Understanding the future by knowing the past

– from Rob Cusack,  Chairman of Eastwood Rugby

There’s a lot of things going on at our Club and I’d like to update you what’s been happening and what’s planned.  I think it’s important in understanding the future to understand the past. Bear with me as I go over the history to hopefully help understand our future.

Let’s start with who we are. Even though we’re known shorthand as the “Football Club“, “Eastwood Rugby” or more commonly “The Woods” we are in fact Eastwood District Rugby Union Football Club Inc. (a NSW incorporated association) – so we’re a District club with responsibility for a District which stretches from  Parramatta River at Meadowbank to the Hawkesbury River at Wisemans Ferry. That’s why our junior Clubs, for example, include Clubs as far away as Dural.  In rugby terms, parts of the Eastwood District are rapidly expanding yet other parts are frankly struggling – more on this later.

As you know, the Club has faced some very difficult times financially over the past 20 odd years In large part this was not to do with management of the football club but almost entirely related to the financial predicament of the TG Millner complex and the (then) associated Licensed Club

When TG Millner was first established all those years ago it consisted of 4 acres of converted cow paddocks and chook sheds.  The story has been often told how Colonel Tom Millner lent the Club the money to buy the first block and how an ever grateful Club named the ground in his honour.  Its significant to note that the Colonel’s grandson – Rob Millner – not only remains the Patron of our Club but is actively involved in all of the decisions that we make.

Recognising the substantial cost and management challenges involved in maintaining a complex of this nature, the early Club decided on a 3 part structure:

  1. At the top of the pyramid – the Football Club (after all the only reason we’re all here)
  2. a separate company called Vimiera Recreation Grounds Limited, an unlisted public company (VRG) to own and manage the entire complex
  3. Another separate organisation – a Licensed Club to generate the funds to support the maintenance of the ground and the Football Club

Over the following decades the Licensed Club prospered and was able to generate funds sufficient to buy additional land for the 2 top ovals, to build the grandstand, to install floodlighting, to build and expand the Licensed Club premises and of course to support the Football Club.

In our District we did great work supporting the juniors and helping to grow the game.

The Football Club made the first of its Grand Final appearances in 1966 and then was a sporadic contender over following years.

All in all, the future looked bright.

By the time of the arrival of the 1990s however the picture was very different; for a range of reasons the Licenced Club was in a desperate financial  state. This in turn severely impacted on VRG’s ability to maintain the TG Millner complex and on the support that the Licensed Club was able to give to the Football Club.  The factors why have been well canvassed – this was a time of great stress for many small clubs all over the state – FBT, RBT, and pokies in pubs cut their knees out from under them. Super Rugby started and crowds started to diminish. For the Licensed Club at TG Millner there were 2 other key killer factors – the encroachment of suburbia and the changing demographics of the area – more on this later.

In a last desperate throw of the dice, an expansion of the Licensed Club was undertaken in an attempt to draw in new patronage.  The loan for this expansion was guaranteed by VRG and secured by a mortgage over the TG Millner Field to Westpac. It was a complete failure.

Faced with a catastrophic financial situation and with Westpac about to foreclose, in 1999, VRG shareholders and Licensed Club members voted to grant a 15 year lease (with 5 options of 15 years each) of the entire TG Millner complex to North Ryde RSL Community Club Ltd. (NRRSL) in exchange for the RSL’s repayment of its debts of approximately $460,000 and a commitment to maintain TG Millner Field.  As you would appreciate, in real terms a lease for that period is, in effect, a sale.

At this time the Licensed Club was merged with North Ryde RSL and ceased to have anything to do with Eastwood Rugby.

Whilst this decision lifted the executioner’s axe for TG Millner Field, it was catastrophic for the Football Club which was left without the majority of its traditional sources of revenue: as part of the transfer to NRRSL practically all income from TG Millner became the property/rights of NRRSL; Eastwood Licensed Club members became NRRSL members and the Football Club had severe restrictions placed on it in terms of where it could obtain sponsorship.

