A general consensus has rugby in the middle of a great big “U” at the moment – no, we are not talking of any particular peccadilloes of those living far east of Byron Bay but rather the rut it has found itself in of late.It is not alone of course, as most major sports have their challenges.In AFL circles you are no longer allowed to say that you are “stoked” as that has taken on a whole new meaning after Matthew Stokes’s arrest for allegedly dealing drugs.And you wouldn’t bet on Brendan Fevola staying out of trouble for too long . . . although he might.Rugby league has had its own share of trouble but no more than usual and it has consistently proved exceptionally resilient to much worse in the past.Rugby has also not been without the wrong type of headlines of late, but the winds of change are blowing and as with the AFL and rugby league, the resilience of the sport is on-field led.Last week, at the request of Queensland Rugby Union chairman Rod McCall, I stepped back into rugby as the newly nominated Queensland director of the ARU board.Although slightly daunting to follow in the footsteps of the former Chief of Defence Forces, Peter Cosgrove, it is considerably better to do so in the ARU foyer in Christie Street, St Leonards, than it would be in East Timor.Since my appointment I have received much congratulations and even more advice – I expected no less in the emotional and sometimes irrational world of sport.But while it is an interesting and challenging time to step in, it is also an exciting time, and as one of my friends suggested it is better being on the inside of the tent and . . . well you know the rest.Rugby does have its challenges at the moment, some urgent and the rest simply pressing.A snapshot from any of my “advisers” reels off: player contracting and third-party agreements, factional fighting, greedy players, poor administration and the quality of the product, among a plethora of other issues, both real and imagined.If you were to prioritise, however, after a season when even the die-hards were disillusioned, the quality of the on-field product had to be a priority and both anecdotally and tangibly the entertainment renaissance has begun.No games have been more heartening for supporters than the weekend’s Bulls and Queensland Reds encounter, won 19-12 by the Reds.This is the game the Reds would have lost nine times out of 10 over the last half a dozen years – they probably would have also lost it in round one; not so now.It’s amazing what you can achieve with a bit of self belief.If not before, you now have to consider Ewan McKenzie the best current home-grown coach in Australia.He knows how to marshal a team to play to their strengths and to win.With four matches remaining until 10 teams break for an early de-brief, the Reds sit precariously in the top four, a position which even the most biased of supporters, and without doubt the players themselves, wouldn’t have picked.Now the road home is tough but undoubtedly surmountable.The Reds winning, and doing so through attractive play, is a huge and timely fillip for Australian rugby.As a breeding ground, Queensland provides almost 40 per cent of the rugby players in Australia. For those players and fans, the Reds become a team to look up to and believe in.It is a game for school kids to wear their Reds hat and jersey. Quade Cooper and Will Genia are now the names bandied around in the lunch hour, and dormant roots are again springing shoots.With this success and with the whistle now blown to the advantage of the attacking team and not the defenders, fans are watching a more compelling game and business is taking action.The upside is immediate, with Channel Nine rumoured to have signed a contract to usurp bitter rivals Channel Seven to show domestic Test matches and an hour of Super 15 highlights from next season.This is huge for rugby as since the introduction of Super Rugby in 1996 the game has had no presence on free-to-air television.Granted, pay TV has paid the bill but a lack of presence on free-to-air screens, largely due to the tournament not being on the government’s anti-syphoning list, has retarded the growth of the game.This predicament alone has excluded about 80 per cent of the population from watching the greatest showcase of provincial rugby in the southern hemisphere in their own lounge room.Nine’s action positions it cleverly to take advantage of any change to the anti-syphoning status quo.But, while the challenges on the board are imposing and the potential is also heartening, it’s important to be realistically availed of where you are at.At the end of my first meeting, someone made the comment to CEO and MD John O’Neill that at least managements’ eyes were open to the specific challenges that lay ahead, to which another added, “yes . . . wide open all night”.
Nanjing Night Net