The final nail has been placed in the coffin of the ARC – a competition which was condemned by many as a millstone around the neck of a cash-strapped ARU.
The competition, in its short life, flared like a firework – tracking upwards to the sky in a sizzle of fierce anticipation and held breath, a brief explosion of wondrous running and passing and entertainment, all followed by a sad descent to earth, weighed and extinguished by the sheer weight of “cash-burn”.
The dollars were the number one consideration, and no sane person could argue that those figures could be sustained, especially when a further loss was all but guaranteed next year. The money proved to be the poison by which the terminally-ill ARC was euthanised, and also the evidence by which the killing was justified. Behind the scenes however, another drama was playing out – one which started some years ago.
Back in November 2006, former ARU CEO Gary Flowers had a moment of truth when the Australian Sevens team, who had been training together under Glen Ella for two months, implemented strike action against the ARU unless they were given a pay increase of 133%. For the entire period up to the strike, the players had been fully aware of the fact that they would each get paid $3,000 to play in Dubai and George over two weekends. Then less than a week before they were due to fly, the ARU received a claim from RUPA for an increase to $7,000 – more than double.
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In the upshot, the striking members of the team were left behind, and a new team was selected. The strike action came to nought, but this wasn’t the first time RUPA had flexed its muscles.
In early 2003, just months before their home World Cup, the Wallabies, through RUPA, were pushing for a major increase in bonus payments for a successful World Cup campaign – from $80,000 to a massive $160,000 per man. To put this in perspective, the winning 1999 Wallabies were guaranteed a $15,000 bonus which was doubled to $30,000 when they won.
This story originally appeared on the sports opinion website, The Roar
According to John O’Neill, the ultimatum from RUPA was clear. If the increase didn’t happen, there would be no player signatures on the IRB participation agreements for the World Cup. As O’Neill said later “It was gun-to-the-head stuff”. Eventually the impasse was only broken after weeks of emotional and at times angry meetings between the Wallabies, the ARU and RUPA, when the ARU sent Brett Robinson and Andy Friend to South Africa on a sign-up mission. There they beat RUPA CEO Tony Dempsey to the punch and signed up the Wallabies to a new agreement before Dempsey arrived in the country.
These incidents, along with others, served to deepen the rift between Dempsey and O’Neill and also to highlight the danger that a hostile RUPA could pose to the ARU in situations where the ARU owned the game, and RUPA, in a sense, owned the players. A situation like the ARC.
Aside from the finance issues, the ARC was a major area of risk for the ARU because by using a franchise system, where it owned all the franchises, it was putting itself in a position where it owned a competition which was desperately reliant on the lowest tier of part-time professional players. Those players were paid the least out of all the professionals in the country, and were the newest members, or potential members, of RUPA.
The risk for the ARU was clear. As the sole stakeholder in the ARC they were wide open to a strike action from RUPA. If the players at some stage decided to strike for more money, the ARU could have been brought to its knees – having a competition which had millions of dollars worth of financial commitments, and zero income. Acquiring a whole new set of players to fill the gap would not be an option. The competition would simply grind to a halt.
Such a savvy businessman as O’Neill, who has been burnt before by the RUPA tactics and who always has one eye on Dempsey, would never have allowed such a situation to exist. Thus, he shut down the whole thing in favour of a new structure which not only alleviates the financial risk for the Australian Rugby Union, but which garners some allies in case of a future war against RUPA.
These allies will be the clubs. In addition to the grounds, strips, sponsors and volunteers that the clubs provide, they also provide a whole new level of loyalty and emotional leverage against such clinical industrial action. Even in rugby league, which has been professional for its entire life, strike action is rare to non-existent, because the players and fans have such an emotional investment in their clubs. Few league players would risk the wrath of their die-hard fans and the league public by striking. The public want their players to act like loyal amateurs, even if they are professional.
Following this model, the ARU will in 2009 activate an 8 to 10 team national club competition, where the clubs share not only the financial load, but also the risk of a battle for player services.
RUPA encouraged the 2006 Sevens squad, and the 2003 World Cup Wallabies, to forfeit the gold jersey for a few pieces of silver. By doing so, they have played a part in seriously limiting the opportunities for those they claim to represent.
As Alanis Morrisette would say…..”Isn’t it ironic?”.