Elite Focus is Damaging Australian Sport

At the start of last week following the Wallabies second defeat to the All Blacks former Australian international Brett Papworth wrote an article that struck a chord with rugby fans across the country. It was titled “As you Sow, so shall you reap” and appeared on the Rugby News website.

The paragraph that impacted the most was this one:

“How can we be spending more than ever on the growing professional arm of the game, but getting worse? I have gone back as far as I can into the ARU Annual Report archives, and can tell you that since 2007, the ARU has spent $777,000,000 on the game (in nine years). Almost all of it on the growing empires that are supposed to make us a rugby superpower. In that time, investment in rugby’s grassroots has fallen to pretty much zero.”

Papworth then went on to back up his argument by highlighting the fact that the Wallabies have lost 18 games straight against the All Blacks, and that Australian Super Rugby franchises won just three games out of the 25 played against New Zealand franchises.

He went on to point out that the “High Performance units” in rugby at the ARU and at the Super Rugby franchises have all grown over the past five years. This is something that is very true in other sports as well.

It was interesting to see how many support staff Ange Postecoglou had on the bench for the Socceroos World Cup Qualifier against Iraq in Perth; not including all of the FFA staff that flew across the country for the game. The numbers were a far cry from the staff that Frank Farina or even Guus Hiddink had ten years ago.

Football too has been criticised for the lack of investment at grass roots level, but like Rugby those complaints have fallen on deaf ears.

Sadly interest in the Wallabies is on the decline, and Super Rugby viewing figures both live at the venues and on television were down this year. Some may argue that the competition being expanded has become too cumbersome and there were simply too many games and a format that was too confusing.

The Socceroos still attract viewers but the A-League is stagnating and the Asian Champions League has struggled since its inception. So the comparisons continue between two of the sports played on rectangular pitches.

All five franchises in Super Rugby in Australia lost money in the season just gone. Eight out of nine Australian A-League franchises lost money in their last season and are expected to lose again in the coming season.

One of the key reasons all of these sides are losing money is because they do not own the stadia that they play at. So every match day they are having to shell out tens of thousands of dollars before the whistle is blown. If the Australian Government or even the State Governments are serious about continuing to have such Franchises in their states competing in national and international competitions they need to hand over management of the stadia to a joint body from both sports, or waive the leasing fees completely. If a bold move like this is not made in the next few years both competitions run the severe risk of losing at least one franchise.

In addition both codes need to realise that you must build from the bottom up. Football has very conveniently passed the buck in terms of developing talent to the local clubs by making all of their coaches be accredited to a certain level. As they are asking them to do this work on behalf of the FFA you would have thought that the courses would have been given free, but no. This is another very lucrative revenue stream. Even with the money generated in the past few years the FFA would be in a position to offer discounted courses, but that is extremely unlikely as the bar, when it comes to coaching being continually raised, even though there aren’t the jobs for the coaches.

As Papworth points out, and let us not forget this is a man who came through the ranks and played for Australia, “high performance units, and the like, create an elite culture where kids start to think they are way better than they are in reality, and subsequently you get shortcuts.”

Again he has hit the nail on the head. It is not healthy having junior players staying at the same hotels as the senior team, as happened with the FFA’s Youth League. Staying at top hotels is a privilege that comes when you have achieved something as a player. So too does wearing the same kit on and off the pitch. There are many players in Super Rugby franchises, the A-League and the Socceroos who have stated that they do not approve of office staff wearing the same gear as the players, walking around in a Socceroos or A-League club tracksuit. The Springboks had the same issue as the support staff around their team grew, and they very wisely issued all non-playing staff with similar gear, but gear that clearly separated them from the players.

It is interesting that Papworth makes this observation as in the last two junior Rugby World Cups Australia has found itself playing off for fifth and sixth. The last time the team was in the medals was 2011 when they won bronze. Since the competitions inception in 2008 – and this is an annual event – Australia has only made one final, and that was in 2010 when they lost 62-17 to the Baby Blacks; the biggest winning margin in a final.

