The Super Rugby season is now well and truly past and the focus of attention across the Southern Hemisphere is now firmly on the inaugural Rugby Championship, but an issue that keeps popping into the forefront of my mind, and some of those rugby fans with which I regularly converse, is whether the rules for foreign importation of players in the Australian conference are too stringent and need reconsideration.
This issue arises because of the state of the game in Australia following the end of this year’s competition. The facts are clear: in the Waratahs, Force and Rebels the Australian conference possesses three teams anchored at the tail of the Super Rugby standings.
Whilst the Rebels showed some competitive spirit in patches during the season (their victory over the Crusaders was a season highlight for not just Rebels fans but fans of the conference as a whole), the Waratahs had an extended losing streak unheard of in their history and the Force were, frankly, uncompetitive for the bulk of the season.
The position that the Australian conference holds presently, being the whipping boy of the other conferences, raises the question of how the conference can be strengthened and by extension leads us back to the international qualification rules.
Before we consider those rules, it is important to recognise that unlike the New Zealand and South African conferences the game of rugby is not a national pastime in Australia and is historically foreign to all but two of the geographical conferences, Queensland and New South Wales. Therefore, the development of teams in Melbourne and Perth brings with it special challenges not faced by the teams of the South African and New Zealand conferences. Simply, those areas have limited historical connection to the game of rugby and are in the development of the game as well as seeking to support a Super Rugby team.
Noting that historical disadvantage bequeathed to the “expansion” franchises as a result of the Australian Rugby Union’s keenness to benefit from having more franchises in the game, due consideration must also be given to what flows from said expansion. Simply, there are not enough players of “first class” standard playing the game in Australia to make all five franchises competitive. This was evident when the Force were introduced in 2005 and took with them the cream of both the Queensland and New South Wales squads in order to field a team and again when the Rebels were introduced and we saw another re-distribution of player talent away from the traditional nurseries of rugby.
Surely then the obvious solution is to allow the importation of foreign players to bolster the ranks of the uncompetitive teams. It seems like an obvious answer but the rules would seem to restrain all but one team of benefiting from such rules. This is because whilst the Rebels benefit from being able to import ten foreign players, the “established” teams (Brumbies, Waratahs and Reds) are only allowed two such players and the Force three.
Why then are their limits placed on foreign imports when, on the face of the results of the last season, there is an obvious case for unrestrained importation? There would appear to be two principal reasons for this position:
- Limiting importation of players is said to foster the development of local competitions and lead to opportunities arising for younger players to come through the ranks unrestrained by a foreign player sitting ahead of them.
- The Australian conference is really a selection trial for the Wallabies team and therefore too many foreign imports with stifle the form of those looking for higher honours.
The latter argument is easy to dispel: if the Super Rugby competition was a selection trial for the Wallabies team then the team selected for the first round of the Rugby Championship this coming weekend would be vastly different. Indeed, there would not be eight players from a team that only won four games all season.
The former argument is more compelling but presents an interesting conundrum. It is obvious that it will be for the betterment of the game for the junior nurseries and third tier competitions of Victoria and Western Australia if the teams at the pinnacle of their systems are not overrun with imports. The conundrum that presents itself starkly in both States is that whilst those teams remain uncompetitive is there really any spur for young junior players to work through the ranks and make claim for a Rebels or Force jersey when they could try their hand at the preferred local past time of Australian Rules Football?
It seems trite to say but this really is the epitome of a the “chicken and the egg”: on the one hand the preference of the ARU seems to be focused on the development of the game locally which has lead to, for example, the Force being generally uncompetitive whilst on the other hand to maintain the attraction of junior and third tier players for the game, the teams in Victoria and Western Australia MUST be competitive.
A subsidiary argument pressed in favour of limiting imports is that imports have been less than successful when they have moved to Australia. There is limited data here however the stellar performance of Gareth Delve aside there is some merit to this claim. That said, the quality of imported players is a matter for the recruitment managers and coaches of each individual conference. There being a bad bunch of import ought not sully the principal that some foreign imports are needed.
So where does this leave us? If one removes from consideration the Rebels franchise (ten foreign imports is surely enough), the real concern for next season is the Western Force. They have lost their talismanic captain, and the captain of Australia, in David Pocock to the Brumbies just one year after the loss of James O’Conner to the Rebels. Even when they had one of the best back rows in the Australian conference they struggled to win games and score points. It is surely obvious that the importation of some backline talent to bolster their ranks is desperately needed.
Certainly it seems to me that the arguments in favour of loosening up the limitations on the importation of foreign players far outweigh the imposition of the disadvantages alleged to flow from such a step, if only to assist in making those uncompetitive franchises competitive for next season. It is obvious that in order for the nurseries of rugby in the “minnow” states they need to have competitive teams at the pinnacle at the sport for their juniors to strive towards and without a player injection those teams are likely to remain uncompetitive.
It is worth noting that despite all that has gone above and my inclination to open up the opportunities for foreign importation of players, all of this hinges on foreign players actually wanting to travel half way around the world to play for a team that is uncompetitive. Maybe, we are faced again with another “chicken and the egg scenario”.
This is one to which I have no easy answer whoever. All I can say is that all things considered rugby fans of whatever province you are from want the Australian conference to be competitive. If the importation of foreign players does not lead to this utopia, then serious questions need to be asked as to whether the Australian conference can support five teams. I truly hope that day does not come.