Huge coup for RA as club rugby set to come on board
HOW Rugby Australia's broadcast deal plays is yet to be fully determined, but for the moment the code is quietly celebrating the achievement that television rights bargaining has helped to bring about the consolidation of the game into a cohesive package.
Rugby Australia will reportedly be able to offer bidders a broadcast package for all levels of the game from grassroots clubs to the Wallabies after signing a new deal with Club Rugby TV.
The process of unifying the game will be completed as early as Tuesday when RA wraps up its negotiations with Club Rugby TV owners Nick Fordham and John Murray.
"We are in very positive discussions with Shane Mattiske (RA CEO Raelene Castle's right-hand man in the broadcast discussions) and we feel we are moving in the right direction," Fordham said.
The new agreement will allow Castle to spruik a comprehensive rugby union package to the market later this week in time for the semi-professional NSW Shute Shield's season kick-off in April.
Although the broadcast rights for grassroots rugby aren't lucrative, Castle fees that a whole-of-game package will be more attractive to potential broadcasters.
Once the Shute Shield has been brought into the tent in terms of television rights, RA will then be free to send out non-disclosure agreements to its existing broadcaster, Fox Sports, along with all other likely interested parties - Optus, Amazon, Rugby Pass and Australia's three free-to-air commercial networks.
Those broadcasters who agree to sign will then be sent the tender documents for the Australian broadcast rights to the 2021-25 cycle, with a month-long deadline for their responses likely to be set.
RA hopes to have the process completed by the end of March. If the non-disclosure documents hold, it could be a remarkably media-shy period.
Certainly the various levels of rugby have been unified before, most notably in the amateur era - when it was not uncommon for players to turn out for Australia in a Test match on Saturday and then return to play club football for Randwick or Brothers the following day.
And while RA is open to legitimate criticism for only discovering club rugby at a time when it is desperate to present a neat bundle of rights to the broadcasters, the fact is that, for whatever reasons, the deal has been done and should be to the overall benefit of the game.
One of rugby's confounded problems has been the higgledy-piggledy nature of the season, with club football virtually cut off from representative rugby.
Lately, however, the Super Rugby franchises are increasingly drawing on club football to fill holes in their roster, and in a way allying club rugby to Super Rugby.
The Queensland Reds' might have stretched that with their decision to draft Eastwood hooker Ed Craig into their squad for Sunday's meeting with the Jaguares in Buenos Aires but club football is again being seen as part of the pathway to the Wallabies.
In previous seasons, the game, certainly at broadcast level, has not extended much beyond Super Rugby, inbound Tests and The Rugby Championships.
But the long-harboured dream that RA might tap into the passion and tribalism of club rugby looks like coming true, and not just in the Shute Shield and Hospitals Cup competition in Sydney and Brisbane respectively.
The fragmented nature of the rugby coverage also has been addressed and, ironically, many of the things that Fox Sports lobbied for in recent seasons - an access to club tribalism and a far more rational Super Rugby competition - now loom as real or at least potential possibilities.
Although indications are that the report of South Africa entering the Six Nations in 2024 is inaccurate, South African Rugby has not ruled out the possibility beyond 2025.
In that event, Fox - or whoever wins the broadcast rights - might just be given the trans-Tasman-plus-extras competition that it has long craved.
Rugby can never achieve the simplicity of an AFL or NRL season but, rather than fighting its situation, RA appears to be embracing the complexity of rugby and is believed to be hunting for a broadcaster that will embrace it as well.
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