Club Rugby - The Search for Meaning

If a tree falls during a game of Rugby Union and no one is there to watch it, does it matter that no one will get hurt let alone hear it?

Club Rugby in Sydney started a new season a few weekends ago and as usual this time of year there was much philosophising on the meaning of existence (of the competition) accompanied by what could be described as one hand clapping given the scarcity of apparent support at each of the grounds.

Sydney’s club Rugby scene reinvents itself more often than Madonna (the pop singer, not the religious icon although like the icon it is rooted in faith, tradition and myth). Extra teams come and go (remember the Dirty Reds in first grade and the Central Coast only last year), scoring systems change, finals systems get tinkered with (six finalists this year, four last year, none the year before that) or vanish altogether, trophies being fought for get renamed, disappear and reappear.

And as provincial Rugby expands taking in new teams and more matches, Academy systems hang on to players, under 19 and under 21 representative teams swallow players and sevens Rugby goes from strength to strength, it’s amazing that there are any players left for the Clubs. Indeed it would be an interesting but impossible exercise to compare today’s Rugby Club strength to that of Suburban (or Subbies) rugby from 20 years ago.

No doubt the ARU and probably the clubs would argue that the player participation levels are up, skill levels have improved and an influx of islander kiddies are keeping club rugby healthy, but the ARU and the clubs have their own agendas. The ARU likes to pretend that the clubs are still a priority to it, while the clubs like to pretend that they are still a valuable resource and the heart, soul and standard bearer of Rugby in Australia.

And like all these things the real answer probably lies somewhere in the middle and just to one side. But is there a problem?

No one attends club rugby games - so what as long as people are watching any Rugby at all via the Provinces and the Wallabies and even if only on TV. No kid will be inspired to play the game by watching Illawarra go round against Parramatta at Granville. Kids wanna be Wallabies, not Emus or Pirates or Beasties.

Players don’t get paid much – big deal, the cream will rise to the top and they’ll get paid then – wasn’t this part of the reason the Australian Rugby Championship was invented?

Clubs don’t have much money to fund junior development – did they ever? Nearly every representative player since before there were Wallabies have come via the clubs and junior programs like Wallarugby are funded by and coordinated centrally at State or National levels.

Players are being lost to junior representative and 7s teams – excellent. The standard is higher, there is international travel and experiences to be had and players get to find out the advantage of playing a (sort-of) global game

The ARU pays big bucks to League players instead of developing junior players through the clubs – who says you can’t have your cake and eat it too? League players bring exposure and exposure means money. Some of them can play too. Think of it as an investment.

None of this is to belittle the role that club Rugby does play. Where else can I take my family for cans of beer served out of an esky by reserve graders and injured players from the back of a van, queue up to use a port-a-loo or go behind a tree, watch kids tackle each other in the mud behind the goal post and make a fool of my brother on live TV during his bucks party?

It doesn’t matter if 5 or 500 or 5,000 people turn up, the ground is a dustbowl or a swamp, the public address system is as unintelligible as the scoreboard and the pies are cold. The passion shown by the players on the field and the people who do turn up off it is all that matters (that and cold beer). And while the competition may not be great the competitiveness and passion is. The players know the score. If they’re good enough the rewards will come. If they’re not then the club system will provide them with a long career of memories (and hangovers).