Expanding, not shrinking, is how to create a competitive and sustainable Australian rugby competition


As Rugby Australia considers the future of Australian rugby, it is worth reflecting on three critical challenges facing the game down under.

1. How can we restore fan engagement?

To restore fan engagement, Super Rugby must deliver what fans want: to watch close matches where their team has an equal chance of tasting championship success.

By guaranteeing an Australian champion, the 2021 Super Rugby AU delivered a grand final crowd of 41,637 and average viewership 17% higher than that year’s trans-Tasman Super Rugby series.

Tate McDermott of the Reds is congratulated by team mates after scoring a try during the round one Super Rugby Pacific match between Queensland Reds and NSW Waratahs at Suncorp Stadium, on February 24, 2024, in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

Close matches build excitement, regardless of whether they are of an international, club or community standard. Reflecting on last weekend’s matches, we need more thrilling bottom-of-the-table clashes like that of the Rebels vs Force, rather than watching the Chiefs’ clinical dismantling of the Brumbies.

In Super Rugby, Australian clubs struggle to be successful because there is currently an uneven playing field. In 2022, New Zealand Rugby had more than double the income of Rugby Australia. Wealthier governing bodies allows for comparatively higher player salaries, fewer top players lost offshore and better match results.

An analysis of English soccer from 1998 to 2007 shows that the level of player salaries directly correlates to a team’s championship success. It is not surprising that paying for the best players leads to better outcomes on the field. So while the Waratahs and Reds put on a show against Kiwi opposition last weekend, sadly in time this will settle back to the status quo.

2. How can we ensure competitive Super Rugby and Australian teams?

From 2026, our Super Rugby clubs should form a new domestic competition.

Far from shrinking to four teams, a domestic competition should be expanded to eight teams. This would create cross town rivalries through a second team in Brisbane and Sydney, plus the Drua and Melbourne. It could run for 15 weeks (plus a top 4 finals series) from early February to mid-May.

To ensure clubs retain access to international matches, Super Rugby Pacific should become a six-week ‘Champions Cup’ from mid May to end June.

This could be a best of 16 tournament consisting of four groups of four clubs. Each group could have one of the top four clubs from New Zealand, Australia, Japan, and the Pacific/Americas. The top two clubs from each group would go through to a round of eight knockout.

Far from diluting clubs, expanding to eight teams will provide more opportunities for Australian players to develop their skills in first class rugby. This creates a larger talent pool for the Wallabies while still ensuring top clubs face international opposition prior to the international Test window.

3. How can we restore club finances?

A fair and sustainable comp requires player salaries to be capped at an affordable level, with salaries and additional club payments funded directly from broadcast revenues.

The sustainability of clubs is a perennial problem as they are encouraged to maximise wins, not profits. Clubs often choose to spend beyond their means as it directly improves their competitiveness (see point 1 above).

To combat this, the salary cap and club payments should be directly tied to the 2026 broadcast deal, with clubs being funded 130% of the salary cap. This model incentivises RA, clubs and RUPA to work together to create a positive campaign that gets spectators and sponsors on board with the domestic competition and boost broadcast revenues.

Player costs can also be managed by targeting the best value players. For every Joseph Suaalii we pursue, we have $1.6m unavailable to invest directly in community rugby and coaching pathways. The hype from signing one NRL star does not offset the loss of missing out on signing numerous future rugby stars before they switch to NRL.

Similarly, some elite players will choose to go overseas to pursue higher salaries. Wallabies ticket revenues can continue to supplement payments for prospective Wallabies, while having five overseas players in the Wallabies ensures foreign players are not lost completely.

Far from shrinking to four teams, we must expand the Australian game to create more public attention and opportunities for players to develop and shine. The quality of domestic teams is not killing Australian rugby, rather it is flaws in the structure of the competition itself.

By facing these challenges, we can all create a strong system that benefits clubs, players and fans.

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