Why Australia are a consistent rugby powerhouse
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It is common knowledge that Australian rugby union has a rather tough challenge for popularity in a country widely acknowledged as a sporting mecca.
Failed attempts in the past to create their own professional domestic competition prove that rugby union struggles to be financially viable. This means that the professional development of Australian rugby union is highly dependent on Super Rugby.
Rugby union in Australia has significantly less depth than many of our rival nations.
Now you may ask, how is it, with all these challenges, that we manage to remain in the top three of the rankings and have won two World Cups and three Tri-Nations trophies?
I have a theory about that. I could be totally wrong, but here goes.
We all know that Australia seldom has a big pack of forwards, they rely on intelligence and guile to negate scrum dominance of their opponents. This is often not the most legal approach, but they have managed to master the art of pulling the wool over the eyes of referees over time. I don’t mean this as a slight on them or as criticism, but that is the reality.
From their back rowers, they rely on players with big upper body strength who are quick and versatile.
But this is all just to gain as much parity as they can muster against teams with dominant forwards. This however does fail them on the odd occasion, thinking back there have been a few games against England in 2010 and most recently Ireland in the World Cup.
Their strength however has always been their back line.
Rugby league and AFL are not only more popular among Australians, but also have more registered players.
In 2006, 615,549 registered participants played Australian football in Australia. Participation increased 7.84% between 2005–06. The Australian Sports Commission statistics show a 64% increase in the total number of participants over the 10 year period between 2001–2010.
The AFL consists of 18 professional teams competing for the title and had an average match attendance of 36,000 spectators.
The National Rugby League consists of 16 professional teams and has 466 000 registered players.
In contrast rugby union only has five professional teams and 87000 registered players.
This brings me to my point of why Australia still manages to remain competitive at international level.
Super Rugby is essentially the foundation that exposes around 150 Australian players to the most competitive club/franchise competition in the world. Disregarding their international standing for a mere moment, they compete with the two countries who has the most competitive provincial competition structure in world rugby.
Hence the experience gained from that is vital to their international survival.
Add to that the fact that the pace of play in the Super Rugby competition is second to none.
But surely that cannot be the only reasons.
Australian kids grow up with ball in hand, be it backyard rugby league, AFL or rugby union. Whatever they play, one thing remains constant, the shape of the ball.
From the little I know and have seen from AFL, it is very clear that ball skills and hand/eye coordination are a pre-requisite to play the game, as are athleticism and agility.
The same goes for rugby league.
So in my view although there may only be 80 000 + rugby union players in Australia, the skill base is acquired by a much bigger pool of athletes, whether they play AFL, rugby league or rugby union.
The only aspect in my opinion that limits Australian depth is the number of professional players in their system.
Might not be as simple as that, but just a thought.