I’d choose.

I previously wrote about how Super W should not follow the same path as Super Rugby; and my opinion on the structure has not changed. Clearly, New South Wales and Queensland are rugby hotspots, benefiting from GPS school systems and rugby’s historic presence there, so why not take advantage of this? Have two teams in each (to start) and call them what they are, i.e. Sydney, Brisbane, Queensland Country and NSW Country (I’m not married to these).

Then look at existing bases in the ACT, Western Australia and Victoria by including the Brumbies, Force and Rebels, including the names of their locations in the longer titles. You could then pursue an NRL type growth program and explore long-term developments in North Queensland, Gold Coast, Newcastle, Tasmania, Adelaide, Darwin etc. to create a truly national game.

Melbourne Rebels right lock looks on with emotion as his team loses their final game after the match between Hurricanes and Melbourne Rebels at Sky Stadium on June 8, 2024 in Wellington, New Zealand.  (Photo by James Foy/Speed ​​Media/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Melbourne Rebels Josh Canham. (Photo by James Foy/Speed ​​Media/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

This would be a long-term strategy and will require third-party funding, which should take the form of ownership. Measures can easily be put in place to ensure each team is built for the benefit of rugby in Australia and to attract potential Wallabies. These could also include community outreach mechanisms, participation in education and grassroots growth.

For all the talk about rugby being a posh sport and being intertwined with private schools, surely there must be people with enough finances and will to proactively get involved in the professional side of the sport.

However, in conclusion, we will be stuck with the same system and closed ranks that the rugby community in Australia has had to endure since the game went professional, with a lack of long-term planning and fear of external collaboration which could see rugby union grow beyond the borders of Sydney and Brisbane. As always, it’s hope that kills you.