The Football Club limped on for some years with its financial situation deteriorating year on year.  By the end of the first decade of this century the Club was being kept afloat only by the good graces and direct financial support of a very small number of individuals.

The Board of the Football Club had by this time realised that its long term position was untenable and I advised members in Annual Reports that the Board was exploring any and all options for the Football Club to survive.

Against this backdrop, VRG (with the support of the Football Club) entered into negotiations to sell the complex to the Australian Rugby Union.  Over the next 4 years there were various options discussed: in the end however all foundered on the inability to gain agreement from NRRSL.

When this deal collapsed, it was crystal clear to the Football Club that it was trapped, with no real sources of income and no prospect of being able to change that. A decision was thus made that in order for the the Football Club to survive it had to remove the millstone of TG Millner Field from around its neck.   Over a period of a year, expert advice was obtained from lawyers, town planners, developers, architects and commercial valuers. Armed with this information, VRG and the Football Club entered into negotiations with NRRSL – now unfortunately, the only realistic purchaser of the freehold of the TG Millner Field complex – culminating in an agreement to sell TG Millner Field  to NRRSL. This land sale was completed on 9 October 2017.

Crucially under the land sale agreement, the financial arrangements between the 2 parties did not change; specifically the Football Club gets no income from game day – no income from beer/BBQ/canteen/restaurant sales, minimal gate income, suffers from the same severe sponsorship restrictions and NRRSL continues to compete directly with us for members.  Compared to our peers in the Sydney competition, this is a direct cost of in excess for $200k per annum. In stark terms, this means that the more games we play at TG Millner, the more money we miss out on.

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Stepping back a bit; around the time when the Club first entered into sale discussions, the ARU and NSWRU were reviewing the future of Premier Rugby in general and in the case of NSWRU specifically, developing a Western Sydney Strategy.

The results of  the ARU review were startling, simply put they showed that our Club was falling behind in many key metrics measured against our peers.  Even more eye opening were the proposals in the Western Sydney Strategy Review which proposed relocation for the Western Sydney Clubs – in our case a re-location to Castle Hill

Taken together these two reviews gave increased impetus to your Board’s strategic planning process. We spent well over 12 months looking at all the elements that underpin sustained long term success and at the trends in our game and in our District.

The key outcomes were stark and inescapable:

  • The demographics of postcodes 2121 and 2122 had irrevocably changed and this was graphically reflected in the schools, junior clubs and the community. Our local area was no longer a natural rugby demographic.
  • Our local community had upped and moved  – mainly to the north. In practical terms our membership, players and sponsors now primarily come from areas a significant distance from Vimiera Road. This trend had dramatically increased over the past decade
  • As a district club, we had an obligation to foster, nurture and sustain the game in our District which broadly speaking stretches from the Parramatta River at Meadowbank to the Hawkesbury River at Wisemans Ferry – and we were failing badly in this key obligation
  • The State Government was driving rapid and explosive population growth to our north; this area was being populated by the same demographics which nurtures Rugby – in compelling contrast to Vimiera Rd
  • at a national level our game is on its knees: The ARU and NSW Rugby have withdrawn all financial support of any kind. The lesson for us is that unless we look after ourselves and ensure our long term financial and community support, we’ll be left to wither and die.

Faced with this tsunami of evidence, the Board formulated its long term plan to incorporate these key elements:

1 Realignment to a new vision that stressed sustained excellence – on and off the field – In order to attract players, community and commercial support.

2 Commitment to managing the Football Club on a sustainable long term basis by the incorporation of new governance and management structures to ensure the Club thrives. Critically this to include the creation of a trust (“Eastwood Rugby Foundation”) to hold, protect and manage the sale proceeds.

3 Long term financial and resourcing commitment to foster, nurture and sustain the game in our District  (ie from the Parramatta River at Meadowbank to the Hawkesbury River at Wisemans Ferry).

