By Peter FitzSimons, Sydney Morning Herald

In the beginning there was rugby, and it was good and it was great.

A grown-up version of piggy-in-the-middle, in Australia, it didn’t attract much of a crowd, but no one cared because it wasn’t actually about the crowd at all. It was a player’s game, of the players, by the players, for the players and that was all that counted.

But then rugby turned ever more professional, and for six years or so, in Australia, it really looked like it was the game that would take over – for the crowds came in ever more overwhelming numbers!

The rugby was fabulous, the results always tight, the “vibe” at the ground and on the tube just wonderful. This, friends, THIS was was the way the game could be played!

And then, not long after the turn of the century, somehow, the wind changed. Instead of fantastic rugby, instead of stunning results, instead of Australian teams winning, both at national and provincial levels, the long winter of our discontent began. With very few exceptions – Michael Cheika’s Waratahs of three years ago being the notable example – the rugby in Australia started to drift away even as the ratings started to fade and crowds to dwindle.

There is no pinpoint moment but, there is no doubt that the process of deterioration accelerated after the ascension of the Western Force in 2006 and got worse still after the Melbourne Rebels came along in 2011. Was it because having two extra teams inevitably meant that teams were weaker because the best players were spread among five teams and not just three?

Indubitably. That was not the sole reason, but the mathematics are unchallengeable. At the same time, what had been a tight competition of just a dozen teams, grew to 15 teams and now 18 teams, as teams from Japan and Argentina were added, and the comp was broken into “conferences”, whatever they are.

Four of five? Australia faces crunch-time on the future of its Super Rugby involvement.

Instead of one competition table that everyone could understand, and followed, you needed a slide rule and a packed-lunch – and most importantly, to actually give a bugger – to be able to work it out. The numbers drifted still further, until …

Until we reached the current point where SANZAAR, the organising body of Super Rugby, acknowledges the crisis and is about to announce a likely cull of, at least, one Australian provincial team.

It will be very painful, and no doubt about it. Whichever team/s must be made to bite the bullet, even as they are given one, can be counted on to scream long and loud. For despite the general lack of success of the Force and Rebels in particular, and the Brumbies – in recent years only – all of them have very committed players and wonderfully enthusiastic fans. It is just that there are not enough of the latter.

So let there be no doubt that urgent surgery is required.

Put simply, the administrators cannot continue simply drifting on from year to year, funding teams that lose money, year after year. They need to act, and quickly, to give the competition at least a semblance of the glory it once had. They need to get rid of the conference system, get everyone back on the one table, and while they are at it, do what is necessary to make the teams from Japan and Argentina competitive.

So who will go from Australia? I frankly suspect that it will be Rebels, and feel for them. But the sad truth remains, while AFL has done brilliantly well surging into Sydney and Brisbane – flourishing despite being in league and union territory – neither league nor union has managed to do the same in the AFL heartland of Melbourne. League, at least, has the Storm prospering in terms of winning competitions, but with the Rebels they have neither the results, nor the crowds, despite throwing everything they have at it. The players have toiled mightily, the crowds have been passionate.

But the bottom line – and if you note, that is exactly where we are now – is that it simply hasn’t been enough. Globally, rugby is bigger than ever. Domestically, it is in huge trouble, and though this cut is going to hurt, Australian rugby will be stronger for it.

Twitter: @Peter_Fitz

Peter FitzSimons is managed by The Fordham Company.

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