[Summary: In considering locations for a fifth Australian Super franchise, the Australian Rugby Union appears to be neglecting the option of basing it in the heartland of Australian rugby―the inner city suburbs of Sydney. Both the ARL and AFL have the majority of their clubs located in the city in which their game developed.
Given that this week’s SANZAR board meeting was held in Dubai one should not expect too much respect to be paid to location theory in determining the next site for expanding the Super 14 competition.
Australian Rugby Union supremo John O’Neill has justifiably argued strongly for the fifteenth franchise to be granted to Australia, but where should such a team be based? Perhaps an examination of the location of professional teams in other football codes in Australia might be illuminating.
The Australian Rugby League has sixteen Premiership clubs. Nine of these (56%) are located in Sydney; four (25%) in other traditional rugby league areas; and three (19%) in what might be classed as expansion areas, namely Melbourne, New Zealand and the Gold Coast.
The Australian Football League also has sixteen Premiership clubs. Nine of these (56%) are located in Melbourne; five (31%) in other traditional Australian Rules areas; and two (13%) in expansion areas, namely Sydney and Brisbane.
It can be seen that in both of the major codes with which rugby competes the majority of teams are located in the city in which their game developed. By contrast Australian rugby has just four professional teams; one in Sydney where the game has its Australian roots (25%); one in Brisbane, a traditional rugby area(25%); and two in expansion areas, namely Canberra and Perth(50%).
John O’Neill has been quoted as saying that in choosing a location for the additional team “the Gold Coast, Melbourne and West Sydney boasted the necessary prerequisites, while also mentioning Gosford and Newcastle.” Let’s look at the logic of these five sites.
Starting with Gosford, its main attraction would appear to be that it has an underutilised stadium, apparently constructed by John Singleton in “Field of Dreams” mode. Well he built it but they didn’t come. The area lacks critical population mass, is devoid of major corporations to provide sponsorship support, and lacks an underlying club competition of anything remotely like an appropriate standard.
Newcastle would also seem to be deficient in terms of population, business support and strength of its club competition. In fact, a Newcastle team competed in the Sydney Club Premiership competition for a few seasons in the late 1990s but folded due to lack of support from the Newcastle public.
Placing a team in Melbourne would create many of the same problems faced by the Western Force, namely being in a city where the overwhelming majority of the population have no interest in rugby and don’t really know the difference between rugby and rugby league, and not having an underpinning club competition of anywhere near acceptable standard.
Giving a franchise to the Gold Coast, an area that supports just one team in the Brisbane Premiership club competition, means that the South-East Queensland conurbation, essentially Greater Brisbane, would have two Super 15 clubs while Sydney would have only one. Giving their relative populations, strength of their club football competitions and business clout, this does not make sense.
So that just leaves West Sydney―or does it? John O’Neill has, if I recall correctly, mentioned both Blacktown and Parramatta as possible locations, but where is rugby’s heartland in Sydney? It has always been in the inner city suburbs, basically clustered around the harbour.
Of the last fifty Sydney First Grade Premierships, twenty-three have been won by Randwick and ten by Sydney University. If we then add in those won by other harbour-side clubs―Norths, Gordon, Manly and Easts―45 of the last 50 Premierships or 90% have been won by rugby-heartland clubs. Only five or 10% have been won by clubs which could be regarded as part of West Sydney―three by Eastwood and two by Parramatta.
In addition the great bulk of the wealthy private schools which have been the major nursery for Australian rugby players are located in the heartland suburbs.
Club rugby has always struggled in West Sydney, and even the club which has enjoyed success in recent years, Eastwood, is facing a financial crisis partly due to a rapidly changing demographic unfavourable to rugby.
If we had a central Sydney team in addition to the NSW Waratahs where would it play? The obvious answer is the Football Stadium. Very few professional football teams own their own grounds; it makes much better economic sense to hire an existing facility.
Would there be sufficient support to sustain two teams in the one city? Apart from the obvious examples from the ARL and the AFL, English cities such as Liverpool and Manchester, both much smaller than Sydney, have dual soccer clubs as well as numerous other clubs clustered nearby. The proximity of rivals seems to promote fierce tribalism and increased interest in the sport.
In discussing a new Australian franchise John O’Neill spoke about the possibility of a “’hybrid team’ including Pacific Islanders, Australia expats and league converts.” Ignoring the wisdom or otherwise of sourcing players in this way, why might there be a deficiency of professional standard rugby players in Australia? Precisely because there are so few opportunities for rugby players to ply their trade in their own country.
As mentioned above, there are sixteen fully professional clubs in both the ARL and the AFL. By contrast there are only four Australian Super 14 clubs. In broad terms this means that there are four times as many opportunities for rugby league and Australian football players to play professionally here as there are in rugby. Given time, the additional demand for players created by a fifth franchise will produce the necessary supply. That process will take much longer than it should because, with a few notable exceptions, player development has been grossly neglected by the administrators of rugby in Australia.