Australian rugby crisis: Stephen Moore calls for 'blank canvas'

Rugby star mesmerizes again with another sensational throw (0:16)

Rugby star Quade Cooper shows off his throwing skills by tossing a football behind his back downfield to a receiver. (0:16)

Wallabies great Stephen Moore has called on Rugby Australia to take a "blank canvas" approach to analyse the game and establish outcomes that are truly in the best interests of Australian rugby.

Two-and-a-half years into retirement, Moore has largely kept a low profile since he bowed out of the game with victory over the All Blacks in the third Bledisloe Cup Test in Brisbane in 2017.

The chance to remove himself from the Wallabies bubble has afforded Moore an opportunity to see Australian rugby for what it really is, and the man who captained Australia to within one win of a third World Cup triumph, says he can no longer stay silent on issues he says are not being addressed with the level of the urgency that they deserve.

"The current issues we're seeing have been building for quite some time and I don't think that would be controversial to say; anyone that has been keeping an eye on the game would feel the same way," Moore told ESPN.

"And for myself, now being a spectator and a supporter of the game, I can definitely feel support for it is waning; the interest that used to be there is not currently there and people are disengaged from it.

"Personally I've stayed very quiet since I retired, out of respect to the people involved, but I just don't feel that's working. I think we need some sort of catalyst to get together and change all this.

"We talk about think tanks; that's been done. We've always had that stuff, but to what outcome? That'd be my assessment of it at the moment, I don't pretend to have all the answers but I'm certainly here to help and contribute where I can. But it certainly is frustrating, because we don't seem to be moving with the pace required to keep the game, not even growing, just surviving."

Moore's comments come at a time when Rugby Australia is, like many other codes in Australia and across the world, scrambling to navigate the coronavirus pandemic.

The governing body has already stood down 75 percent of its staff and continues to meet with both the Rugby Union Players Association [RUPA] and SANZAAR for player salary negotiations and tournament planning respectively.

Addressing the most immediate of those issues, Moore believes the current pandemic should serve as wake-up call for the "unsustainable" wage growth in the game, although he acknowledges that there is no easy solution to that given rugby's global player market.

"Well I think we need to firstly be honest with our stakeholders, including the supporters, around some of the challenges the game is facing and not sugar-coating them," Moore said when asked about where he would start the overhaul. "And I think the public has an understanding that it is tough out there in the sporting marketplace.

"The driver of a lot of the revenue in our game is professional rugby but we've got to careful that we get the balance right between allocating resources to that and then allocating resources to grassroots ... and I know we're never going to be able to compete with other codes for dollars, but that just means we've got to be more creative and smarter about how we go about things.

"I think professional player salaries have probably risen at an unsustainable rate -- there's a global market [to consider] of course -- but we need to have a really clear picture of what we can pay players in Australia for the game to be viable. And when I say the game, it's the professional game and the amateur game, and that's probably got out of whack."

On the professional side of things, the immediate and long-term future of Super Rugby is a constant point of discussion. No-one, not even SANZAAR, denies the competition lost its way with its expansion to 18 teams, but that move seems to have done almost irreversible damage to the tournament regardless.

Whether the competition makes any return this season remains to be seen, but it is set to revert to a 14-team round-robin format last used in 2010 from next season.

Moore is better placed than most to comment on Super Rugby, having played more than 150 games across two stints with the Reds, either side of a seven-year run with the Brumbies.

He wants RA to examine Australia's place in Super Rugby critically.

"The Super Rugby competition at the moment is not attracting viewers, supporters [or] players, it's not something the players say 'geez I'm really glad I'm playing Super Rugby'," Moore said. "I've got mates playing in Europe and they just say the experience of playing over there is just far superior to what it's like playing Super Rugby and that's eroded over time.

"So there's multiple layers to that and I think the metrics would suggest that unless people are watching it, both live and on TV, we can't ignore that it's regressing. So as I mentioned, I don't really see the level of urgency to address that; we seem to be continuously rolling out the same format and expecting things to change.

"And I know the people making the calls in there have to sit tight and have to toe the line, but at some point we have to do what's best for professional rugby in Australia and for rugby generally otherwise the game will just be amateur and it'll continue to fade into the background like it is."

Moore revealed to ESPN that he recently applied to fill one of the vacant RA board positions, a move that proves just how invested he is in helping the game arrest its slide. He was unsuccessful - those positions filled by Daniel Herbert, Peter Wiggs and Brett Godfrey - yet Moore says he is happy to be brought "inside the tent" at any stage.

On the field, Moore has urged patience with a promising group of Australian youngsters including young Reds back-rower Harry Wilson, who many pundits already have pegged for a Test debut later this year, and says there is a deeper lesson in the success of last year's Under 20s that ties in directly with his tireless former Wallabies teammate Michael Hooper.

"It's great we've had a good Under 20s side that have done really well and there are players coming through that are going to be Wallabies for a long time," Moore said. "But the question I would ask is: Where is our cohort that played Under 20s five years ago? That should be the backbone of the [Wallabies], that cohort 26-32 sort of age, we should have a really solid group of players in that group that are our leaders.

"And we haven't had consistency in the group for quite a while; you look at the load that someone like Michael Hooper carries, on and off the field, it's a clear indication that we haven't developed any leadership in the team over time.

"He's had to carry a lot of that himself, he's had people coming in and pinch-hitting at times; but a big part of international rugby is developing leadership and we haven't consistently done that well across all levels of the game, which lends us, every year, to talking about these kids like they're the savior, and away we go again.

"We need to give these kids time to develop physically, mentally and emotionally, I think that's really important."

While Moore wouldn't be drawn on reports of a leadership coup, specifically talk certain powerbrokers were hoping to install Wallabies great Phil Kearns in place of under-fire RA chief executive Raelene Castle, he did suggest that anyone with valuable rugby IP should be welcomed with open arms.

As a spectator and a supporter now, Moore has a greater sense of the disengagement many people within the rugby community - or those who have drifted from it - continually reference; that their emotional connection to the professional game has faded.

And the 129-Test veteran has urged the game's administrators to use this unplanned and unfortunate juncture for at least some good; a top-to-bottom assessment that puts Australian rugby's best interests first.

"We need to come up with what our professional offering looks like, and the Wallabies are obviously at the pinnacle of that, and Test rugby is the jewel of the crown for us," Moore told ESPN. "But in terms of what that next tier looks like, whether it's Super Rugby or a domestic competition, we need to make sure it suits Australian rugby and that's really important.

"It needs to suit us from a high-performance point-of-view, it needs to suit us from a viewer and engagement standpoint; get people back speaking positively about the game, enjoying the tribalism that has been around the game. And that's why people are gravitating back to their clubs because that's where they're finding the tribalism.

"Unfortunately that doesn't make a commercial model at this point, but I think there is an opportunity for a blank canvas around what the future looks like here. But we've got to be really committed to getting the best outcomes for rugby in Australia...you've got to be selfish, and you've got to have a vision of what you want the outcome to be. And I think it's been going on a little bit too long where it hasn't quite worked for us; I don't know if we can continue to just tweak things.

"I'm sure the other countries in the [SANZAAR] agreement will be thinking about what this means for the All Blacks and the Springboks; South Africa particularly have already had to deal with a lot of players being offshore and they've had to move with times and they won the World Cup last year.

"So they've been agile, they certainly don't have the perfect answer for it, but being sixth or seventh in the world is just not good enough for us."