From little things, big things grow: Why rugby’s grassroots need more fertiliser

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Along with a razor sidestep, Brett Papworth always had a sharp turn of phrase.

When the former Wallaby centre became a long-serving president of Eastwood rugby club, Papworth grew concerned – and then increasingly outraged – about how little money Rugby Australia was spending on the game at grassroots level. Without a major re-set of priorities, big problems lay around the corner, Papworth argued across multiple platforms.

“[Rugby Australia has] chopped all the trees down and been a fantastic logging business, and they’ve built massive timber mills, but they’ve forgotten to plant any new trees,” Papworth told the 7.30 program in 2020. “They’ve invested nothing in the future of the kids playing the game.”

For the last few weeks Papworth has been in France watching the Rugby World Cup, and experiencing the woes of the Wallabies first-hand. But as Rugby Australia now sets out to rebuild the game’s governance amid hopes the process will help strengthen community rugby, Papworth is staying on the sidelines.

“I’ve had my say many times, and I am at a stage where I am going to leave it to others,” Papworth told the Herald. “Centralise the operation all you want, but if you don’t address the rapidly shrinking player pool you are stuffed.

“Twenty-five years of neglecting the basics, while spending shitloads on themselves, has given us what we deserve.”

Girls run through a tunnel at the Frosty 7’s Girls Rugby tournament.Credit: NSW Rugby

Cast around for views about the major problems in Australian rugby and, without fail, most concerned people will offer up a neglect of the grassroots game. Grassroots can be an ill-defined, and overused, catch-all term but, essentially, it means organised sport at the community level, where the game is run on the smell of a barbecue sausage.

But after rugby went professional in 1996, the amateur game found itself increasingly tied to the fortunes of the top-tier, and a catch-22 conundrum that came with it.

After early successes in the professional era, Australian rugby began focussing on a top-down approach with its resources. That saw an increasing amount of the game’s finances poured into the Wallabies, and the Super Rugby sides, in the pursuit of trickle-down rugbynomics.

It works perfectly in theory: a winning Wallabies team with recognisable heroes brings the crowds in, inspires people to play the game, and attracts sponsors and all-important broadcast revenue. From that pie comes funding for the community game and the next generation of Wallabies, Wallaroos and ticket-buying fans. Then rinse and repeat; a virtuous circle.

The Wallabies celebrate Bledisloe success in 2002.Credit: Steve Christo

And with the golden generation of the early 2000s in full flight, it worked. Until the success then eased off in the late noughties, and then drastically in the 2010s. And during that time, as the top-tier cost of staying competitive grew more expensive in a global market, money spent by Rugby Australia on grassroots development only diminished more.

Measured as a percentage of all expenditure, Rugby Australia went from spending 14 per cent of its total expenditure on community rugby in 2002, down to 2.4 per cent in 2015. Including RA’s grants to each member union, community funding has climbed a little since those days and in 2021-2022, it was back to 7.7 per cent of RA’s total expenditure.

But when compared with England’s Rugby Football Union, which spent 15.7 per cent, and Ireland (11.9), Wales (11.4) and Scotland (12.4), Australia still lags its foreign rivals. And that’s without mentioning its cashed-up domestic rivals – the AFL, NRL and soccer – who all spend more in the community space, too.

“The goal is definitely to increase that number and that percentage,” Rugby Australia chief executive Phil Waugh said. “That’s our intention.”

“My thoughts on community rugby are well known – it’s the heart and soul of the game. We don’t own the game at Rugby Australia, the community owns the game.

“The challenge we have got is very much around the revenue challenge because what drives the majority of revenue for the whole game is the professional game.

Rugby Australia CEO Phil Waugh.Credit: Louie Douvis

“We are at a point right now where we are investing as much as we can, whilst trying to keep professional teams as competitive as possible. The reality is we need to drive more revenue into the game, and if we can get our professional teams performing better it will drive revenue, which allows us to invest more. It is a bit of a cycle, you have to balance the right level of investment across all pillars.”

But while they may not be getting as much fiscal fertiliser as they want and need, does that mean the grassroots of rugby are dying, as many will argue?

“I think a lot of it is alarmist,” NSW Rugby chief executive Paul Doorn said.

“In rugby, and in community sports in general, often the thinking is if it didn’t happen to me it, it didn’t happen at all. I would be shot down in the old pub test if I said ‘nah, rugby is fine’. But there are plenty of good things happening in rugby all over NSW. Our challenge has been not being able to communicate that.”

Rugby Australia’s participation surveys show while overall numbers are still down from pre-pandemic levels in 2019 – fuelled mostly by a decline in male XVs players – the figures of overall growth in club footy have been driven by increased numbers of juniors, women’s players (particularly in sevens) and schools participation programs.

In all sports, where those involved in short-term engagement programs can be counted as participants, stats can often mask the reality on the ground. In NSW, the true heart-check figure is the 35,323 registered players in 2021-2022, which was up 2 per cent despite the lingering shadow of COVID.

Boys from William Clark College at Hills Gala Day.Credit: NSW Rugby/William Clark College

School rugby continues to be a big driver in NSW, with 11,325 players. The majority remains in the traditional enclaves of private and independent schools, but there has also been success in new competitions built for non-traditional rugby schools in NSW and around Australia (particularly in regional and country areas) via the Emerging Schools Foundation and a $1.75 million donation from the Ramsay Foundation in 2019.

