Wading through the rugby club’s success

An investigation into the role students play in building an elite sport program

SUFC

The University of Sydney Football Club (SUFC) is the oldest Rugby Union club outside of the British and Irish Isles. For most of its 155 year history, the men’s team has played in the Shute Shield competition, the highest grade of non-professional rugby in Sydney, and arguably the most competitive in Australia. Through the years the University has viewed the club with the same reverence elite private schools award their 1st XV rugby union team. This reverence, however, largely evades campus fanfare, with students playing no active role in sustaining it. Despite being so deeply embedded in USyd’s structure and self-image, students are generally unaware of the role they’ve played in the club’s meteoric rise.

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For a large part of its existence, SUFC was weak. In the 80s and early 90s, when Randwick dominated, USyd would regularly suffer defeats by margins more becoming of Cricket games than Rugby matches. Things were so dire that in the mid-90s the New South Wales Rugby Union threatened to relegate the club to a lower division.

The club mobilised to avoid this possibility. A powerful “mentoring group” called the Friends of SUFC was formed in 1996, an all-star roster of powerful business people forming its core.

Now over 50 people are part of the group, and its members’ donations and lobbying help make the club among the best resourced in the country. These days world class gyms, high quality coaching, and a controversial scholarship program ensure the best emerging talent walks through SUFC’s door and emerge even better.

In sporting terms, the payoff has been huge. SUFC’s first grade team has won the Shute Shield in over half the seasons since 2001, including this year, in addition to sustained dominance in lower and Colts (under-20s) divisions. In fact, other Shute Shield clubs have complained about SUFC’s dominance, introducing a salary cap and points system SUFC believe was designed to limit their success.

The University has been essential to this ascent, inheriting a historic legacy of regard for SUFC, a respect inculcated in the psyche of USyd’s decision-makers from early days.

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Rugby was probably the first sport played at USyd. Back then there was no distinction between union, league, or even Australian rules, making the club arguably Australia’s first in all those sports. The first recorded game of formal schoolboy rugby in what came to be called Australia occurred between Sydney University and Newington College in 1869. But after the 20th century saw a decline in results, USyd implemented an array of programs in the early 2000s to buck the trend.

With the University’s support SUSF introduced the Elite Athlete Program in 1990, a package of initiatives designed to attract student athletes to USyd and support those already there. In its current form, the scheme provides up to $1,500 in grants for international travel, free private tuition, access to SUSF’s world-class facilities, career-support, training support, sports psychology and chaplaincy services, and access to dieticians. Elite athletes are also given financial assistance to help pay for course fees and expenses like textbooks. While the amount varies, it begins at $1,000 and can be enough for students to avoid HECS entirely. These attractive measures go hand in hand with related scholarships offered by the residential colleges and the separate elite athletes and performers scheme, which lets successful applicants enrol in their preferred course even if their ATAR is up to 5 points below the cutoff.

These schemes are run by SUSF, but the University and its funds are never far away. After the introduction of Voluntary Student Unionism in 2006, SUSF lost $3.2 million in annual income streams, meaning it had to turn to philanthropy and University subsidies to survive.

As part of this move, the University gave $200,000 towards SUSF’s scholarship program in March 2008. When the Student Support and Amenity (SSAF) fee was established in 2011, student money again started to flow to SUSF, complementing their now effective business model. And yet SUSF still regularly receives direct support for scholarships and infrastructure.

SUSF confirmed to Honi that the Elite Athlete Program is funded, at least in part, by SSAF—in addition to membership fees, the university’s scholarship budget, and profits from SUSF’s revenue-raising activities. Every student contributes to SSAF, which means the money of non-athletes goes a long way to supporting this generous package.

This package explains why there are roughly 290 students on “general” sports scholarships at USyd, and at least another 50 receiving “donor and perpetual named” scholarships. SUSF’s 2017 Financial Report discloses that its total scholarship outlay for that year was $942,991. And this is to say nothing of the investment in coaches, personnel, and equipment, nor of the tens of millions spent on infrastructure in order to manufacture a quasi-professional club.

Out of these 290 students, 41 are on men’s rugby union scholarships and five are on women’s rugby union scholarships.

No other sport has more scholarship holders than the men’s side of club. Most of those sportspeople, necessarily, come from elite private schools, which, given the ongoing decline of rugby in public schools and grassroots clubs, produce the absolute bulk of the best union players. Among the SUFC scholars are also several professionals playing for the NSW Waratahs, Australian men’s Sevens, and, in the case of Nick Phipps and Tom Robertson, the Australian national team, the Wallabies.

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There are some who see tremendous value in SUFC’s success. The support of the University has certainly enriched the club’s culture, providing a meaningful community for those who form part of it. There can be no doubt that the club produces great rugby teams and players, nor that their efforts have helped Australian union retain junior rugby stars tempted by lucrative contracts in Europe or rugby league. And it’s certainly impossible to overstate the role SUFC has played in advancing women’s rugby union in Australia, crucial as they are to recent progressive steps in the sport.

But to say students are unaware of these achievements would be an understatement. This is not some sad reflection on the quality of their marketing and communications strategy—interest in sport generally seems low among USyd students, but seems especially limited when it comes to both campus-related fare and rugby union. Indeed, across the inner west rugby union is a minor sport, with SUFC attracting players away from the junior clubs in regional NSW, Sydney’s north shore, and the eastern suburbs.

More significant than students’ ignorance to these ends, though, is their ignorance to the means: the majority of students are unaware that at least $1 million goes towards supporting elite athletes, nor that much more has been spent on infrastructure and other amenities the bulk of us will never be able to access.

It’s hard not to be disappointed by this outlay in a context where the Students’ Representative Council, another party to SSAF negotiations, can’t find the funds for a specialist sexual assault lawyer. And given most men’s rugby union scholars graduated from elite private schools, who often could have attended USyd anyway, giving so much formal and informal support to the sport risks seeming meaningless to those outside the elite SUFC-SUSF bubble.

While students may consent to their role in SUFC’s success, they first need to know the scheme exists, so they can judge for themselves whether the club’s achievements are worth their money. But with the scheme unlikely to increase demand for courses the university beyond a small group of athletes who don’t end up paying fees anyway.

What’s clear is that the University has a general interest in projecting the image that it excels in all fields, wanting to point at students that exemplify the renaissance image, even if that does nothing tangible to improve the education of the majority. What’s also clear is that SUSF and talented private schoolboys benefit immensely from the existence of quasi-professional rugby club sustained largely by the fees of unconsenting and unaware students.

What’s unclear is just what would happen if people pushed to pare this support back, particularly by means-testing all scholarships and removing those awarded solely on the basis of athletic merit. One could imagine great resistance to such an initiative.

So while some may swim about SUFC’s deepening pool, the rest of us are left to tread water in the shallows, unaware of the games being played in the elite lanes of USyd’s murky swamp.