WHEN the Western Force were kicked out of Super Rugby, your columnist suggested the NRL should have been the first on the phone to invite them to become our sport’s Perth franchise.
One of the biggest reservations expressed at the time was not Perth shouldn’t be back in the competition – only the NRL seem to think that – but that the Force were run by the WA Rugby Union and everyone who worked there was employed by the Australian Rugby Union.
That would be like trying to get rugby union itself to change codes, I was told
Now, half a decade later and for the first time in the 112-year history of league in Australia, getting “rugby union itself to change codes” seems attainable.
Rugby Australia is cutting its annual wages bill by $5.5 million in a desperate bid to stay afloat. Forty per cent of jobs are expected to be cut. They are in almost as bad a position as the Western Force were – although the Wallabies haven’t been excluded from international competition yet.
Colleagues Malcolm Knox and Matt Cleary have already allowed themselves to imagine what would happen if Australian Rugby League Commission chairman Peter V’landys found enough money down the back of the couch to do what league Down Under did with touch football – basically annex it.
And that’s the issue, isn’t it? Where, exactly, is this couch?
The biggest opportunity in the history of the code wars (with the possible exception of the Super League War, during which union could have made significant headway in the Australian market but did not) since league played on through World War I and union did not has now presented itself.
But with television networks using another “opportunity”, the global pandemic, to squeeze the NRL, it too is indulging in belt-tightening. Although it is in nowhere near as much trouble as RA, the NRL (overseen by the ARLC) is looking to cut operating costs by $50 million a year.
The timing for this once-in-a-century opportunity for league in Australia couldn’t be worse. But, as with Todd Greenberg five years ago, V’landys should at least make enquiries.
As people close to one of the two codes, most of us have grown up focusing on their differences. But to the majority of the world with little to no knowledge of either, they are indistinguishable.
The original reason for there being two governing bodies – amateurism – has now completely disappeared. Both codes have professionals and amateurs taking part now. The reasons there are two codes are lost in the mists of times.
For the NRL, the benefits of running all rugby of both codes in Australia would be massive. Increased playing numbers, access to the private school system, blue chip upscale sponsors that traditionally shun league, access to the Olympics, property, a seat at the table with league’s biggest rival organisation, World Rugby.
To make this abundantly clear: nothing would change on the field; 13-a-side, 15-a-side, seven-a-side and nine-a-side competitions would continue as they currently do. There is no reason a single club would fold.
But many duplicated administrative positions would be eliminated – there would be economies of scale.
Rugby union currently oversees rugby league in South Africa and in the past that has been the case in the Middle East, too. In Italy the rugby union runs a league comp as well, although it is not the one recognised by International Rugby League.
And the biggest problem that I can foresee with league doing the reverse in Australia is with governments. If league and union were run by one body, would they both attract the same level of funding from the Federal Government as they currently do?
And league’s attempts to be recognised as a separate sport internationally, giving it access to millions in funding worldwide – would possibly receive fatal blow if its biggest country took responsibility for what – if you are bobsledding or badminton – is all clearly “rugby” anyway.
All this is very unlikely to happen. But that doesn’t mean PVL shouldn’t pick up the phone and investigate