“I am eternally optimistic but why I always say rugby is certainly not dead is we have been holding pretty steady for a while now,” Doorn said. “The last four years we have had with COVID and coming out of COVID have been very tough, but our numbers have remained very stable.”

Rugby is even thriving, in some areas. Rugby clubs remain vibrant in many bush towns, and Doorn points to the success of a NSW Rugby’s “Dubbo Hub”, where a centre of excellence was built with state government assistance. It has seven staff members, who run community programs from the facility, and the western plains competition has grown from 140 players to more than 1500.

“Would we like to do more? One hundred per cent. But I think we punch above our weight for the resources we have access to,” Doorn said.

For every pocket of Sydney or regional location that is healthy, however, there are areas where rugby volunteers are struggling to simply keep the 15-man game alive.

Up against the might of the three-time NRL premiers, the Panthers, organisers of junior club footy in Penrith bemoan rugby’s nearly invisible presence in the fight for hearts and minds of youngsters in the region.

“The issue they have here for grassroots is trying to attract and keep players, and get them at that young age – league is just so dominant in this area,” Sia’a Taveuveu, the president of Penrith District Juniors, said.

“For Penrith RSL [junior club], when I started four years ago, we had three under 6s, two under 7s and two under 8s, a nines, a tens and an elevens.

A Manly under 15s player at the NSW Youth 7s State Championships.Credit: NSW Rugby/David McLean

“Now, we have no minis [under 6s and under 7s]. It starts at under 8s. It fell through from four years ago, and got skinnier and skinnier and skinnier because that’s when Penrith Panthers started winning. They’ve won three grand finals, and all the kids have just gone to league. Obviously, the Wallabies not doing great doesn’t help.”

The problem for many junior rugby players across Sydney comes if they don’t go to a school that plays rugby, particularly for kids in Penrith and other areas of western Sydney. Though they can pull together highly competitive junior rep teams for state carnivals, between the ages of 13 and 18, filling teams to compete in the weekly Sydney club competition can be a challenge. More than once, under 16 Penrith sides have had to play in the colts competition (under 20s) just to keep playing.

Many players start out playing both league and union, but a vast majority of the talent is now picked up by league systems. Even families from rugby-loving backgrounds are now steering their kids to league, seeing better pathways.

Across town on Sydney’s northern beaches, the dwindling numbers of 13 to 18-year-olds at four village clubs – Manly Roos, Allambie Jets, Seaforth Raiders and Harbord Harlequins – saw them elect to join forces, and build teams at 115-year-old surburban club, the Manly Savers.

“When they get to 13s, a lot of kids go to private schools and so you just have these teams that are depleted. They say they’ll come back and play colts but most drift away. You have to keep them playing,” former Savers club official Cameron Wall said.

“We still have AFL and league and soccer to compete with, but I think it has worked quite well. It is keeping rugby going in Manly, quite strongly. It has filled that gap that we are missing.

“It upsets some people who think it’s basically a rep side, but it’s what had to be done. They’re not at private school, so what are they going to do?”

Junior rugby officials say Rugby Australia and NSW Rugby need to get in the fight in schools, to win the next generation and counter the omnipresent AFL and NRL development officers armed with free kit and a different game to play.

Doorn says trying to keep up with the Joneses is a big task, and not cost-effective either: “Those guys have tremendous TV money sitting behind them and amazing resources to be able to throw at schools in particular. We would love to be in that position, but we are not.”

NSW Rugby has changed strategy and while still looking to work in schools, it is focussing its resources on helping local clubs and competitions, and connecting them with schoolkids in their area.

Academy programs – including one involving Penrith players – and a strengthened junior pathways program are hoped to provide a recognisable pathway for talented young athletes, Doorn said.

Waugh said his plan is to get men’s and women’s contracted players at all Super Rugby sides to become de-facto development officers, and to inspire the next generation by being visible in the community, and making connections with juniors.

Waratahs star Jed Holloway runs through a tunnel with juniors cheering on.Credit: Getty

Papworth’s theory is a little more radical. In a 2016 column, he called for Rugby Australia to drastically change its priorities and pour half of the $80 million it would spend the next year into community rugby, with the goal of getting kids to play the game again. Forget trickle down, start building up.

“It is a difficult one. I don’t disagree with Brett in terms of the intent,” Waugh said. “But the reality is you have to ensure you are driving revenue to a level where you can support the rugby ecosystem, and we know we have had challenges on broadcasting, which is a large revenue piece. So we have to create a product that is attractive to drive broadcast revenue, so that revenue can go down into the community. It is a bit of a cycle.

“Everything we are doing around centralisation, that’s just as much about improving the community game as it is about professional teams. Because by [RA] taking on more responsibility for the professional teams, it actually allows the member unions to invest and focus their time and effort in the community game, more so than getting distracted by running Super sides.

“It is as good an outcome for the community game as it is about the focus on high performance.

“It’s about how do we get our professional men and women back into the community, being around clubs, playing club rugby, coaching juniors, attending schools and community events. It is all about visibility and connection. We all love the same game.”

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