Siobhan Seiuli knew she had to get the word out.
The new President of West Harbour Rugby Club sat down and put together a 1,000-word, warts-and-all outline of the club's dire financial position.
After pulling together the end-of-financial-year numbers, the bare facts she had to communicate were stark.
One of Australia's oldest rugby clubs, with origins dating back to 1900, was close to going under.
Her club is a stand out symptom of rugby's wider problem at grassroots level. Gone are the days of funding being heartily channelled back into the sport's feeder clubs.
Two years ago, over $100,000 a year came from headquarters. In 2018, it has all dried up.
"It was critical that we were transparent with the members because if people weren't aware of the problem then it can't be fixed," said Ms Seiuli.
"The reality is, if we cannot raise an additional $200,000 at least in 2019, West Harbour simply cannot remain in the premiership competition."
The email Ms Seiuli reluctantly wrote was a desperate plea to the rugby community around Sydney's inner-west.
On top of the club's $23,000 annual participation levy, player and coaching wages and paltry gate takings of around $30,000 last season crippled the balance sheet of the once-proud Sydney club.
A club on the brink of extinction
Those who care deeply about West Harbour, many of whom are not paid at all, are concerned.
Dianne Debreczeni is a volunteer at the club and has been involved at West Harbour for over 30 years, doing everything from canteen work to cleaning change rooms and running water for players.
"The landscape has changed in the last couple of years, where the numbers have just dropped off," she said.
A dilution of player talent in the junior ranks, she said, with other codes including the AFL competing harder than ever in Sydney's west, was having an impact on playing numbers.
"Our Colts numbers the last two years haven't been as healthy, and this year the juniors had no Under 17s and Under 16s, so there is nobody coming through next year into Colts," she said.
"They need older boys in the Colts age group to guide them through and have that healthy competition, and if it's not there, [the structure] just falls apart a little bit."
A proud history but uncertain future
This past month, while lobbying for local corporate support, Ms Seiuli approached the New South Wales Rugby Union for help to keep the club alive.
Ms Seiuli said she believed assistance in player recruitment could help drive attendance, stabilising the club's finances while she tries to work on a new model for survival.
"I would like to see support for a few new Waratahs signings, which would be helpful in attracting the local community," she said.
"We just have to ensure we are getting the right people involved in our club."
Former Wallaby Stephen James played for West Harbour in its heyday and agreed it would be a sad day for rugby if the club that also became known as Wests had to fold.
"It is imperative rugby has a face in the western suburbs," he said.
"Back probably 15 years ago, 60 per cent of players representing Australia came from this area."
Like many local residents in the seventies, James started his career as a junior and rose through the ranks to be part of one of the most competitive West Harbour teams ever produced.
James said the club had always been one that had punched above its weight.
"We made it through to the semi-finals a couple of times, in '84 and '87, so we always had a competitive side," he said.
"Rugby was very different then. It was certainly dominated by two clubs, Randwick and Gordon, where most of the representative players played, but Wests Harbour was a competitive club.
"It was very tribal. You played where you went to school, where you lived, where your mates were.
"And you tended to stay with one rugby club for the duration of that time."
A symptom of rugby's decline
West Harbour is not the only old club in Sydney coming to terms with modern-day sporting reality, where rugby is struggling to maintain its place in the pecking order.
In April, Sydney Rugby Union announced the Penrith Emus were being removed from the 2019 Shute Shield because of a number of problems, including issues in relation to player welfare.
Running on a shoestring budget, some Penrith players were playing multiple games for various grades and it regularly was on the wrong end of embarrassing scorelines.
Ms Seiuli, admired by many for her conviction and fresh approach, was determined not to let West Harbour follow suit.
"We understand we are in trouble and we appreciate any support they give us, but we are not going to sit back and expect anyone to solve our problems for us," she said.
"We have spoken about the fact that the funding hasn't been forthcoming for a number of years now and whilst it would be great if we had that, we need to understand that we have to help ourselves.
"We have to understand that the current environment is about family, it is about community and unless we engage our community, then we are going to struggle for a long time.
"To be fair, I think over the last year we have just been trying to survive."
A need to reach out to a new generation
Ms Seiuli said the club needed a new business model and a cash injection of $200,000 that must be used wisely if it was going to have any hope of operating into the foreseeable future.
Ms Debreczeni's message to those running the game was to think outside the box when it came to supporting the club.
"Even just having Super Rugby players or Wallabies come out to the clubs, especially the ones out west," she said.
"You see it with the AFL and the league and we always hear about it, that they are always out in the greater western area with the schools. It is something that needs to be injected … that involvement with the younger kids to entice them to come and play rugby union."
Ms Debreczeni said she was not sure what she would do if West Harbour did not exist.
"It is something that I have an immense love for," she said.
"I love what rugby brings, and watching players thrive and training and playing and what they get out of it as well.
"It is the family aspect, the community aspect. It is where we have made our closest friends. Having something in common, that we all love rugby and we just get along with each other."
Rugby's ongoing battle for hearts and minds
Right now, West Harbour needs funding to stay in the Shute Shield and immediate support from the community, but the club's sustainability will be tied to rugby's greater battle for relevance.
So far the signs suggest it is not a priority.
In 2016 the Sydney Rugby Union, who run the Shute Shield, announced North Sydney Oval as the new home of the annual Grand Final, taking it from Concord Oval along with all-important gate revenue for West Harbour.
Attendances have been strong and have helped create a strong message that the Shute Shield is still viable.
Yet clubs like West Harbour are withering on the vine.
In response to criticism that Rugby Australian is ignoring clubs' concerns, CEO Raelene Castle this week claimed any surplus funds would be re-invested into grassroots rugby, in a planned and structured way — but only when they become available.
Ms Seiuli admitted there was a lot of work to be done by many different groups of people for rugby to maintain its presence outside of its traditional heartland, in Sydney's north shore.
"It is a challenge," she said.
"The only reason I am doing this is because I want to see success at the club. I understand the importance of our existence from a community perspective.
"Perhaps [I will be able to say] I was part of a lasting change at West Harbour."
Authors: Republished with permission from Bing News
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