Jonathan Shapiro and Zoe Samios | Financial Review Magazine | 28 July 2023
Wallabies coach Eddie Jones. The rugby league raid is about finding the best players, but also sending a message that rugby union is back.
“Australia is a sporting battle,” Mr Jones told AFR Magazine in an exclusive interview.
“There’s four winter sports. So how do you sell yourself? Great coaching at grass-roots level, and then successful iconic teams that people want to play for.”
This Saturday the Wallabies play arch-rivals the New Zealand All Blacks at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. The stakes are higher than usual after the Wallabies suffered successive defeats this month to South Africa and Argentina.
With the first World Cup game against Georgia 45 days away, disillusioned rugby fans are desperate to see signs of improvement.
Mr Jones’ appointment as Wallabies coach in January was one of several bold moves by Mr McLennan, who is exploring the option of private equity capital, or taking on debt, to grow the sport and support it financially.
Mr McLennan told the Financial Review: “If we get the result we want in private equity, then a big chunk of that money will go into a legacy fund and be ring-fenced for future generations at the grassroots level.”
He said the funds would be earmarked for growing union in league heartland areas such as Western Sydney.
“Think of all those fantastic Pasifika players (and their families) who would prefer to play rugby union but don’t really have the avenues or pathways now,” he said.
“It’s the Penrith Panthers’ region. If we took the top 10 per cent of boys and girls that would be transformative for rugby union.
“Pay them well and show them the world.”
The comments could further ignite a war of words between the respective rugby codes that began when it was revealed that rugby league prodigy and Roosters star Joseph Suaalii had been lured back to union in a $1.6 million deal.
Mr Jones said the rugby league raid was about finding the best players needed to win, but to also sending a message that “rugby union was back”.
Mr McLennan said the rugby union community fully supported the push to take on the other sporting codes.
“I’ve actually been stopped in the street where people just say ‘keep having a swing of the other sports’ whether that be the AFL or NRL – they love that newfound fighting spirit that we have,” he said.
In his interview with AFR Magazine interview Mr McLennan conceded that rugby in was in “rubble” after two decades of wasted opportunities and that change was needed.
Raising more funding would be key to taking on other codes in a highly competitive marketplace.
“We will lose the arms race if we’re under-resourced,” Mr McLennan said when asked about a potential private equity cash injection, adding that other countries such as South Africa and New Zealand had courted private capital.
“There’s been massive under-investment which is why we need more private equity funds to take more debt.”
A debt package may, in fact, be the preferred option given a lucrative cash injection awaits when the British and Irish Lions tour Australia in 2025.
Union’s profile is expected to rise further ahead of the 2027 World Cup which will be held in Australia. There’s also the Paris Olympic Games in 2024 and a Women’s World Cup in Australia in 2029.
The process for a potential suitor, which is being run by Jefferies’ Michael Stock, has been going on for months. Eight different parties are still in talks.
Mr Jones, who has coached Australia, South Africa, Japan and England at the world cups, says a strong showing is crucial for rugby to compete with rugby league, Australian rules football and soccer for audiences, participants and financing.
“They’re swimming in one pool, and we’re swimming in another pool. But the people in the sidelines are the people we want.”
The appointment of Mr Jones, shortly after he was released by England in 2022 has divided rugby union fans, given his take-no-prisoners approach, and the short time period to prepare for a world cup tilt.
Defeats in his first two games to South Africa and Argentina have further highlighted how tough it will be for his to turn them into contenders. He says his role as Wallabies coach is to promote the sport to the public.
“You have to play a role in promoting the sport. In England, that was through grassroots. In Japan it was across the universities, schools and clubs.
“In Australia you’ve got to drive awareness in the media, and then you’ve got to win. But you do need your national coach to have a profile.”