4 Relocation to a new complex that will enable us to:

  • capture the sporting allegiances of the exploding population in Sydney’s North West – a natural rugby demographic – in direct contrast to the area surrounding TG Millner Field
  • receive the benefits of the game day income that we generate – in direct contrast to TG Millner Field
  • build a Rugby Centre of Excellence with a High Performance Unit  that will be a Rugby exclusive facility  – in direct contrast to TG Millner Field
  • be close to public transport- in direct contrast to TG Millner Field
  • be embedded in a community that is a natural rugby demographic- in direct contrast to TG Millner Field

How are we going on all of this?

Its early days but we have made some good steps.

1 Development  

As you know from my recent updates, we have employed a full time manager to work with our juniors, schools and community in fostering and growing the game. Early days, but we are encouraged by the initial response.

2 Governance

We are deep in the middle of reworking the legal arrangements and constitutions of the various bodies involved in Eastwood Rugby to put in place a framework for the future – which will guarantee that the sale proceeds are protected and that the Football Club will be in a position to thrive and compete.  That process has proven to be more complex than we first envisaged. However, we will shortly be in a position to advise all the various shareholders/members/ stakeholders of the timetable for consideration of the revised arrangements based on the following dates:

February 2019:  VRG to put resolutions to shareholders to:

(1) create the Eastwood Rugby Foundation Trust;
(2) incorporate a company limited by guarantee (CLBG) to be the beneficiary of the Trust.  The CLBG will hold monies distributed from the Trust for the benefit of the Football Club and distribute the funds to the Football Club against an approved budget; and
(3) wind-up VRG.

March 2019: Football Club to put resolutions to:

(1) members to adopt a new constitution for the Football Club; and
(2) convert the Football Club from a NSW incorporated association to a company limited by guarantee under the Corporations Act.

3 Relocation  We’ve been doing pretty much what was outlined last year and in the various updates that have been sent out since.   Working in conjunction with the Council and local members of parliament, we have drawn up a short list of possible sites; we are hopeful of being in a position to make an announcement of the preferred option in the near future.

A telling factor for our re-alignment is that Epping Juniors  – the Club that gave us current Directors Wallabies Brett Papworth and Ian Williams  – folded last year, as did Hillview the junior Club of Woodies legend Tim Donnelly. On the other hand, only last week Sydney Juniors announced the formation of a new Eastwood District junior Club – at Box Hill right in the middle of the North West.

What are the parameters for the new ground?

Simply put, we are building a centre of excellence that is rugby specific and which will provide a focus for the game in a key strategic pocket of Sydney.  We’ve learnt a lot over the years about what makes a great sporting ground and what is needed to be successful in the future.

The new complex will have:

  • Multiple ovals including a synthetic field – all dedicated solely to rugby and with 24 hour access
  • broadcast quality lighting – allowing night games and extended training hours
  • Unlimited and free access for our juniors and schools
  • Easy access to public transport and a significant amount of off street parking
  • No proximity to neighbours
  • Outstanding game day experience for supporters
  • Professional level gym and supporting infrastructure for players
  • Close alignment to major commercial and community centres in a rugby demographic

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These are all significant developments and I well understand that for many they can seem unsettling.  I myself played the majority of my near 250 games for the Club at TG Millner – as did my fellow Directors Graeme Harrison and Wallabies Brett Papworth, Ian Williams and Ian Robertson – and our patron Rob Millner and we all have a deep affection for those times. None of us have taken any of these decisions lightly, but rather have done so only in support of the Club’s long term best interests.

I hope the above outline has helped you to understand the driving forces behind our every move. Ultimately, we are the custodians of the proud tradition of those who went before us. They moved from Brush Farm to May St, then to the old Eastwood Oval and then out to TG Millner Field – because at the end of the day,  it’s the Football Club that we’re all about.

Can I leave you with one of my guiding thoughts which underpins everything we do:

A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit

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