Randell: Shrinking feeling for Australian rugby

TAINE RANDELL
Last updated 05:00 19/05/2013

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OPINION: Forget the Wallabies' looming results - the Australian Rugby Union can already declare the incoming tour by the British & Irish Lions a success.

In fact, it's more than just a success, it's a financial lifeline.

But the reality is the rich rewards from the tour appear to be nothing more than a band-aid as rugby across the Tasman struggles with a shrinking bank balance.

The ARU had only just announced a deficit of around A$8.3m for the last financial year when tickets to the three Lions tests went on sale.

They sold out in 15 minutes and the tour that happens just once every 12 years couldn't be better timed to put some money in the bank.

Along with World Cup payouts every four years, it seems these extravaganzas are what are propping up the game over there at the moment.

That's alarming for everyone in this neck of the woods. The New Zealand Rugby Union has managed to box clever and the wealth in the South African game never seems to be in question.

Just as we need strong Wallabies teams and competitive Super Rugby teams there, we also need to see the Australian union on a strong financial footing.

Rugby in Australia faces far bigger challenges than it does in New Zealand where it is acknowledged as our national game.

Aussie Rules and the NRL are massive competitors for rugby there.

They soak up plenty of talented athletes, they draw plenty of footy fans and they are worthy alternatives to the almighty sponsorship dollar.

Soccer also has a far bigger footprint in Australia than it does in New Zealand so you can add them into that mix as well.

The corporate dollar never seemed to be much of a problem in Australia, where rugby draws on a well-heeled community. It's a white-collar game - or at least it used to be.

Australian rugby has called on rugby league more than any of their rivals to bolster their stocks, luring some high-profile players to switch codes with mixed success.

Not everyone in the game there has seen this as a positive. When Wallabies great David Campese was asked what was the greatest contribution rugby league had made to rugby in Australia, he answered: "Tattoos."

Good humour from the witty Campo, but the reality is he's probably not alone with that perception.

It seems unthinkable that Australian rugby could slip into a second-tier category on the world scale but that prospect is worrying if financial problems can't be addressed.

In these professional times, money makes the world go around.

As the call for salary increases gets stronger, the ARU has already raised the prospect of some cuts in this area. That will make their stars increasingly vulnerable to foreign clubs. It's a vicious circle.

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The last Lions tour of Australia in 2001 generated a balance sheet bonanza with an A$7.36 million surplus.

That's just the sort of shot in the arm their coffers need right now.

But the worry for them is it's a bit of a false economy. They can't wait till 2025 for the next Lions tour to prop them up again.

They need to get some decent foundations in place quickly.

And new ARU chief executive Bill Pulver doesn't deny this. After deficits in 2011 and 2012 he's thrilled to be predicting a surplus this year, purely on the back of the Lions.

But he warns: "Sadly, in terms of our long-range planning we are also forecasting a deficit in 2014 and 2015."

Ouch.

Taine Randell is a former All Blacks captain

- Sunday News

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