FEBRUARY 15, 2016 12:00AM
Senior rugby writer
ARU chief executive Bill Pulver has his critics over club rugby.
Ever since rugby went professional in the mid 1990s the role of club rugby, particularly in the heartland of Brisbane and Sydney, has been a vexed issue.
For over 100 years amateur Brisbane and Sydney clubs supplied players to Queensland and NSW respectively from which the Wallabies were selected. Players such as Ken Catchpole (Randwick) and Paul McLean (Brothers) were associated with their clubs as much as their state and country.
But everything changed with the advent of professionalism and the introduction of Super Rugby in 1996, which featured the ACT-based Brumbies, NSW Waratahs and Queensland Reds.
The Super Rugby teams got all the high-profile players, crowds, sponsors and TV coverage and revenue, reducing the Brisbane and Sydney club competitions to feeder systems.
Under the ARU’s new strategic plan, the Brisbane and Sydney clubs have been excluded from funding by the national governing body, creating an outrage.
Former Wallabies coach and long-standing Randwick man Bob Dwyer on Saturday launched a scathing attack on ARU chief-executive Bill Pulver for not supported the clubs. Dwyer has been backed up by former Wallabies centre and current Eastwood club president Brett Papworth, who accused the ARU of getting its spending priorities wrong.
“I have been arguing with them for a long time over their attitude to the game at grassroots level,” Papworth said. “Our issue is that Sydney and Brisbane clubs have effectively provided Australian rugby forever and they just don’t seem to get it.
“There’s no money spent. No money spent at all. Our issue is in the last published (ARU) annual report — we haven’t seen 2015 — he (Pulver) spent $106m. The ARU, they are the guardian of the game. Let me tell you where they spent it: $25m was head office salaries and benefits, which includes the Melbourne Rebels for which the ARU were picking up the tab.
“The game at grassroots level nationally got $4m, $56m was spent on the professional side of the game, which is Super Rugby grants, Wallabies payments, sevens programs.
“Let’s be honest, players from Brisbane and Sydney provide the vast majority of professional players in this country. We need a hand. We can’t develop the game with no money. The Sydney clubs for example invest about $9m a year on the game collectively. Bill spends $4m nationally on grassroots footy.”
The Australian rugby economy is underpinned by broadcast rights, which have dramatically increased under a new agreement.
The Wallabies generate the majority of the television revenue, while the five Super Rugby franchises also contribute to the pot, but the Brisbane and Sydney clubs are not part of the deal.
While the ARU has doubled its funding to community rugby nationwide to $10.4m, none of those funds goes to Brisbane and Sydney club rugby, and the smaller state unions receive as much as NSW and Queensland.
The anger in clubland is partly due to the fact that Pulver repeatedly stated that when the new broadcast deal was struck the ARU would have the money to “fund the game properly.”
The Brisbane and Sydney clubs, who have seen their ARU funding decline from about $80,000 to zero in the last few years, were under the impression Pulver would restore their funding with money from the TV deal.
“I acknowledge that,” Pulver said. “I suspect those comments could have been interpreted in multiple ways.
“At the end of the day somebody has to make a decision on what is the appropriate investment to grow the game.
“We don’t have unlimited funds. I can’t be throwing money to every single hand that is seeking money. Sadly, Bob’s implication is that I don’t value the Shute Shield. That is clearly nonsense. The Shute Shield is a wonderful competition. It’s an important part of the Australian rugby development pathway.
“I just don’t think it’s appropriate for the ARU to fund Sydney clubs directly.”
While club rugby does not have a commercial value in the ARU’s broadcast deal, it does have the intangible value of developing players and creating fans.
For this reason the ARU has agreed to spend $300,000 to ensure the Shute Shield remains on free-to-air television this year on Channel 7Two “because I see that as a direct game development that rugby enjoys,” Pulver said.
The main reason the ARU has baulked at directly funding the Brisbane and Sydney clubs is because it was concerned they would squander the money on trying to poach each other’s players.
“The Shute Shield is basically an amateur level of the game and we have been working to make sure there are not player payments taking place,” Pulver said.
“One of my concerns is whatever funding went into Shute Shield could just see them slip back into old habits of buying players.”
Pulver said the ARU’s policy of encouraging more boys and girls to play rugby would have an indirect benefit to the clubs by increasing participation and revenue, while it had set $500,000 aside to promote rugby in western Sydney.
“If you believe like I do that bringing young boys and girls into the game today is the most important driver of long term health of the code, that’s where you should be investing your money,” Pulver said.
The ARU’s funding cuts to the clubs have come on top of an unpopular levy on all club players and the introduction of the National Rugby Championship, which has pushed club rugby further down the totem pole.
Brisbane and Sydney clubs are now seriously cutting ties with the ARU and their state unions and going it alone.
“One thing this has done has made the clubs talks to one another,” said former Wallabies and Reds centre Anthony Herbert, who is president of the powerful Brisbane club GPS.
“We now meet without them (ARU and QRU) and have chats about what we want to see happen before they tell us what’s going to happen.
“If we wanted to break away, and I’m not saying we do, we’ve got 12 months to work it out for 2017.”
Papworth warned the ARU risked alienating the grassroots of the game in Sydney and Brisbane over the funding issue.
“It is alienating us now,” Papworth said. “We don’t rush out to buy tickets to Test matches. You know why? Because we don’t care any more.
“Do you want to know why the stadiums aren’t full for Bledisloes any more. It is because the rusted on footy fan who puts the flags out every Saturday, who gets the kids to training and makes sure club games happen every Saturday feels shafted.”