As an Australian rugby fan, it seems that these days the focus is on the blight of the game at the professional level, the inept performances of our domestic sides, and our inability to compete with league, football and Aussie rules.
Some may see this as a negative and even shameful. Why can’t we simply sit and enjoy the sport we follow, regardless of who else is following it?
I personally find the critical mindset to be not only valid but constructive, as it prompts growth and development of the game by pushing those in charge to take initiative and make changes.
Surely it’s safe to assume – as the cries become louder and more desperate – surely the response will be one of drastic proportions?
You’d hope so, anyway.
One thing my AFL and NRL following mates are willing to acknowledge is that rugby’s edge over the other codes will always be its international presence.
Test rugby is a great spectacle, regardless of how many penalties are kicked, and it will always hold a significance and quality hard to replicate in a Parramatta versus Canterbury local derby.
However, this will only ever keep us in the fight, within landing any knockout blows that will take us to the top.
Simply possessing a strong Test team in a competitive global environment is respectable but not enough to capture the hearts of picky, easily distracted Australians.
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For us to truly engage with a greater fan-base we must, surprisingly, connect more to our traditional tribal roots, nurturing these, and allowing them to spread further from where they stand today.
On the one hand, the current structure of the game isn’t strong enough to compel the development of a greater fan-base. With the NRC being introduced, an arguably greater pool of Super Rugby and Test rugby players has been unearthed, but no new fans have really been budded as the crowds for the competing teams only really consist of current diehards.
On the other hand, it takes time to develop loyal fans and tradition by nature. Cult followings don’t pop up out of nowhere, and significance is established through generations.
In saying that, more could be done to streamline, organise and prune the current model to make it more accessible to not only current fans but also new ones.
TV broadcasting is one issue, but nothing is stopping Rugby Australia from hosting more games live around the country. To do so would require another rejig, but it’s not as if there haven’t been any of these in recent times. Of course, we must reach a point where little or no rearrangement of the tiers is needed.
Currently, all major rugby states possess their own local competitions. Some, such as NSW, possess several, with the Sydney teams playing in a different competition to, say, the Illawarra teams. But, to promote equal, balanced growth around the state, Manly should have an opportunity to test themselves against the Central West. Interstate tournaments should make up the first few months of the year.
Following this, a nation-wide tournament – similar to that of the Currie Cup – should take place, involving the same teams.
After rankings are determined from the interstate tournaments, the strongest from each state, with NSW and Queensland supplying more teams than, say, Western Australia, should take place, dissolving state borders to create a true nation wide competition, that, again, maintains local tribalry.
Cottlesloe against Brothers. Parramatta against Box Hill.
The shape or length of the tournament isn’t my point here, but more the gradual progression of scale and level of the competition.
Next, in place of the Super Rugby, shall stand a similar competition in which our best provincial sides play against the best from New Zealand. If it’s logistically feasible, also from the Pacific Islands, Asia and South Africa.
Just as the Bulls are both a Currie Cup team and a bolstered Super Rugby team with players from surrounding provinces, North Sydney, for example, would merge the best from surrounding teams to take on Wellington, Durban and Tokyo.
Let’s remember that a player who played for Hunter or Melbourne – if they’re quality – will now have progressed to the level of this tournament.
Again, which teams become the representation of others is not my issue here but more the idea of maintaining a strong pathway.
Finally, Test matches will make up the rest of the year, with each country assembling the best from their respective provinces, as they already do.
Part of what makes this model enticing is that it recaptures the magic of Wallabies playing for their clubs again, giving fans a reason and a glimmer of hope to see Jed Holloway and Jake Gordon running out for Southern Districts.
Of course, this concept seems to occupy a large portion of the year and could potentially create a greater load on players.
Additionally, arranging such an overhaul alongside other nations to time this would certainly be easier said than done. Not to mention the whole story of contracting and administration that would deter anything this drastic from occurring.
I’d like to reiterate that rugby union’s global presence will only hold it among the best codes, but fostering greater engagement with fans will push it to compete for the top spot.