Rugby union will become ”insignificant and irrelevant” in Australia unless powerbrokers are willing to embrace innovative thinking to attract fans and repel the ever-encroaching threat of the AFL, according to Melbourne Rebels chief executive Rob Clarke.
Clarke does not come across as your standard, white-collar club boss. Dressed in black leathers, sunglasses and old-school bikie helmet while sitting on something called a trike – a beefed-up three-wheeled motorcycle – he is seemingly not the type of character who would be seen on the manicured lawns of the private school fraternity, let alone – until taking on the job last year at the Melbourne Rebels – being on the board of prestigious rugby nursery, Sydney Church of England Grammar School (known as Shore).
But Clarke insists that it will take more than your run-of-the-mill thinking to get Australian rugby union out of its funk – even if it earns criticism from traditionalists. And he said the Rebels, burnt by three seasons of mediocre performances on the field and even worse results on the balance sheet, would be looking to shake up the local market and blow away some of the more conservative forces.
Clarke said the Rebels – and rugby in general – must begin making a noise and stand up to the AFL, which has been aggressively attacking the heartland areas of both rugby and league. He said rugby must look beyond the ”male, pale and stale audience” – a phrase he borrowed from Australian cricket administrators before they introduced Twenty20 – that it has become reliant on.
”If we just stay there thinking, ‘We’ll barricade up the walls and we’ll be right’, we’re kidding ourselves. We will be overtaken, overrun and we’ll be insignificant and irrelevant in the future,” Clarke said.
”… The whole game needs some new thinking. I think it’s time that we stop focusing on the negatives of the game, which I think has been widey covered, and broadcast to what are we going to do to solve it and what new ideas and initiatives we need to put into place a long-term sustainable plan for the game, not just for Melbourne but around the country.
”… You need to get people talking, particularly in this market place [Melbourne] where rugby is a minnow. We need to be prepared to be a bit courageous … we need to be prepared to stick our heads up knowing that they’re going to get hit by a few people.”
The Rebels have reflected the poor health of Australian rugby union, with unstable management, poor results and controversies that have prevented them from capturing the imagination of Australia’s largest sporting market – a particularly disappointing result given the ”top-end-of-town” and expatriate (both interstate and international) markets present.
Clarke said the Rebels, who are to have their first game of the season on Friday night against the Cheetahs at AAMI Park, would draw on many aspects of Twenty20 cricket to attract a new generation of supporters and ”bring a sense of uplift into people’s Friday night after a long work week”.
”It’s just simple things. There’s no rocket science here … we’ll be using music, lights, smoke, flares, flags, athletic performers … we’ll be doing things to try and give something for everybody in the audience,” said Clarke, who has looked into having the goal posts light up after successful kicks.
”We need to bring a little bit more of that sense of razzmatazz and elevate people’s emotions in the game … it doesn’t come from sitting quietly listening to the referee on your earphones. There will be some who want to do that and we need to provide for them, but that can’t be the whole experience if we’re going to attract younger audiences to come onboard.”
But he was expecting to feel the heat from traditionalists.
”I’ve briefed my board that I’m going to get complaints,” he said.
”There’s a balance in all of this and I’ve got to make sure that we strike that balance.”