Is rugby boring and over-complicated or is it nuanced and strategic? Is it slow and attritional or is it physical and intense? Is it dour like the South Africa versus Wales semi-final? Or is it amazing like the England versus New Zealand semi-final?
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Ultimately it doesn’t matter — Rugby Australia can’t just unilaterally change the rules. But they can still make rugby more popular. They just need to realise that rugby is an acquired taste. Like beer. Or coffee. Or vegemite. At first you wonder how anyone could possibly enjoy it but once you cross the threshold there’s no going back.
And the way you acquire the taste? Playing rugby. Grassroots participation doesn’t just build a pipeline of players, it builds a pipeline of fans. The easiest way to make rugby popular in Australia again is the Wallabies winning. The second is increasing junior participation.
How do you increase junior participation? You invest in it. You spend more money on people wearing shorts and less money on people wearing suits. And you make it easy for kids to see the path from where they are to where they want to be by making the Wallabies as accessible as possible — particularly at their local clubs.
The truth is, the game itself is not the problem. Everyone would more love tries, less rules and less stoppages but if rugby was really broken, then it would be struggling everywhere.
It’s not. It’s booming. And the standard criticisms of rugby as a sport are refuted pretty comprehensively by the most successful sporting competitions in the world. Rugby has way more scoring than football. It’s less complicated than American football. It flows more than basketball and has more ball-in-play time than cricket or baseball.
One thing in rugby’s favour is that it all kinda looks the same. Club rugby is often better to watch than internationals. As a live sports experience, club rugby is just better than professional rugby. It’s cheaper, it’s easier to get to, you get a better seat, the food and drink is cheaper, better and quicker to get and you can run around the field at the end.
This is unique to rugby — try flicking back and forth between the NBA and the NBL or between the Premier League and the A-League. It’s chalk and cheese.
This is something that rugby can capitalise on — but it requires the realisation that popularity can be built from the ground up — not just from the top down. And it requires a media strategy that plays to rugby’s strengths rather than going head-to-head with league and Aussie rules.