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Amateur hour

A strong amateur scene is vital for the nation’s rugby future, writes Jonathon Parker.

After the NSW Waratahs’ sublime Super Rugby victory two weeks ago, the eyes of the Australian rugby community turned to the Shute Shield, the premier rugby union competition in Sydney. Formed in 1863, Sydney University is both Sydney’s oldest and most reviled club, having won eight of the last ten premierships. In recent times, supporters of other Sydney clubs have been seen wearing shirts and other sartorial adornments printed with wishes for ‘Anyone but Uni’ to win the competition.

Such animosity is not unfounded. For the majority of this century, the Waratahs squad has featured more players from Sydney Uni than from any other club. Building professional experience in an international competition, players from the five Super Rugby clubs in Australian can come back to play the closing games of the Shute Shield for their respective clubs. Consequently every year, Sydney Uni, despite not dominating during the regular season, obtains many of its professional players and decimates clubs featuring mostly amateur players in the finals.

Last year, the Shute Shield Grand Final was played between Eastwood and, of course, Sydney Uni. Bernard Foley, who kicked the premiership-winning penalty goal for the Waratahs, played in the final, despite having played very few games for his club earlier in the year. Along with Wallabies Nick Phipps and Dave Dennis, who both joined the team at the start of the finals, Sydney Uni defeated Eastwood 51-6.

For teams with few contracted professional players, it is an inordinately uphill battle to face teams veritably brimming with top-tier footballers. It is also inequitable for the amateur players who are replaced by professional players, denying them the big game experience they have been striving and training for all year. All the while, the hegemony of Sydney Uni continues to grow, threatening to force weaker teams like Gordon and Penrith out of the competition.

It is convention that players returning from Super Rugby have to have played two regular season games if they wish to play in the finals of the Shute Shield. However, this rule was contravened in 2012, setting a dangerous precedent. The Sydney Rugby Union Board allowed centre Rob Horne to play for his club Southern Districts in the 2012 finals, despite not having played the minimum two regular season games. Perhaps because of this sudden injection of talent and experience, Southern Districts progressed to the Grand Final that year, losing to Sydney Uni by one point.

The Australian Rugby Union Board needs to avoid the situation that currently exists in France. Cashed-up clubs like Toulon can offer monumental monetary contracts to the world’s best players, including Jonny Wilkinson and Bryan Habana, which have stymied young French players from gaining valuable experience. As a result, many players in the current French national team are relatively inexperienced; perhaps this explains their capitulation to the Wallabies in June.

In Australian rugby, a rift between amateurism and professionalism is apparent. Professional rugby is still relatively young in Australia, with the Super Rugby competition beginning in 1996. In the past, it was not an anomaly to see the likes of the Ella brothers lining up for Randwick despite higher state and national honours. For so long, however, there has been no consistent nationwide competition for Super Rugby players without Wallaby commitments to enter after the conclusion of the Super Rugby season.

In March this year, ARU boss Bill Pulver announced the details of a new domestic competition entitled the National Rugby Championship. He stressed that the competition will represent a “development pathway” for future Wallabies, morphing the Shute Shield into a predominantly amateur competition. Ideally, the NRC will help prevent the ubiquity of professional players in club rugby.

The Shute Shield Grand Final played this weekend featured Eastwood and Southern Districts; the first final since 2004 not to feature Sydney Uni. Even with Waratahs Paddy Ryan and Tolu Latu on the bench, Sydney Uni lost their semi-final to Southern Districts last weekend. Finally, perhaps, they are receiving some comeuppance.