WOLLOGONG, AUSTRALIA – In earlier pieces, we discussed the need of having strong national competitive structures, along the lines of the ITM Cup in New Zealand and the Currie Cup in South Africa. We kept to the theme of the state of the game not being that different in Australia and the USA. We drew parallels with the failed attempt by the ARU to establish an ITM Cup equivalent in the form of the Australian Rugby Championship in 2007, and any effort that could theoretically occur in the USA.
Since then, there has been the announcement of the Pacific Rugby Premiership by a grouping of fairly prominent Western-based clubs. A brave attempt at establishing something remotely close to semi-professional rugby in the USA and only speculation from the ARU regarding any movement on this side of the Pacific. Well, it appears we have lift-off and like Lazarus, who raised from the grave, it appears the Australian Rugby Championship looks set to emulate the same feat of biblical legend.
Two days ago, Bill Pulver, CEO of the Australian Rugby Union, announced that the ARU board had ratified the return of the ARC, which will likely be re-branded as the National Rugby Championship – scheduled between August and October 2014.
The original concept contained 8 Greenfield teams in the Sydney Fleet: Western Sydney Rams, Central Coast Ray, Canberra Vikings, Melbourne Rebels, Perth Spirit, Ballymore Tornadoes and the East Coast Aces. Originally designated as a means to expose emerging talent to the masses, it failed as a concept when John O’Neill returned from exiled and promptly scrapped the championship after it incurred a larger than forecast loss.
As a fan of the game, it was a dark day shrouded in regret and loathing. There’s no coincidence that the current No.1 and 2 in the world run very similar competitions that produce not only fantastic rugby but the key developmental pathway that prepares talent for both Super Rugby and the pressure-cooker that is Test Rugby. For many fans, the ARC achieved both of those goals and losing it even with an unexpected cost blowout with a bitter pill to swallow.
But that appears to be in the past. Pulver has been hard at work at getting the concept back up and running. In the early days, the plan was for it to be a club championship but due to severe financial constraints and a great deal of friction from the Sydney Premier Club scene, it has evolved to become a regional concept, with plans to involves teams in each of the major 5 Super Rugby Unions – alongside a revival of a Western Sydney based squad – and a rumored country union.
To fund this concept and alleviate the strain on the financially strapped ARU, the search for someone willing to put forth $3 million dollars has ended, with Fox Sports near certain to sign on. The goals appear to be lofty and the time frame relatively short, but this move and the format in which it looks likely to take is a very popular one among Australian rugby fans. Information is still being released in drip-fed form but for the first time in the better part of a decade, the general feeling of the Australian rugby community is one of optimism. The game appears to be steadying under the tenor of Pulver. Hard decisions have been made, new junior elite pathways initiated and now the prospect of the return of not only this vital cog but an immensely popular one at that .
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