Rugby Australia should buy European club to tap into northern wealth

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Rugby Australia should buy European club to tap into northern wealth

An overseas-based Australian team could become an additional talent pool for the Wallabies

Sun 4 Mar 2018 12.00 EST Last modified on Sun 4 Mar 2018 12.01 EST

In an historic, yet largely unnoticed announcement, Raelene Castle revealed last Friday that Rugby Australia was exploring partnership arrangements with Japanese clubs. Castle’s revelation was in response to New Zealand Rugby confirming it had entered into a partnership with English club Harlequins.

The details of the Kiwis’ partnership were a little vague, but it seemed there would be a mutually beneficial exchange of coaches, players and ideas between New Zealand and Harlequins.

“This alignment will create significant opportunities for both sides, with players, coaches and staff able to learn from different environments with different people, challenges and cultures,” NZR chief-executive Steve Tew said.

While the partnership is an interesting concept, I would urge Rugby Australia to go one step further and buy or invest in a European club to tap into the huge reservoir of Australian talent playing overseas and to capitalise on the riches in the northern hemisphere.

At present, Australians playing overseas are ineligible to play for the Wallabies unless they have reached a 60-Test threshold, which means the vast majority of Australians playing overseas cannot play for Australia.

With the axing of the Western Force, there are now more Australian professional rugby players playing overseas than playing in Australia. If Rugby Australia acquired a club in England or France, it could populate it with Australian players, who would become eligible to play for the Wallabies whether they had payed 60 Tests or not.

The team could be coached by an Australian coach, who could implement a program that was in synchronisation with the Wallabies. This would significantly increase the player pool for Wallabies selection, but perhaps more importantly, an investment in a European club would connect Australian rugby more directly to the wealth of the northern hemisphere.

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The value of broadcast rights have gone through the roof in European rugby, which makes investing in a team an attractive option. Most English and French clubs are privately owned or sponsored by millionaires and billionaires, which may put them out of reach of cash-strapped Rugby Australia. But Rugby Australia could use some of the $5m it saved from the axing of the Force to buy into an English or French club and create a “boomerang” pathway for expatriate Australians.

This may seem far-fetched, but it is not exactly novel. Consider that South African Super Rugby franchise the Stormers have a stake in English club Saracens, while the Crusaders and the Canterbury Rugby Union recently bought into new American team the Seattle Seawolves.

A few years ago an Australian consortium including former Wallabies coach Bob Dwyer and ex-Australian Test captain Rocky Elsom bought a second division French club in Narbonne. If they can do it, so too can Rugby Australia. Maybe “Twiggy” Forrest could even buy a European club in partnership with Rugby Australia and name it Northern Force.

It could even work the other way by enticing rich European clubs to buy into financially struggling Australian Super Rugby teams in the same way English soccer giant Manchester City acquired Melbourne Heart, re-branded Melbourne City.

At the end of the day, something needs to be done about the player drain to Europe and Japan. The disparity in wealth between the northern and southern hemispheres will only grow wider, which means yet more Australians will head to greener paddocks.

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Perhaps this explains why Rugby Australia is exploring partnership opportunities in Japan where there is a plethora of Wallabies, All Blacks and Springboks.

A number of current and ex-Wallabies played in the recent Japanese Top League grand final between Suntory Goliath (Matt Giteau and Sean McMahon) and Panasonic Wild Knights (David Pocock and Berrick Barnes). Okay, Pocock has returned to the Brumbies from his sabbatical, but McMahon has remained in Japan with doubts about his availability for the 2019 World Cup.

Japan is relaxing its restrictions on foreign players even further, which means more players like McMahon will head up there. Any partnership deal between Rugby Australia and Japanese clubs must address this issue.

Rugby, like every other business enterprise, now operates in a world of globalisation, which means Australian rugby must be alive to investment opportunities overseas.

To be sure, any investment carries risk, but without risk there is no reward. If Australian rugby does not plug into wealth-creating opportunities in the north, the game in this country will fall further behind in the money-ball game.

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