COMMENT: Australian rugby is a depressing picture – the RA board must be axed and the constitution changed


I have to declare I am part of a group known as Supporters of Australian Rugby Reform, SOARR. The objective of this group is to effect constitutional change in Rugby Australia.

Any analysis of Australian rugby shows a depressing picture. On field performance of our national team, the Wallabies are ranked ninth in the world. Our Super teams are constantly struggling, ranked in the lower half of the competition.

Participation numbers from the grass roots up shows decreasing numbers of school’s participation, shrinking numbers of players and clubs.

Skill levels, development programs and pathways are disjointed or non- existent. There are inadequate ‘coach the coaches’ programs and a non-productive elite youth development system.

The lack of funding for grassroots and the total disengagement of RA has caused a rapid decline in clubs, volunteers, sponsors and players.

The financial position of RA and the inability to adequately fund the Super Rugby model in Australia is a failure beyond belief. Within RA there seems to be an inability of the Board to strategise and articulate a survival model for Australian rugby.

The Board has allowed rugby in Australia to incur an $80 million debt facility on the basis of future events, this has been done without any transparency to the rugby population of Australia and is best a high risk, virtually secret, strategy.

The goal of SOARR is to remove the current constitution of RA and replace it with a constitution which has the broad rugby population of clubs and states vote for board members similar to shareholders of a public company.

Today’s constitution is a closed shop constitution which only allows 14 votes from member unions to decide upon board appointees selected by a board appointed nominations committee of three people and chaired by the Chairman of RA. This has produced a cabal of bankers, financiers and other professional board operatives maintaining control of rugby in Australia.

Daniel Herbert, Chairman of RA in his Annual Report states, “On the back of the success of the inaugural RA summit my fellow Directors and I are confident we are making steady progress in rebuilding the rugby population’s trust in us to deliver shared aspiration and desired outcomes.”

I’m not sure where this confidence comes from, there has been a review led by Andrew Slack, with only the recommendations being shared with the rugby public of Australia. We have been told there was a $2.5m overrun of the Wallabies World Cup fiasco campaign. We have not been told what the original budget was, we have not been told what the additional money was spent on and by whom. We have not been told who approved the additional $2.5m or how this was allowed to happen.

Rugby Australia Chair Dan Herbert. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images for Rugby Australia)

At this years Annual General Meeting, there are five directors up for approval. Two are replacements for Phil Waugh and Hamish McLennan. Three are existing board members up for re-election.

These three are, Matt Henning, Karen Penrose and Jane Wilson. A fourth, Pip Marlow, will stand down in four months. Dan Herbert, Pip Marlow and the three up for re-election were all responsible for the World Cup fiasco and supported Hamish McLennan, they were also responsible for the financial over run at the World Cup and also responsible for the sacking of Dave Rennie and his payout.

In addition to the World Cup mismanagement, they are complicit in signing an untested rugby league winger – Joseph Suaalii – for an estimated $1.7 per year. This $1.7m would fund the development program in NSW for two years.

They have been involved in a failed Private Equity agreement and the defunding of the Australian Super teams to the extent NSW and Victoria are broke and owing more than $20m. In addition the ACT Brumbies directors will not sign off on the 2023 financials which suggest they are close to insolvency.

On this basis the SOARR are asking the 14 votes from the Member Unions to cause a spill of the board, install an interim Chairman and committee to conduct a forensic and transparent financial analysis of the RA position. They would also be charged with the responsibility of developing a survival plan for Australian rugby, which would include a new constitution and a revamp of the coaching and skills programs discarded by previous administrations.

These actions are all constitutionally sound and legal.

In the recent past the RA Board under this constitution has been responsible for,

The Wallabies’ lowest ever world ranking of 10th (currently ninth).Folau sacking and $4m payout.Raelene Castle fiasco and payout.Loss of QANTAS sponsorshipDave Rennie’s sacking and payout plus support staff payouts.Lowest-ever participation numbers and declining number of clubs.GPS schools converting to soccer and AFL.Lowest-ever skilled player and coach base.Loss of Foxtel media deal including News Limited media.Three Super teams on edge of insolvency and the entire Super model in Australia broken.An inadequate coach education program and a diminished pathway for coaches.Signing a $1.7 per annum deal with an untested rugby league wingerA falling fan support base Total abandonment of experienced rugby support groups

It is the belief of the SOARR that this litany of issues is due to a constitution that has entrusted the wrong people with the responsibility of Australia’s rugby health. The closed shop of the nominations committee and the Board self perpetuating has seen a consistent decline in Australian rugby. All actions taken by the previous Chairman were endorsed by this board and for the AGM to again endorse this board will see further mismanagement.

The Australian rugby public must take ownership of the game, have a board elected by them who will be open and transparent, who will be qualified to focus on rugby, sound financial management and avoid divisive non rugby issues. It needs to re-establish the proven skill development program we had for players and coaches and put the survival and prosperity.

Russ Tulloch is a former Wallaby, ex-board member of NSW Rugby and president of Norths club.

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