On Saturday June 12 the NSW Waratahs played their last game of the Super Rugby season going down 40-7 to Waikato Chiefs at Brookvale Oval. It was the team’s thirteenth loss in 13 games, a record for the worst losing streak by an Australian provincial rugby side.
Subsequently six NSW players – including Michael Hooper who didn’t play – were selected in Dave Rennie’s 38-man Wallabies squad ahead of the French Test series.
A further ten Waratahs – Chris Talakai, Henry Robertson, Jack Whetton, James Ramm, Joe Cotton, Joey Walton, Rahboni Warren-Vosayaco, Tane Edmed, Tom Horton and Will Harrison were slated to play for Shute Shield clubs before Covid locked down Sydney for a fortnight.
That this level of local representation by professional players doesn’t happen more often and in greater numbers is lamentable, to put it mildly, according to former Manly Marlins President, Sydney Rugby Union President and Shute Shield referee David Begg.
Speaking on “The Running Game” podcast, Begg told broadcaster Tim Gilbert and former Wallabies and Waratahs prop Matt Dunning that there are a number of challenges for the game, specifically the synergy between “elite level” professional rugby and what should be the next tier, club rugby.
“I think Australia has never really found its mojo in terms of professional rugby and where [third tier club rugby] sits in the professional landscape.
“Other countries have come to professionalism much better than we have. From 1995 to now, we’ve probably gone backwards more than any other country.
“Our lack of acuity in finding where we [club rugby] sit in the landscape is a reason for it,” Begg said.
So why is that? Dunning asked. What have we got wrong and what can we do better?
“Pretty simple,” Begg said. “Our elite players have to play more Shute Shield.”
Begg reckons – and Gilbert, Dunning and thousands of listeners furiously agree – that elite level players are playing in competitions that aren’t as meaningful as Shute Shield rugby. A beef across the board is young men playing for “academies” instead of their clubs and being wrapped in cotton wool by sports scientists.
“You best learn footy skills in meaningful games on the footy field,” Begg said. “You learn how to do things properly.”
The former referee recalls watching Waratahs games on a Saturday afternoon and refereeing many of the same players on a Sunday. He concedes that we’re unlikely to see that in today’s professional game because “bodies have to be preserved”.
“But they’re not playing enough meaningful rugby. Part of the problem is that Shute Shield are games that matter and our elite players simply aren’t playing them,” Begg said.
Dunning added that he’d once played first grade for Eastwood on a Saturday. The next day he was in camp for the Australia U/21 World Cup tour to South Africa. Dunning said it wouldn’t happen today because “they’d be too worried about injuries.”
“I remember [Waratahs] players would leave Mad Monday because they had to get back to club training on Tuesday.
“If you weren’t playing for the Waratahs you were expected to play for your club,” Dunning said.
The Shute Shield will always be around and strong because of “tribalism and the brands and the health of that”, according to Begg who wants to improve the brand – and by dint of that Australian rugby – with non-Test-playing professionals – all of them – playing for their clubs.
“We either give a stuff about grassroots rugby or we don’t. It can either be a platitude or be a meaningful contribution to the debate. And if you’re going to be meaningful you have to get players back involved for their clubs.
“If you don’t there’s that artificiality, that divide between elite and so-called non-elite tiers. And I can tell you where the punters are putting their money and it’s not in the top tier,” Begg said.
Begg believes that the most important thing for the evolution of rugby is a winning culture for Wallabies and Waratahs.
“It’s fair to say that coming off a zero and 13 Waratahs season, it’s a struggle at the moment. You can’t sugar-coat results. Rugby’s a results-based industry.
“The Shute Shield has had a good run for a good period of time but my concern is the whole brand gets tarnished by the lack of a winning record for Waratahs and Wallabies.
“It affects Shute Shield. The Sydney sporting audience is quite capricious – they’ll go where the winners are. And if the game’s not winning they’ll find other games to watch,” Begg said.
Begg pointed to Sydney’s schoolboy competition as “emblematic of the wider malaise of Australian rugby”.
“It starts at schoolboy level. Have a look at our GPS competitions now. There are probably four elite schools. In CAS maybe three or four. And ISA maybe two or three.
“And I can’t for the life of me work out why those schools don’t merge and form one NSW schoolboys comp and play lots and lots of meaningful games.
“But we don’t do that because of history and tradition of the GPS comp. Let me tell you, every second game of the GPS comp is not as meaningful as it was 10 years ago.
“It’s a problem with the code. It’s not adapting with the times,” Begg said.