“we all deeply respect what the club people do”
“Piss it up against the wall.”
They’re the words that have haunted Rugby Australia ever since former CEO Bill Pulver reportedly uttered them in 2016, at a meeting with the NSW Rugby board.
Ever since, those words have become symbiotic between the distrust, frustration and anger from disenfranchised grassroots rugby supporters and the professional element of the game.
As fate should pass too, club-land’s resurgence has got stronger and stronger over the past few years, with three packed houses at North Sydney Oval between 2016 and 2018 the biggest two finger salute to the game’s top administrators possible, as the Wallabies and RA’s Super Rugby franchises battled week by week to fill their stands.
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But, if nothing else, newly appointed Waratahs coach Rob Penney wants to build a bridge and see the two strains of the game – amateur and professional – work cohesively side by side, which funnels the best club talent into Super Rugby and sees them go on to play for the Wallabies.
“I was brought up on a diet of highly competitive club rugby and I was lucky enough to go and represent the province that I played my club rugby in and that probably enhanced my view of club rugby as opposed to diminish it and the importance of it,” Penney told foxsports.com.au ahead of the season in Dalby.
“If there is a feeling of negativity around club rugby towards the Super team because of old wounds, I’d love to think that the future’s positive around the game and we all deeply respect what the club people do and the impact and influence they have on the future Waratahs and Wallabies.
“I want to try and get a message out there that they by no means are they forgotten.”
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New Zealander Penney has only been in Sydney for the past three months, having been appointed late last year as Daryl Gibson’s replacement.
But already the Cantabrian says he’s been surprised by the attachment the current crop of Waratahs have for their club sides.
“I think it’s a bit endemic in all of the countries that you’ve mentioned that there’s a perceived friction – and I guess the perception is the reality – between what happens at club land and what happens in the professional game,” says Penney, who had successful stints coaching in New Zealand, Ireland and Japan before joining the Waratahs.
“But from my experience and no matter whether it’s been in New Zealand or in Ireland or in my short time here in Australia, the boys are deeply connected to their clubs and have a lot of banter and a lot of interaction around what happens at club land and that’s a message that I would love to go back to club land and say, ‘The boys understand their roots and they may have been fortunate enough to move on to earning an income out of a game they love, but it doesn’t mean that their passion for the clubs is diminished because of that. The proof will be in the pudding, but I still love club rugby.
“We had half-a-dozen boys come in for an emerging Waratahs squad not long ago and I got them to stand up and name their position and club and every time a club was mentioned the boys who played at that club were raucous and were cheering and pumping their fists and equally throwing banter around. Obviously the club rivalry is still very strong and it was a real indicator to me that the boys are still very passionate about their clubs.”
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While the Shute Shield and respective club competitions across Australia have yet to start, Penney said he would be a keen observer at matches across Sydney, promising to attend matches before his own Waratahs commitments.
It’s something the current crop of players are already doing too.
“As a player, you always want to go back to grassroots rugby, play Shute Shield,” says Kurtley Beale, who joined Eastern Suburbs from Randwick in 2018.
“I think we should pay more attention. I haven’t really seen much of the NRC, but I think we can maybe scrap the NRC and just load up your club sides.
“If you look at the league and the AFL, there’s rivalry there between teams and you get your local derbies matches that are actually real, Eastern Suburbs against Randwick for example, you’ll have the whole of Eastern Suburbs down at a derby match creating a great atmosphere and it’s great for young kids to come and see and grassroots levels, who have the green jersey or the tri-colours and then they’re seeing the first-grade side play. That’s how I saw a lot of my idols when I was growing up.
“You’ve got to get behind a team and I think that’s kind of gone from the game because we don’t have the crop of players that should be participating at that level.”
Wallabies captain Michael Hooper, who hasn’t played for Manly since 2013 but regularly attends matches, wants to see club rugby and the professional strain of the game move closer too.
“I love Manly right, so I love it when Manly (Marlins) play (Warringah) Rats,” Hooper told foxsports.com.au in Dalby.
“I love it when I can go or when I drive past and there’s a game down there and my mates, who I grew up playing with, are down playing and then you walk into town and have a couple of beers.
“It’s a different package at the moment. How we can join those up is so crucial, so critical and when it’s done right it’ll be amazing.
“I miss it. The last time I played was 2013 and before that 2012, so I played one game in 2013 with my brother and a lot of my mates. It’s a hard one because we play a lot of footy throughout the year. Would I love to play a Manly-Rats game, yeah I would. That would be pretty cool. But a lot of my mates are starting to file out of there, so it’s a bit of a newer crop in there but still there’s some guys I played juniors with that are still running around with in Manly.
“That’s a huge drawcard would be to play with some mates in that game, it would be fun. But to find a time’s tricky. There’s obviously requirements.
“I watch games on Saturday. I’m just up the hill from Manly and it’s a bit tougher now we’re (based) at Bankwest, but certainly when we were at Allianz, it starts at 3, watch the first half and then I’m out and go to the game. I did that for a couple of years. That was one of the drawcards of moving back to the Tahs and coming back from the Brumbs.”
And despite his New Zealand heritage, Penney says he wants to see Australian rugby and the Wallabies succeed.
“It’s about the players and what you want to see is players’ dreams being fulfilled,” he said.
“Those that are able to push onto the Wallabies shouldn’t be encumbered in anyway by political agendas or bias or whatever or an inability for a system to allow a developing player to develop to his full potential. I’m sure club land, they all want to see their boys push onto the Waratahs and you’d hope that the club boys are embracing that and going ‘that’s our boy who has been playing club rugby is now in the Waratahs’ and then for us as Waratahs and Waratahs supporters going when we get a whole lot of Wallabies doing the same thing, so we’re funnelling all our talent through the right avenues to the top so Australian rugby’s really strong and the game’s buoyant and successful. For that to happen, club rugby needs to be strong and buoyant and successful and we feed off that and the Wallabies feed off that.”