As a young man in 2003, like thousands of others, I stood in the middle of the Rocks on Sydney’s George Street and watched Jonny Wilkinson break a nation’s heart in the World Cup final.
Despite the devastating loss I became enraptured with the Rugby World Cup. I found myself surrounded by crazed chanting Poms in the middle of the road and was floored by just how good competitive international rugby can be.
At that moment in time, I completely understood why rugby league superstars were defecting so quickly and could never begrudge them the opportunity.
Back then Australian rugby was at the peak of its powers. In 2000, international rugby was getting six figure crowds – 109,874 being the biggest – and it was constantly part of the national conversation, helped by prime minister John Howard famously donning his gold tracksuit.
How high rugby was flying almost seems inconceivable now given the state of the game.
Since the unlikely World Cup final appearance in 2015, Australia have won only 17 of their 43 games, and had some of the worst crowds and ratings in the code’s history.
It’s hard to sugarcoat those results and the position of rugby and the Wallabies in Australia right now.
Interestingly, one of the biggest brands in the other Australian rugby code – the NSW Blues – have gone on a similar arc when it comes to on-field success, winning only three State of Origin series since 2005. But the key point of difference during those years is that despite losing series after series, support for the Blues has grown.
The Wallabies could now only dream of the support they once had at the turn of the century.
Perhaps the Wallabies could do worse than look to the Blues to find out how they actually grew support during some very lean years.
(Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)
Almost ten million people tuned into the State of Origin series this year. The game sold out Optus Stadium, which is thousands of kilometres away from the code’s heartland. Even the women’s State of Origin in only its second year has outrated recent Wallabies fixtures, and even had a handful of exciting rugby juniors like Millie Boyle star in the game.
State of Origin is an impressive behemoth in the Australian sporting landscape and a lot of this success comes down to one word: rivalry. New South Wales and Queensland hate each other with a deep passion that fans feed off.
If you examine the crowds around the years of great Blues success like the treble of 2003, 2004 and 2005, attendances were considerably lower than they were during the Maroons’ famous dynasty decade.
I wonder whether that’s because in this period, even though the Blues players were outclassed on the pitch, the levels of passion and hate actually rose. Players like Greg Bird, Paul Gallen and more recently David Klemmer and Tyson Frizell brought the hate and had no problem becoming loathed north of the border.
Heading into a World Cup year as a Wallabies fan, it is hard to tap into the passion of the squad.
I’m not saying the team isn’t passionate and doesn’t covet the national jersey, they just seem to lack that deep loathing towards the All Blacks – the kind of hate that makes you fight harder at every breakdown, push harder in every scrum and run faster and tackle stronger than your opposing number.
The kind of hate for a superior opposition that wins back the casual fan.
For dyed-in-the-wool rugby fans, the Wallabies will always be a huge entity. But the casual fan like me now feels detached. And I’m not the only one.
I used to work with Wallabies fans who hung flags on Sydney construction site cranes. Now, apart from the few Kiwis on the site that I work with every day, you are lucky to hear anything about rugby union.
If the code still wants to be successful and relevant in Australia, it needs to bring these type of fans along once again.
There is a lot to get excited about with the Wallabies this year, including the improved scrum on the back of Taniela Tupou, a possible fairytale ending for David Pocock and the potential redemption story for James O’Connor, yet the other countries see us as so little a threat they are throwing weakened line-ups out against us so they can prepare for perceived tougher opponents.
If the Wallabies don’t fire up over that sort of slight and play their best game in years, I’m not sure they ever will.
For years now the narrative is that we are building towards the next World Cup, and that time is upon us. We need to find a way to win and find a way to win fans back.
If you can get the right mix of passion, desire and hostility towards a more fancied opposition, perhaps rugby juniors will be more inclined to stay in the code, and even more importantly, the fans will come with you.
Because as we saw on Wednesday at Homebush, when the pendulum does finally swing your way, the victory for long-suffering fans is all the sweeter.