Current and former senior administrators have accused Rugby Australia (RA) of lacking a long-term strategy less than 12 months out from the Wallabies taking part in the World Cup in Japan.
Critics say the problems at the top of the game with the Wallabies can be traced back to a lack of junior development and a coherent strategy to support ruby union’s grassroots.
Retired Australia international and current president of Sydney club Eastwood, Brett Papworth, is among the most outspoken critics of RA.
Mr Papworth said the organisation was spending more money than ever at the top level at the expense of the grassroots.
“They have a head office you can’t jump over, they have corporate costs and admin costs and 150 professional players,” he said.
“That is all and that’s all they spend money on.”
Mr Papworth’s comments come as the board of RA, formerly the Australian Rugby Union, prepares to meet on Monday and finalise a review into the performances of the Wallabies this season.
Wallabies coach Michael Cheika will make a presentation to the board on the team’s worst season since 1958, in which they won only four of 13 Tests played.
Mr Papworth said a review of the Wallabies was masking the real problem in the game – a lack of junior development and a long-term grassroots strategy.
“The Wallabies at the moment are symptomatic of the game in general,” he said.
That is a claim disputed by RA chief executive Raelene Castle.
“There absolutely is a strategy to develop,” Ms Castle said.
“Rugby Australia is delivering products that are capable of making rugby a sport that’s attractive to young people.
“We’ve got Foxtel Touch Sevens, we’ve got a sevens product and we’ve got 15s. What we’ve also got is a product called Get Into Rugby, which enables school-age children to try rugby for the first time.”
Ms Castle said the latter initiative had seen “70,000 new boys and girls” take up the sport.
Aussie rugby at its lowest point for ‘many, many years’
Ross Ryan is the chairman of Canterbury Rugby Union Club, which plays in Sydney’s sub-districts competition.
He has been involved in junior rugby for 42 years and does not believe he has seen the code in such a poor state in Australia for some time.
“Since I’ve been involved in rugby in Australia, this is the lowest it’s been for many, many years,” he said.
“I don’t see the leadership being provided. I want to see a direction we can all head in.
“I want to see development officers. I want to see them using the AFL model [Auskick], what they use.
“I want to see them getting out there and getting into the public schools. Because, with the national team being in such a terrible state, we can’t attract the people and that from the local schools.”
Ms Castle acknowledged she would like to see more development officers in junior rugby but said the sport could not compete with the might of the AFL.
“We’d love to be doing more,” she said.
“My aspiration is to make sure we do generate more revenue so we can invest it in things like development officers.
“But it’s also the responsibility of Rugby Australia to work with the states and territories and make sure they’re actually delivering the development officers and the support that is required in the rugby community.”
Ms Castle said she had the support of Australia’s four Super Rugby franchises, despite the criticism levelled at RA.
“They would give you feedback to say there’s been significant improvement in the engagement with Rugby Australia and those states and territories,” she said.
“And the consultative way with which I lead has shown real benefits to those people. I’m very comfortable with the way things are going.”
But former Waratahs and Rugby Union Players’ Association chief executive Greg Harris said the past and present leadership of RA had made poor strategic decisions.
Mr Harris said this had led to a decline in the fortunes of the Wallabies, the quality of Super Rugby and the club game.
“I think the game is dysfunctional because at the end of the day, you need to have the leadership to be able to engage people,” Mr Harris said.
“It does matter to a lot of people and it would be a be a shame to lose an icon of competitiveness that we do have in that sport. But it really needs to be rethought.”
Former Wallabies coaches call for change
Mr Papworth has established an alliance with a group of high-profile rugby names, including former Wallabies coaches Bob Dwyer and Alan Jones, to establish an Australian Rugby Clubs Association.
The group is advocating for change at RA, while Jones has specifically called for the removal of Ms Castle and chairman Cameron Clyne.
Mr Papworth cited his local district Eastwood as emblematic of the decline.
“Last year at under-nine level we had five teams. That’s a very poor state of affairs,” he said.
“If we extrapolate those under nine-year-olds to 20 years’ time, they’re your Wallabies and the number are frightening.
“We’ve got to pick a World Cup team for 2039 and I promise you, unless something is done long term strategically we are going to struggle to be there in any meaningful way.”
But Ms Castle has disputed the claim of declining engagement.
She said participation rates were steady and even improving in some areas, highlighting RA had spent $9 million on community rugby this year.
“We’re seeing very stable participation in the boys and 15s game,” she said.
“We’ve seen a growth in [the] ACT, Queensland and South Australia in our 15s – so our traditional 15s product – so we’re really pleased with that.
“But also in the girls game, what we’ve managed to do is attract an enormous amount of new numbers of girls who want to play contact – be it 15s or contact sevens – but also in the touch sevens product.”
Rugby Australia needs to ‘invest long-term’
The Wallabies will play in the Japan World Cup next year. It remains to be seen who will be coaching the team amid speculation Cheika will not see out his contract.
But while media attention will focus on the top end of the game, Mr Papworth and Mr Ryan want a focus on the bottom.
“It does matter because a lot of us are very passionate about it,” Mr Ryan said.
“A lot of us think it’s the greatest game of all. A lot of us have put our lifetimes into it. We do it because we love the game.”
Mr Papworth’s message to the RA board ahead of its meeting on Monday was clear.
“Please listen to rugby community and invest long-term,” he said.