A letter to the Australian Rugby community

by Rob Clarke

On behalf of the Rugby Australia Board and the team here at RA, I would like to thank you for your considerable efforts throughout 2020 to get Rugby into the position we are in today.

Without doubt, 2020 has been incredibly challenging with the COVID-19 pandemic shocking our game and community to its core.

However, through great adversity, Rugby has emerged stronger; we are united, leaner, more efficient and ready for the opportunities that await us in 2021 and beyond.

The sacrifices that have been made across the game have been incredibly tough, but it was the medicine we had to take in order to re-structure Australian Rugby for sustainable, long-term success. I am confident that the difficult but necessary decisions made this year will allow Rugby to flourish in the future and firmly believe that the best years for our great game are ahead of us.

Despite the difficult year that we have encountered, it has also been a year in which we worked very hard and achieved so much together – and some of those achievements are worth highlighting.

Professional Rugby Re-booted

We salvaged and re-booted a new Super Rugby AU that stabilised the game at a time when the sporting landscape looked very gloomy – in doing so we navigated our way through COVID-19 bubbles, restrictions and quarantines, adapted to the closing of our domestic and international borders and re-structured nearly every facet of our business.

103,594 rugby fans enjoyed the Tri Nations live in stadiums across New South Wales and Queensland – the first of its kind. Through the support of our State Government partners – in particular DNSW & TEQ, Tourism Australia, SANZAAR and under the guidance of RA’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr Warren McDonald, we were able to successfully host a six-week Tri Nations tournament that had the eyes of the Rugby world on Australia.

I’d also like to acknowledge and thank our professional players, management and support staff for the sacrifices they made this year. Our Super Rugby and Wallabies players, and staff spent most of this year under strict COVID-19 protocols, in order to ensure that we got Rugby back on the park. They sacrificed being with loved ones, at times for months on end, had to endure constant COVID-19 testing and dramatically limited their interactions with the wider community, which allowed the game to continue and survive. It is a credit to Dave Rennie and his team, as well as our five Super Rugby programs that our game rose to the challenge and kept Rugby being played, as well as COVID safe.

In Rugby Sevens, our teams adapted to the challenges of COVID-19 with the unfortunate reality of no international tournaments for them to participate in. Both squads have trained incredibly hard and have showed determination and true Australian grit in continuing their preparation for the delayed Olympic Games next year.

Our High-Performance unit has been incredibly adaptive to everything that has been thrown at them in 2020, and I know the team are working hard to build-out our pathways programs to ensure we continue to produce elite athletes for our Super sides, and national teams.

New beginnings

We also said goodbye to our 25-year broadcast partner in FOX Sports with Rugby finding a new, exciting home in 2021 with the Nine Entertainment Co. I would like to acknowledge the enormous contribution from FOX Sports since Rugby went professional in 1996 and welcome the Nine Network and Stan Sport – an exciting and innovative partnership that I’m confident will re-energise the game and bring it to a new free-to-air audience for the first time.

In partnership with the Nine Network and Stan Sport, Australian Rugby will have a great opportunity to be showcased with new voices and leading-edge broadcast production for the Wallabies, Buildcorp Wallaroos, Super Rugby, Buildcorp Super W and Premier Club Rugby. I know the team at Nine and Stan Sport see our game as the centrepiece of their future broadcast success, and we should all feel enthusiastic about our teams and competitions for 2021.

Community Rugby stands tall

In trying circumstances, I’m delighted to say that the community game has taken some significant strides forward in 2020. Rugby has also gone against industry trends with many sports recording declines in participation numbers due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We congratulate the Northern Territory, South Australia, and Tasmania for growth in registered participation numbers this year with all achieving double digit percent increases. Crucially, across the board in registered female participation, Rugby has recorded 15 percent growth – another stellar performance. Getting more girls and women into our game is crucial to our long-term success, so you should all be congratulated for your efforts and these results.

