Cast your mind back to 2003. The week leading up to the final of the Rugby World Cup between Australia and England. A month-long spectacle of rugby had been held around Australia.
Everyone was talking about rugby. Secretly, while rugby league types were quick to point out its rival sport’s flaws and compare its entertainment value to the NRL, they were secretly worried at the threat the Wallabies juggernaut posed.
At the time, the ARU had John O’Neill at the helm, who made it clear that he wanted rugby to become the number one winter code in NSW and Queensland.
It is hard to believe how far the sport has fallen in Australia since those halcyon days. Dreadful crowds and television audiences for all rugby at the professional level. Poor results for Australian Super Rugby teams and the Wallabies have become the norm.
While so many people line up to put the boot into Raelene Castle, Michael Cheika and Cameron Clyne, the sport’s problems go much deeper than that. These problems go beyond the boardroom and politics. The problems are more endemic than contract terminations of high-profile players over Instagram posts.
While rugby enjoys a boom around the world with the growth of the game in Japan, Europe and South America, the game lurches from crisis to crisis in Australia.
But why? When rugby offers something the NRL and AFL can never offer in the form of high-stakes international competition, why is the sport in Australia on its knees?
Rugby has a very serious cultural and a perception problem.
Not the kind of cultural or perception problems that plagues the NRL with individuals engulfed in scandal after scandal. It is a problem for the sport of rugby in this country that is not even recognised by the sport’s own community, much like a stubborn man who refuses to consult a doctor when symptoms of an ailment are obvious.
In Australia, rugby’s professional content is hidden behind pay walls. The Super Rugby competition, Wallabies tours and this World Cup for the most part are all behind a pay wall, except for the Wallabies’ matches and the finals. Joe Public without subscriptions or with just a passing interest in rugby are immediately excluded from the potential audience.
Sporting administrators too often forget that their content is easily forgotten and can easily become irrelevant when not on the terrestrial channels. Cricket Australia are guilty of this, with their brain-dead decision to give Foxtel exclusive domestic one-day cricket rights. Channel-flicking on terrestrial TV, you regularly see the AFL and NRL. You rarely see any rugby. A whole generation of millennial Australians without parents encouraging a love for rugby have had little exposure to rugby.
So, how does this have anything to do with rugby’s culture? The answer is summed up by one word: exclusivity.
Rugby has a culture of exclusivity. The perception of rugby being just for elite private schools is a cancer on the game in this country. Private school rugby players focus on elite private schoolboy competitions like the GPS in Sydney because they are the only real pathways to higher honours.
Local grassroots club rugby cannot survive and thrive when junior club teams don’t have these players participating, which causes club competitions and teams to collapse. Potential participants whose parents cannot afford a private school education, or who have not been lucky enough to be offered a rugby scholarship, go off to play other sports. There is a limited pathway to the elite level outside of attending an elite private school. This has created the perception of a closed shop.
The AFL must love the short-sightedness of rugby in those suburbs of northern Sydney and the Eastern Suburbs where the option of playing junior club rugby league is unpalatable. Rugby has handed the AFL a whole generation of young participants in those areas on a silver platter.
The NRL must also breathe a sigh of relief that rugby cannot see the forest for the trees. While rugby league certainly has its own fair share of cultural problems, at least it has a culture of welcoming everyone from all walks of life, not just the elites from the upper echelons of society.
In the game’s defence, rugby has, to its credit, gone to great efforts to expand the Super Rugby competition. They have taken their product to Perth, Argentina, Japan and Singapore. However, you must shake their head with disapproval and dismay with the lack of insight on taking the sport to the most important market in all of Australian sport: Western Sydney.
Why Rugby Australia did not make it their number one priority to establish a Western Sydney rugby franchise with development pathways to Super Rugby is beyond comprehension, considering the large population of expatriate Pacific Islanders in that growth corridor.
“But the Waratahs play at Bankwest!”, I hear you say in response. Well, let’s look at the facts. The Waratahs have been forced to go there while Allianz Stadium is rebuilt. That is not the same as Rugby Australia starting a Western Sydney franchise and taking the product to the mums and dads out in Parramatta, Penrith, Liverpool and Campbelltown. The Waratahs don’t identify with the area like the Western Sydney Wanderers, the Parramatta Eels or the GWS Giants.
We don’t see rugby out in suburbia running school holiday coaching clinics or promoting the sport in public and Catholic schools. Instead, we see pay walls. The AFL get out to the suburbs, especially in Sydney’s west, and hustle. The AFL know that they need to win the hearts and minds. Every heart and mind the AFL wins is like an investment that will pay a big dividend in ten years from now.
The rugby fraternity is blinded by their arrogance and ignorance. Rugby Australia still think that it is 1999 and that they can win World Cups on the back of the GPS as the key pathway, when the likes of England, France and Ireland have become far more sophisticated in how they operate.
If the disastrous events of 2019 for the sport of rugby have not been a wake-up call, I don’t know what will awaken the community to realise that it is sleep walking into sporting oblivion in Australia.