Time to pull heads out of the sand and admit Australian rugby is dying

Ryan O'Connell Columnist

By , Ryan O'Connell is a Roar Expert

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    Early on in my time with The Roar, I was guilty of writing pieces that were ‘comment chasers’; pieces designed to do little else than generate debate.

    While stimulating healthy debate is a good thing, the articles in question weren’t fantastic, and the conversation that resulted – though lengthy and sometimes robust – lacked intelligence, objectivity and nuance.

    There was nothing healthy about the debate I started; it was simply ammunition for a code war, which is a surefire way to get people talking.

    Initiating a code war was a cheap trick that left me feeling a little dirty, and I didn’t really enjoy the practice. Whether it was ego or immaturity that was the cause, I’m still not sure, but I swore to myself that I would never do it again.

    Rest assured, therefore, that the following piece is not a provocative attack on rugby union, nor is it designed to annoy the rah-rah crowd into such hysteria that The Roar’s servers melt under the weight of comments.

    Rather, this is an honest opinion: I fear for the future of rugby union in this country.

    Some rugby fans will no doubt believe this to be a cheap shot from a rugby league writer. However, I love rugby and always have. I consider league and union equals in my heart.

    Most of my friends played grade footy, and Norths Rugby Club has been a major part of my life, to the point that I proudly wear my 2016 Shute Shield Premiership hat most weekends. In fact, my best friend probably won’t speak to me for a month after he reads this.

    So trust me when I say that I love rugby, this isn’t a cheap shot, and I’m not chasing comments from angry Roarers.

    However, rugby is in big trouble in this country, and I was persuaded to write this by the amount of rugby fans that have their heads stuck in the sand.

    There are a number of reasons why rugby isn’t trending in the right direction in Australia at present, and though they may hurt to read, they’re not sensationalistic claims.

    Starting with Super Rugby, and it doesn’t help the code that Australia’s franchises are struggling to bother the ‘win’ column at present. It seems the only time an Australian team does win, it’s because they’re playing an Australian team. The lack of elite-level depth is clearly evident when it’s stretched across five teams.

    There’s talk of Australia losing a Super Rugby club in the upcoming SANZAAR restructure of the competition, which is never a good look.

    You could even argue that we should lose two teams if you’re using ‘quality’ as a criterion.

    The addition of two new franchises – the Western Force and Melbourne Rebels – was meant to increase the number of quality players via more professional opportunities, as well as grow the game in new regions. I’m not sure either objective has been achieved.

    My mate Brett McKay won’t like me repeating this, but it’s true: with its conference system, even the Super Rugby competition itself is confusing. To the point of being of a deterrent to the casual fan. If you don’t really understand how it works, it’s hard to get ‘into’ it.

    Meanwhile, when it comes to internationals, no matter how impressive the Wallabies play against other countries, the vast majority of the nation still judges them against the all mighty All Blacks, and little else. So, considering Australia’s appalling record versus New Zealand over the last decade, the team is considered second-rate by many, and therefore not worthy of their eyeballs.

    New Zealands Richie McCaw walks past Australias David Pocock

    Success always brings back some promiscuous fans, yet winning may not even be enough to overcome rugby’s harshest reality. Specifically, that the game is perceived as boring.

    Such an assessment is obviously subjective, after all, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

    Rugby advocates will claim there is little wrong with the game itself; just the way it’s currently being played in Australia. Truly loyal fans probably won’t even admit that.

    However, ‘rusted on’ fans are not what drive a game’s growth, for they will always be there. What does ensure a game is headed in the right direction is the recruiting of new fans, or converting back some lapsed ones.

    Given the product Australian rugby is presently serving up, recruitment and conversion is a tough sell. Whether you deride the sport as boring, or simply acknowledge the lack of talent is having an impact on the quality of play, the fact remains that rugby union is currently an inferior product to its competitors.

    The key word to analyse in that sentence is ‘currently’. All sports experience some lows, so are we simply witnessing the ebb to the flow in Australian rugby, and the game will bounce back again soon?

    Sadly, that is extremely optimistic.

    There are few signs that this downward trend will abate soon. Which begs the question, what is the future for rugby?

    It’s not going anywhere internationally. It remains the number one game in New Zealand, is a large part of the fabric of South Africa, goes from strength-to-strength in Europe, and it’s growing in other parts of the world.

    Yet in Australia, the news may be a little starker.

    Romain Poite Bledisloe Cup Rugby Championship 2016

    Given the success of rugby elsewhere around the globe, World Rugby is under no pressure to make rule changes to make the game more attractive simply to suit the Australian market.

    However, those other markets don’t have to contend with AFL, and rugby league is not a large threat. Yet in Australia, both those codes are behemoths compared to union. That means that young talent, sponsorships, TV deals, new regions, and fans, are all fought over, with rugby losing the fight.

    The AFL is even making serious inroads into that most sacred of rugby union strongholds: the Sydney GPS system. It was once almost the exclusive nursery of rugby’s future, but now it’s just another battleground for recruiting athletic youngsters.

    With the AFL and NRL’s war chests full – thanks largely to lucrative TV deals – and strategic plans in place to grow their respective games, they will continue to place immense pressure on the ARU, whose financial cupboard is bare.

    Kurtley Beales infamous slip while attempting to win the game for the Wallabies against the Lions

    So…

    The quality of play isn’t great. The results are poor. The crown jewel, the Super Rugby competition, is confusing. We’re probably going to lose a franchise. The average fan thinks the game is boring. Grassroots development is a major concern. Competitors – armed with money and plans – are encroaching. The ARU isn’t swimming in cash. There isn’t a revenue-spinning Lions tour or World Cup hosting on the horizon.

    I could on, and discuss things like the infighting and disconnect with clubs, but you get the picture.

    All in all, I’m struggling to see the light at the end of the tunnel, but I sincerely hope someone can tell me I’m being melodramatic, and give me cause to be more optimistic.

    My genuine fear is that Australian rugby – as we know it – is on death’s door. Should that be the case, it’s a massive shame.

    Ryan O
    Ryan O'Connell

    Ryan is an ex-representative basketballer who shot too much, and a (very) medium pace bowler. He's been with The Roar as an expert since February 2011, has written for the Seven Network, and been a regular on ABC radio. Ryan tweets from @RyanOak.

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