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Opinion

How to save Australian rugby? Rekindle tribalism – and forget New Zealand

RubenJames new author
Roar Rookie
14th July, 2020
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RubenJames new author
Roar Rookie
14th July, 2020
161
4081 Reads

It’s time for Australia to go it alone in rugby. New Zealand don’t see us as valuable competition, they may even see us as a burden.

And maybe we are? Maybe we have let rugby slip so far away over the last 20 years that we can no longer compete.

So we have three options:

1: Accept the Kiwis’ offer and field two teams (three if we’re lucky) in the new competition (please no)
2: Bribe them with the 2027 World Cup and get all five teams in the trans-Tasman competition and get smashed every game (even worse)
3: Go our own way

New Zealand are bored of watching us play and we’re bored of watching their teams demolish us. Yes, the Brumbies might get the odd win,, but it’s rare.

We need to make rugby relevant to the Australian public again.

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After watching the first few rounds of Super Rugby AU, I thought rugby was dead in the water – boring games, sloppy skills.

Until I saw the Western Force play the Waratahs.

While the Force lost, they showed so much more enthusiasm and passion than NSW and this comes from a strong connection to the Western Australia rugby public.

The WA public fought tooth and nail to keep the Force around and now they get to see them back in the national competition. That is the secret to all of this: tribalism and connection.

So here it is, my take on an Australia only competition.

I will outline the possible teams, how to build tribalism, how to improve media coverage, and what all this means for the Wallabies.

Part 1: Building tribalism

The competition would be made up of ten teams from across Australia, each fed by the clubs and schools in the area.

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NSW
North Sydney Dingoes
South Sydney Goannas
NSW Country Rams

Queensland
North Brisbane Taipans
South Brisbane Eagles
QLD Country Crocodiles

WA
Western Force

Victoria
Melbourne Rebels
Victoria Country Bushrangers

ACT
Brumbies

In NSW, North Sydney Dingoes would be fed by Eastwood, Gordon, Manly, Northern Suburbs and Warringah. The South Sydney Goannas would be fed by Eastern Suburbs, West Sydney, Randwick, Southern Districts, Sydney Uni, West Harbour and Penrith. I’ve divided the teams roughly on where they sit on either side of the Harbour Bridge.

The NSW Country Rams would be fed by the local clubs in Newcastle and maybe even some from the Central Coast.

Will Harris playing for the NSW Country Eagles

Will Harris playing for NSW Country. (Photo by Tracey Nearmy/Getty Images)

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I’ve taken the same approach with Queensland. Divided roughly by where they sit in relation to the Brisbane River, the Hospital Cup teams will feed either the North Brisbane Taipans or the South Brisbane Eagles, while the Crocodiles would be fed by the North and Central Queensland unions.

For clubs, this connection would mean seeing players move from club rugby into professional teams – for example, Randwick players would move up to the South Sydney Goannas – which would reinforce the connection between amateur and professional rugby, showing players clear pathways.

The teams would also focus on having a strong presence in schools in the area. This could come in the form of visits, helping with training and attending first XV matches.

It should be noted that the clubs should focus on both private and public schools. While rugby will always have a strong connection to private schools, it is time to put some real effort into building the game in public schools.

To add onto this, the teams should try to give away as many free tickets to juniors as possible.

All this would not only build support for the new competition, but most importantly breed tribalism. It also means that if the connection is strong enough, regardless of how teams perform, people will have a vested interest and not turn their backs on them.

Just picture the rivalries that would build, particularly between the North and South city teams. There could be smaller trophies like the Harbour Bridge Cup for when the Dingoes play the Goannas or the Brown Snake Trophy for when the Taipans play the Eagles. Even if you didn’t follow either team, you would be drawn to watch those games.

This brings me to another point, breaking down the Waratahs and Reds.

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It makes a lot more sense to have three teams per state rather than one. The Waratahs are too disconnected from the rest of NSW. But by having more teams representing different regions, players and fans will feel more of a connection to their sides and tribalism and dedication will build.

