Rugby Australia's National Club Championship finds grassroot support

A Gordon player runs the ball against West Harbour. Gordon Rugby Football Club via Facebook

They weren't consulted nor have they seen a firm competition plan, but several of Sydney's Shute Shield clubs have thrown their support behind Rugby Australia's proposed National Club Championship [NCC] - providing they're granted the financial support needed to participate.

The NCC was floated as one of many new competitions RA is hoping to create to pique the interest of broadcasters as they look to sign a new deal for 2021 and beyond. It was listed alongside a State of the Union series, Super 8s and either a trans-Tasman Super Rugby series or the current five team Super Rugby AU.

With broadcasters yet to sign on to a new deal -- the broadcast tender period closes Friday -- details around the proposed NCC are sketchy. Potential competition structures anywhere from 12 to 16 teams; with four clubs from NSW and Queensland, two from the ACT and one each from Western Australia and Victoria.

For Shute Shield clubs from Sydney's premier rugby competition, the championship remains a pie-in-the-sky prospect but one that could do wonders for the club game in Australia.

Speaking with ESPN, Gordon President Matt Glascott said he was a big supporter of the concept, especially with the exposure it could bring to club rugby.

"We haven't been consulted, we were only made aware of it when it came through the press, when they announced it as a package for their broadcast deal," Glascott said. "But I think it's a fantastic concept.

"It's great exposure for the club and the players, which seem to be forgotten at the moment, very much in Australian rugby. As much as Rugby Australia say that they care about grassroots, they really haven't shown much until this idea's come forward.

"I think it'd be great for clubland; it'd be great for players who haven't made the elite program and who struggle for exposure, for them to go through the club system and get recognised and get picked up. It's all out of kilter at the moment and I see this as being a great opportunity for those players not in that development program to be recognised for their skill and talents as rugby players."

The support comes as Wallabies attack coach Scott Wisemantel stressed the importance of a vibrant club scene, and the need for Australia's best young talent to "learn their trade" outside of Super Rugby academies and age-grade representative squads.

"I've seen what they're doing in the pathways systems but [in] those systems you don't play as a club, the real important thing is that there is strong club competition. I'm really big on that," Wisemantel told ESPN.

"So whatever academy you go to; you've got to play club footy because in club footy that's where you learn your trade. You might end up with a really gnarly 30-year-old front-rower, and if you're a young kid out of school then you have to learn. You might get dished up one day and then you go, 'well righto, why?'

"I reckon the club's system really integral in the big picture, they're [both Shute Shield and Hospital Cup] are tracking in the right direction. And you look at the NSW comp, even though the scorelines with the [Hunter] Wildfires, there's been some decent scores, but they've been really competitive for 60 minutes; you watch their games and they've been really good. So I think that it's a great thing that they're in the comp, and hopefully they stay in the comp. They need to make a decision soon but I reckon it's brilliant."

Eastern Suburbs RUFC President John Murray backed up Glascott's thoughts on the importance of exposing club rugby, but he had his own concerns following the failings of the National Rugby Championship and before that the Australian Rugby Championship.

"I'm in favour in getting more rugby games in front of the public and on television, because I think it improves participation," Murray told ESPN.

"The only issue I have is, that if you look at the history of the ownership of the game in terms of Super Rugby, NRC and before that the ARC, they have not worked in terms of engagement of fans and attendance at the grounds and ratings - it hasn't been great.

"My only concern is you wouldn't want to hand over a really successful product like club rugby, you wouldn't want to remove the ownership and promotion and the passion from the clubs, because they're the ones who have made it successful and what you don't want is another NRC, because I think that just damages the game so much, I think that's a really big risk."

While support for the NCC in clubland has been strong, the financial viability of such a tournament is yet to be determined. Many Shute Shield clubs have struggled over the years to remain afloat, relying on the work of volunteers and loyal sponsors, and the current COVID pandemic has eaten further into their profit margins. For this tournament to take place RA has to foot the bill.

"There's a couple of factors involved; the cost of travel, accommodation, player payments - who pays for all that? I'm assuming that's all going to be paid for by Rugby Australia through the broadcasting rights," Glascott said.

"You've got zero chance of Gordon participating in club championships that involve traveling and accommodation if we were asked to pay for it. We're lucky just to be existing through Shute Shield through COVID.

"We run on an oily rag, it's hard enough running a Shute Shield competition, let alone a national competition for the club. We've got no chance. There wouldn't be a club in Shute Shield who would entertain the thought of financially playing in the championship."

Despite the obvious financial challenges, there remains positivity and hope the competition could further boost the recent momentum within grassroots rugby.

"There's a long way to go before this concept is put forward and actually happens, but I do think it's a great product," Glascott said. "I think the concept's fantastic, I think it's going to add a lot of interest.

"One of the reasons NRC wasn't a great success is that no one was interested in it because there was no tribalism. The great thing about club rugby and Shute Shield, there's tribalism that we have, that was missing in the NRC competition, there's a great following in the Shute Shield and the clubs and the players of those clubs.

"I think it'd be a great success people will follow their club in a national competition at the end of the Shute Shield, I think you would get a lot of interest, because people feel like they belong to a club and that's the beauty of club rugby and club sport."