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After more than 30 years with The Sydney Morning Herald and Fairfax Media in Australia, Greg Growden now writes exclusively online for ESPNscrum. Never afraid to step on toes, you can expect plenty of compelling insight from one of Australia's most renowned rugby writers.

Ruck'n Maul
Wilkinson bid hindered by NRC 'financial concerns'
Greg Growden
July 4, 2014
Kurtley Beale may be another Toulon target
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Tournaments/Tours: National Rugby Championship

It's less than two months before the scheduled kick-off to the National Rugby Championship (NRC), but several teams aren't exactly striding confidently towards the starting line. For some time there has been serious concern about cash flow issues at two of the franchises, while uncertainty over the NRC's viability has not helped the push to sign Jonny Wilkinson for the first season. The Sydney businessmen involved in an audacious campaign to lure Wilkinson out of retirement to play for one of the New South Wales franchises appear in recent days to have lost interest, especially after being informed by NRC authorities of certain "financial issues" and being told it was "not a good look" to offer so much money to Wilkinson. The message expressed to the businessman was that the NRC should focus on "the next generation".

Those wanting Wilkinson had been confident their bold campaign would come to fruition, with advanced plans for England's Rugby World Cup-winning pivot to travel to Sydney this month to discuss the offer. High-ranking NRC sources confirmed this week there was "interest from the Wilkinson camp", and the campaign to "get Jonny for the NRC" had the support of several rival franchises as they know he will draw crowds and boost interest in a competition that has divided rugby ranks.

Eastwood club president and former Wallabies centre Brett Papworth issued the concerns of many at grassroots level about the NRC when commenting this week on why his club had withdrawn from the Greater Sydney Rams joint venture. Papworth said: "The only organisation [the Australian Rugby Union] who stands to benefit wants the clubs to fund it and carry the risk. It makes no sense to us, and I'm astounded the other clubs have jumped in. There is nothing in it for the clubs. It just relegates club footy further down the chain."

NRC franchise officials have also been concerned about the lack of marketing, realising that a concerted public relations campaign is required to ensure the competition wins over a discerning rugby public.

Who was that powerful Toulon rugby official in Sydney?

Someone who strongly resembled a high-ranking official from French Top 14 powerhouse Toulon was sighted walking the streets of Sydney late last week. Maybe that's why there have been media reports that Kurtley Beale is checking his options after failing to make the Wallabies' starting line-up. Waratahs sources have confirmed to Ruck'n Maul that Toulon are interested in Beale - as well as Israel Folau and Michael Cheika, no matter that the Tahs coach issued a denial after being asked last Friday about the Ruck'n Maul report Toulon making play for Michael Cheika. Maybe that's why French newspaper Midi Olympique reported this week that Top 14 clubs were approaching a raft of players at all Australian Super Rugby franchise - including almost every regular in the national side. Maybe that's why Toulon owner Mourad Boujellal described suggestions there were too many foreign players in French domestic rugby as "bullshit". And maybe that's why the Waratahs are suddenly trying to fast-track a new contract for their coach. Yes, they are worried about the Toulon interest in their biggest names.

SANZAR to Singapore or Japan: where did we here about that, again?

Rugby growth continues in Brazil
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It's interesting to see SANZAR officials suddenly coming out to say there is a strong chance of a Singapore- or Japan-based franchise being included in an expanded Super Rugby tournament from 2016. This prompted reports this week that "SANZAR has narrowed down its expansion options to Asia". But Ruck'n Maul brought you this news weeks ago, reporting on May 9 in SANZAR pushing for Singapore Super Rugby side that "within SANZAR the push for a Super Rugby team in Singapore is intensifying". And on June 13, Ruck'n Maul reported that a bid for a seventh South African team, based in Eastern Transvaal, was "unlikely to succeed, with more interest in applications from Japan and Singapore". Don't get us started on who told you first about serious private equity bids for the Waratahs ...

Dave Dennis and Laurie Fisher each a loss to Australian rugby

It's not surprising to see the Waratahs and Brumbies are genuinely downhearted that they have respectively lost their captain, Dave Dennis, through injury for the season, and their coach, Laurie Fisher, to Aviva Premiership club Gloucester for next year. Both are special characters. Dennis is the heart and soul of the Waratahs, respected by all at Moore Park for his down-to-earth leadership skills. And Fisher is one of those rare coaches who have a very strong rapport with his players. They are considerable losses to their respective organisations. One upside to Dennis's injury is the fact it gives one of the real troopers of Australian rugby - Stephen Hoiles - the chance to hold down a Waratahs starting berth. Hoiles, whose recent seasons have been marred by injury, has shown great courage in resurrecting his representative career.

Rugby really is life and death in New Zealand

For those who need reminding that New Zealanders are obsessive about their national rugby side, Fairfax Media reported this week that All Blacks are literally breaking people's hearts when they lose the big games. Christchurch doctors Peter Olsen and John Elliott have provided evidence that shows a dramatic increase in cardiac admissions when the All Blacks are knocked out of the Rugby World Cup: there were 33% more heart failure admissions than normal When the All Blacks fell short during the 1999 World Cup; there was a massive 60% increase when they were beaten by Australia in the 2003 World Cup semi-finals.

Give the public what they want

North Harbour Rays is one NRC franchise making an effort to froth up interest in the competition. Apart from having their first training session this week, the Rays are also committed to attracting the kiddies to their home games, with hot news that their opening match - at Brookvale Oval, Manly, in early September - will feature a mascot race at half-time. There are plans to invite Tah Man, Brumbie Jack, Macquarie University's Mac Warrior and the Manly Sea-Eagles mascot to the big event.

Whispers of the Week

- One of the three groups interested in being the Waratahs' private owners has plans for an interesting person to take over as the province's chief executive officer. Let's just say certain New South Wales Rugby Union officials, especially those with long memories, will have reason to be concerned.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd

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