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What a parlous state Australian rugby is in. The standout for another appalling season was the once-mighty Reds being thrashed 63-28 by… the Crusaders? Lions? No, the Sunwolves.
So what is the solution to this parlous situation?
Well, happily, Joe Roff – the former champion Wallaby and current CEO of this year’s next worst Australian team, the Brumbies – provided the answers this season.
“We need a new stadium,” was Joe’s solution to the pathetic state of Australian rugby.
Nothing do to with substandard players, it is the shocking state of the concrete mausoleums.
I grant you, as any regular paying guest of Canberra Stadium can vouch, the majority of the seats are not within the warm confines of a heated executive suite offering free grog, freshly cooked, edible food, and tasty desserts. But for watching footy, there’s really nothing wrong with the stadium itself.
The best place in Australia to watch footy – Leichhardt Oval in Sydney – is quite possibly the most antiquated elite sports facility in the world. It still has wooden benches and a grass hill. The subterranean toilet block fills up to the knees every time it rains. The ground is hard to get to and has bugger all parking if you drive. But it gets filled every time the Wests Tigers play there.
So it’s not the stadium that matters. It could be the overbearing security and safety fetish that all Australian sports seem to have. It could be the inability to buy a decent beer, and having a stone-faced cashier tell you that your $20 note isn’t good enough to buy four watery tins of slightly-alcoholic brown soda water.
It could be the confronting spectacle of paying $7.50 for a pie, nuclear-treated so as to provide a hardwood-like base, rendering the contents hot enough to strip the lining from your tongue, plus 50 cents for a dollop of sauce to kill the taste. Or even worse, being told there aren’t any left just before kick-off, while over the loudspeaker comes an announcement exhorting the crowd to give thanks to today’s sponsors, the pie company.
It isn’t the stadium that’s putting people off going to the footy, Joe. But looking at the crowd figures this year, Joe may just, ever-so-slightly, be talking through his kick. Because the crowd for the Brumbies games was often 5000 people. And the graph of attendance numbers over the past few years is looking rather similar to the graph of the number of jobs in manufacturing in Australia. Or funding for science.
So Joe’s formula for improving rugby crowds, and rugby in general, is to build a new stadium. Perhaps the money could come out of the (former) science budget, because it certainly won’t be coming from rugby gate receipts.
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But there is something you can do, Joe, to get people back to the footy: have a good think about how you treat those in attendance.
One of the best stadiums in the world to watch footy is Rugby Park in Invercargill. There, you can stand up along a whole side of the stadium if you wish, or sit on a grass hill, you can drink as much full-strength beer as you like, the pies are warm and you don’t lose the skin on your tongue. Mr Whippy sits in one corner, and while you wait with hundreds of others in line for an ice-cream, you can still watch the footy.
The program is available in exchange for an optional gold coin, and if there are ‘security guards’, nobody notices them.
It is fun, the ground is full for every major game, the kids enjoy running around madly on the grassy hill, jostling for position on kicks at goal, treading on pies and kicking over beers as they go, and the ground announcer limits his remarks to announcing facts.
Yet everyone, a cross-section of New Zealand society, enjoys the experience. Compare that with how we’re treated at Canberra Stadium and other grounds in Australia.
Fix that, and you might start getting more than 5000 people to a do-or-die Brumbies match. No matter where it is.