If we look at Football since the FFA was created Australia has only qualified for two of the five FIFA U17 World Cup tournaments. In the twenty years prior to the FFA Australia had only NOT qualified once for this bi-ennial event.

The under 20 team has fared slightly better having qualified for three out of five FIFA Under 20 World Cups, but again prior to the FFA taking over Australia had only not qualified on one occasion. Yet in those three tournaments Australia has not won a single game and drawn two.

If we then turn our attention to the Olyroos, the under 23 team, it is a similar story. They qualified for the first Olympics after the FFA was created in 2008 but have failed to make the last two Olympic Games. However it is fair to say that Since the high of the 1992 Olympics when the team made the semi finals and finished up fourth there has been a steady decline. In Australia’s two previous appearances to the Barcelona Games they had made the quarter finals on each occasion. Since 1992 only in 2004 did they make the quarter finals.

So as these high performance units grow at the top end of the sport what is being done to ensure that the next generation coming through is going to be able to maintain the levels being achieved or even surpass them?

Papworth commented that in New Zealand every aspiring All Black knows that if he fails there is a queue of players looking to take that players place. “It is not because of an “elite development squad” that a youngster makes his mark on the world sporting stage. It is because they have had a spark lit somewhere inside them and worked their backside off.” He wrote.

In 2014 in a column in the Sydney Morning Herald Ange Postecoglou who had only recently become the Socceroos coach wrote the following:

“Years ago, playing in the lower leagues in the UK was seen as a first step in making the game your profession. Some of our greatest players played the early part of their careers at places like Milwall, Bradford and Bristol and used it as a launching pad to greater things.

The lower leagues offer football at its most basic. Small stadiums, extreme weather, bumpy pitches, passionate local communities and often play that is not written in any curriculum. It does have one very appealing ingredient, however, and that is hunger. Clubs trying to survive, coaches struggling to avoid the sack and players striving to be discovered. You can see why the likes of Tim Cahill, Lucas Neill, Mark Schwarzer and Luke Wilkshire, among others, had determination in spades because they were able to rise from this desperate, in football terms, environment.

The A-League has now given our players an alternative route, but in many respects the challenges may be even greater. Our domestic league lacks many of the ingredients that forces players in the lower leagues to work harder so as to be discovered. There is no relegation, more than half the teams are deemed successful with the finals format, the stadiums are all comfortable, the pitches mostly pristine, and even the weather fosters a comfortable surrounding, barring heat waves of course.”

So Postecoglou acknowledged the same pitfalls that Papworth has with rugby. Yet two years on we see his support staff numbers growing. Understandably he may want the best people he can get around him, so that he can ensure the best results for the national team; that in turn ensures he hangs onto the job. However, if he does hang onto the job and the players coming through are not up to the task his future will be on shaky ground. Surely he should be pushing hard for money to be spent on grassroots and making the lower tiers of the game as competitive as possible if the A-League is too cosy?

There are many who will claim that many of the decision makers inside either administration are not interested in the good of the sport, and are simply trying to hang onto their job for as long as they can and ride the success, as long as it is there.

Are these people no different to the support staff that are with a World Champion boxer? The boxer knows he is slowing down, he knows he should retire, but they push him into the ring one more time, or they don’t speak up when he talks about a comeback? They too are caught up in the buzz that surrounds a major sporting event, and even more so because they are part of it, they are in the inner sanctum. They get to walk in the ring or on the pitch. They feel special, and they are assured another payday.

The only difference is in boxing the boxer could be fatally injured, in team sports, it is the game as a whole that could be fatally injured.

Papworth urged the Australian Rugby Union to have the courage to change direction. Football should be urged to do the same. Yet whether the powers that be will listen in either case is another question…

Hopefully they will not leave it too late. Even if they do rest assured those decision-makers will have moved on.

Elite Focus is Damaging Australian Sport
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