Break or break through: Rugby needs to make the tough calls

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Rugby is in a lot of trouble now.

Rugby Australia chairman Hamish McLennan might well be right when he says the game would be left in an even worse position if it was to “spear” him and the RA board. He might also be right to say the hiring of Eddie Jones as Wallabies coach was a “risk worth taking”. He might also be right when he declares that he and new chief executive Phil Waugh will prove all the doubters wrong and restore rugby to its previous heights.

That’s a lot of things to be correct about, when the prevailing opinion seems to be that it’s probable that you’re doing a lot of things wrong.

But one thing McLennan is certainly right about is when he says Australia’s high-performance rugby set-up should be reorganised in a centralised way, as opposed to the present splintered fragmentation of power. This ignores the obvious problem, though, that the concept of centralisation is an impossible sell if those being asked to cede power have no faith in those in charge of the centralised structure.

For such a paradigm shift to take place, there must be a close working relationship between RA and its stakeholders, which it appears there is not.

RA’s voting members are its state and territory unions, Australia’s Super Rugby franchisees, and the Rugby Union Players Association. Big state unions such as NSW Rugby and the Queensland Rugby Union have enhanced voting powers. Otherwise, it’s a simple and flat democratic structure.

Simon LetchCredit: Simon Letch

Could those members get rid of McLennan? The Corporations Act prescribes a process whereby a simple majority of the voters at a general meeting of RA could remove McLennan, and indeed any director, should they be so minded. Indeed, the constituents could spill the entire board if they had an appetite for carnage.

As a person who’s not invested in the sport of rugby but is interested in the politics of these sorts of things, it strikes me that McLennan might be unloved by the stakeholders he’s elected to serve. But that can’t be allowed to matter. His role as RA chairman doesn’t require that he be collectively embraced. In fact, if he were so loved, you could ask whether he was doing his job properly and fearlessly.

The contention that jettisoning McLennan would be a panacea to cure all of Australian rugby’s ills doesn’t make sense. It’s a bit foolish to contend that removing one director from a board of nine might trigger some massive shift in the decision-making of the company and the strategy of the directors left in situ. A spearing is symbolic and, in this instance, silly.

Spearing a director in this way is rarely anything other than embarrassing and the act itself does little for future harmony. RA is a public company and it’s the immutable statutory right of the members of such that they can remove directors. That doesn’t mean, though, that it’s a worthwhile and net positive idea to proceed down that path.

All eyes are on Rugby Australia CEO Phil Waugh, left, and chairman Hamish McLennan.Credit: James Brickwood

It’s even less wise to roll the whole board, however tempting the idea might be as some sort of revenge tactic. It is not, for example, the domain of the voting members to then select the replacement directors who they’d prefer to be in office. Voting members never seem to understand that part. I suspect the better question would be whether Australian rugby’s governing body is presently fit for its purpose at all.

Arguably, it isn’t. Arguably, the whole set-up is a shambles.

And why should it be assumed that RA remains suitable to control the sport at the national level? It doesn’t do that good a job judging on any of the relevant metrics: stagnant revenues, dwindling relevance of the sport in the public consciousness, mediocre on-field performances.

What would happen if there was a wholesale replacement of the whole governance model for the sport?

What would happen if all of the voting members of all of the state and territory rugby unions, and all of the rugby union clubs that sit under them, resigned en masse from the current structure pyramid of governance of the sport? What would happen if RUPA and the Super Rugby franchises left as well? And what would happen if all of those bodies then united to establish Rugby Australia 2.0?

World Rugby would hardly continue to recognise its current national union member for Australia if it didn’t speak for the sport. The Australia Sports Commission wouldn’t support the existing body either, while RA’s membership of the Australian Olympic Committee – in relation to the nomination of the Rugby Sevens squads for the Olympics – would end.

The point isn’t to contend that this might happen, nor is the point to say that it should occur. But it is to say that stakeholders in the sport at all levels should be alive to the reality that nothing is set in stone. It mustn’t be blindly assumed that RA is the only body capable of running rugby in this country if it remains the case that it’s doing a terrible job of exactly that.

It’s the inescapable truth that those invested in the sport in Australia, those who really care about it, must feel disenfranchised and alienated right now. That discontent can’t fester forever without a solution that is either sensible, or radical.

In the short term, yes, spearing McLennan isn’t anything that resembles even half a sound plan. But nothing lasts forever and hearts do change.

Can you see Australian rugby being in a better place when it hosts the World Cup four years from now if it just chips away at the edges of its problems between now and then?

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