It is worth noting that despite our well documented financial challenges, which has seen RA reduce its cost base by $40 million p.a, with an overall head office staff reduction of 45%, there will be NO reduction in funding to the community game in 2021 and we will be restoring the same level of funding as we had in 2019.

This will provide us with a great launchpad for further growth at the ‘grassroots’ next year and beyond when we hope to provide increased resources into the critical area of the game.

Community Rugby is the lifeblood of our game and again, I wish to thank all your community teams and thousands of volunteers for the amazing work that you do in inspiring Australians to participate and enjoy Rugby, right across the country.

A truly remarkable performance

Rugby also made another small step towards reconciliation this year with Olivia Fox of Newtown School of the Performing Arts singing Advance Australia Fair in the language of Eora, which is spoken by the Gadigal people, and then in English on 5 December ahead of the Wallabies match against Argentina.

The act itself was a beautiful moment and was greatly supported by the Wallabies who showed both respect and dignity in taking the time to learn the verse in the Eora language - and belted it out in full voice.

Olivia’s performance was truly remarkable, and I genuinely believe we witnessed a watershed moment in Australian sport. It has started a meaningful national conversation and created a real sense of pride for many Australians.

It was a small step towards reconciliation and for me, reconciliation is not one act, but thousands of actions which ultimately benefits all of Australian society and I am proud of Rugby’s involvement in this important journey.

Looking ahead….

2021 will be a massive year and one where we can build upon the momentum we have created, particularly in the latter half of 2020.

We have an exciting Test calendar for the Wallabies that will be announced in the new year, including a full Rugby Championship and Bledisloe Cup series. We also have the Tokyo Olympic Games for our Men’s and Women’s Sevens teams and the Rugby World Cup across the ditch in New Zealand for the Buildcorp Wallaroos. This will be the first time that the World Cup for the Women’s game will be in the southern hemisphere and I know the squad are excited for their campaign.

2021 will also feature Super Rugby AU and Super Rugby Trans-Tasman – with weekly Saturday night matches on free to air television on the Nine Network. After so many years we will finally be providing a product that our fans have been calling for with regular local derbies, matches against the best provincial clubs in NZ and kick-offs in friendly time zones. Our Super Rugby clubs are well into their pre-season preparation with two championship trophies on the line starting on February 19.

Australian Rugby has many opportunities ahead and I’m pleased to say our bid for Rugby World Cup 2027 is gaining momentum. I’d like to thank RA’s Chairman, Hamish McLennan for his passionate leadership since taking the reins in June and for appointing a first-class Rugby World Cup Bid Advisory Board that will guide us through the many challenges along the way.

Rugby is fortunate to have so many captains of industry actively involved in our bid and I’d like to acknowledge Advisory Bid Chair, Sir Rod Eddington as well as General the Honourable Sir Peter Cosgrove AK AC(Mil) CVO MC (RETD), Hon John Howard OM AC, John Coates AC, John Eales AM, Olivia Wirth, Elizabeth Gaines and Gary Ella - and thank them for their dedicated efforts already in 2020.

Receiving an 8.8-million-dollar grant from the Federal Government is a shot in the arm for our bid and winning the hosting rights for the 2027 Tournament would be the jewel in the crown of an exciting few years ahead for Australian Rugby with the British & Irish Lions touring in 2025.

In closing out the year, I would like to pass on my thanks to the Rugby Australia Board we thank them for their tireless efforts and oversight over the last 12 months. The countless Board meetings throughout challenging and often precarious circumstances tested everyone at some stage. It was through dedication, living Rugby’s values and a firm commitment to the cause that saw the RA Board provide courageous and prudent oversight, frequently having to make tough decisions that had a very real impact on people’s lives and livelihoods.

So much has been achieved in a year that will never be forgotten for so many different reasons. Once again, I thank each and every one of you for everything you have done for Rugby in 2020 and the significant (and often hidden) contributions you have made and wish you a very Merry Christmas, a restful holiday and I look forward to Rugby’s positive journey continuing in 2021 and beyond.

Yours sincerely,

Rob Clarke

Interim Chief Executive
Rugby Australia