This also means games would be played all over NSW. Picture the Rams playing at Gosford.

However, the Tahs and Reds brands have long and proud histories – but this presents another opportunity. The Waratahs and Reds would emerge once a year for a three-game State of Union series.

Part 2: Media

A lot needs to change here.

Team names
While some the names of the original teams will remain (Brumbies, Force and Rebels), the new teams will have names that really reflect the Australian nature of the competition.

I am aware that it’s more about the quality of rugby than the brand, but team names are important and need to be exciting. It will help the public really get behind the idea of a new all Australian rugby competition.

Pre-game hype
A couple of weeks ago I found myself watching the lead up to the Penrith Panthers versus the Paramatta Eels.

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Wow.

Blake Ferguson breaking tackles

The Eels and Panthers. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

I follow neither team and only watch league occasionally but by the end of that hype up I was in for the whole game.

The marketing team created a whole narrative around ‘who is the best western team?’ and had ex-coaches and ex-players telling stories about old rivalries and digging into each other. It was great build-up and gave you a glimpse into each team’s history and the rivalry between the two sides.

I then watched the first ever game of Super Rugby AU, between the Reds and Waratahs. Queensland vs NSW. And what did I get?

Nothing.

No build-up, no excitement, just the players running onto the pitch. That game should have been hyped for a week!

State of Union
From memory, the big obstacle in the way of a State of the Union was the fact that NSW and Queensland already have teams playing Super Rugby, which makes it confusing to then play a separate, Origin-style match.

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However, with several teams in each state, the door is open.

This could be used as a way of attracting people to the game. Let the players punch on a bit, have a big brawl in the first game to really set the tone. Just make a big deal out of it.

Free to air
It ‘svital for Super Rugby to be played on free-to-air TV – rugby needs to be exposed to as many people as possible and having it behind a paywall just makes it that much harder to get eyes on the sport.

While streaming services such as Kayo are becoming more mainstream, the benefits of FTA are deeper. When a game is played free to air on, it seems far more connected to the cultural fabric. When it’s on Kayo, it just seems like a separate entity.

But streaming services are becoming more normal, so why not both?

Tom Banks of the Wallabies runs the ball

Tom Banks on the run for the Wallabies. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Part 3: Wallabies

As for the Wallabies? I can hear people saying we will stand no chance if players aren’t regularly competing against New Zealand.

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Well, the players have been doing just that for the past 20 years and the Wallabies have done nothing but head downhill – along with spectator engagement.

If we make the mistake of having three teams in a new trans-Tasman competition, I guarantee it will fall to two, then one. The Giteau law will be dissolved and the Wallabies will just become a team made up of different people from around the globe with no connection to local players and supporters.

But if we go it alone, build up more Australian teams with a strong cultural identity and tribalism, people will throw themselves behind their team, playing numbers will go up, and competition will grow stronger.

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When we finally do face the All Blacks, everyone will remember how they thought we weren’t good enough, how they thought we could only field two competitive teams. But here we are, an Aussie team made up of players from a vast range of strong and proud clubs, ready to face the Haka.

Will we win? Who knows? But I would rather lose against New Zealand this way than lose after groveling at their feet, doing anything to be part of their new competition.

And this way the Wallabies aren’t the be-all and end-all. If the competition is strong, then supporters will still look forward to their club playing the next weekend.

Maybe I’m dreaming here, but it seems to me that Super Rugby never did much for Australian rugby (along with poor financial decisions). We need to be bold and move forward on our own.

It might be a rough decade or so, but if the tribalism and the connections are there, then people will come.

I want to see rugby in Australia grow and have a clear identity, I want to hear about the upcoming games on the news and radio, about the passion that fans have for their clubs because they feel a strong connection to them.

I can’t stand the idea of rugby purposefully shrinking just to play alongside the big boys and then slowly fade into irrelevance.

Forget New Zealand – lets back ourselves and go it alone!

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