Australian rugby is hungry for success, but Wallabies fans need to have realistic expectations about winning the Rugby Championship and Bledisloe Cup this year, Australian Rugby Union (ARU) chief executive Bill Pulver has warned.
Pulver took over at the union earlier this year and is already planning an overhaul of the structure of the game, including bringing in a third tier under Super Rugby, to provide a better “pathway” to the national team for elite players.
While “thrilled” at the appointment of coach Ewen McKenzie, Pulver believes coming out on the top in the Rugby Championship ahead of the top two teams in the world, New Zealand and South Africa, as well as the ever-improving Argentines, will be a tough task.
“Put four teams together in a world class tournament and there’s plenty to look forward to,” he said in an interview.
“We want to win it, we basically would like to win the Rugby Championships, we would like to win the Bledisloe Cup, but we’re ranked three, so you have to be realistic about expectations,” he said. “But, new coach, wonderful group of young players, everything is possible.”
Pulver is a multi-millionaire businessman who was best known before his ARU appointment because of the unfortunate 2011 incident when a fake bomb was placed around the neck of his teenaged daughter by a masked intruder at their Sydney home.
Since taking over in February, he has overseen a British and Irish Lions tour that was “wonderfully successful” in financial and marketing terms, despite the defeat on the pitch, as well as the appointment of McKenzie.
“His apprenticeship for this job was perfect,” Pulver said of McKenzie. “He coaches the way Australians like to see the game played, smart, creative running rugby. He’s been there, he’s a former Wallaby, he’s beaten the All Blacks on numerous occasions, there’s a real excitement about the new era of Australian rugby with him as coach.”
Displacing the All Blacks as the No. 1 team in the world is the Holy Grail of Australian rugby, if for no more reason than to keep interest in the game high and the cash flowing into the ARU coffers to spend on developing the game.
Pulver, who said the union’s revenue would be A$140 million (US$126.78 million) this year on the back of the Lions tour, believes the governing body must do more to produce more top players.
“It’s about finding the right strategy for developing elite talent,” he said. “Our competition structures are not robust enough, our pathways are not robust enough, so there’s a lot of strategic thought being put into developing the right strategies.”
“Front and center” to those thoughts are the development of a new third tier of rugby in Australia to match South Africa’s highly successful Currie Cup and the equally productive National Provincial Championship in New Zealand.
Australia faces a decision between building up from the traditional club structure or developing down from the five Super Rugby teams.
“There’s a lot of merit in both. What you want is accelerated talent directly into Super Rugby and give exposure to young talent more quickly, but you also want to re-energize club rugby. Club rugby is a very important pillar of the rugby process in Australia and that’s equally important,” Pulver said.
A document looking at the options will be presented to the ARU board later this month and although Pulver would like it to be in place for next year, he thought it more important “to get it right.”
The last attempt to bridge the gap between Super and club rugby, the Australian Rugby Championship (ARC), lasted just one season in 2007 before being ditched.
Along with the new tier are ambitious plans for growing the grassroots of the game, using sevens to attract youngsters and particularly targeting women.
Pulver said he had been concerned by reports that some of the elite independent schools in North Sydney, the bedrock of rugby union in Australia for a century or more, have been turning to the local Australian Rules code.
“I do worry, we operate in the world’s most competitive winter sports market, and our competitors are well-funded and well-run,” said Pulver, who attended one such school himself. “So we need to fight back with the appropriate strategies, but rugby is a very special game. Played well, there is no better game. Our opportunity is to focus on our own patch and if we get it right, believe me, the fans will support us in a big way.”
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