Rugby union in Australia is the toughest gig in world sport.
The Wallabies used to punch above their weight so often that it unfortunately became the expectation rather than the exception, and it’s not easy to constantly live up to the hype – like we’re seeing now. The Wallabies are constantly competing against and therefore compared with the most admired team in the world, the All Blacks. No team would want that, even if they’d all say they would!
And as if that weren’t enough, rugby union is competing with the incredibly successful NRL machine for eyeballs and talent.
Much of the innovation in rugby union has come from the southern hemisphere, particularly Australia. This is not because we are smarter than everyone else; it’s because Australia is the most competitive sports markets in the world. Competition drives innovation. While it is in our DNA to entertain, competitive pressure is what really makes it imperative.
I’d suggest that if the Wallabies were winning but playing boring rugby, casual viewers would just switch to something else, most likely NRL. I know people who do this – they start watching a union game and after the third scrum reset and endless penalties switch to watching NRL.
Potential casual viewers probably outnumber avid viewers, so clearly this is not good for the long-term success of union in Australia. Having fewer viewers means lower TV ratings, which means less money in the code, which means more union players seeking a home overseas or in the NRL. Other countries don’t have this problem.
The primary objective of union – or any sport, for that matter – should be to entertain. Entertainment drives eyeballs, which drives revenue, which drives growth and success. When the Boks say their objective is to win rather than entertain, we shouldn’t criticise them. We should criticise World Rugby because the code needs to keep evolving to ensure its entertainment value is keeping up with the changing entertainment landscape.
World Rugby’s objective should be for teams to say that their objective is to entertain, because entertaining rugby translates into the code winning overall. But it’s hard to imagine that at the moment
World Rugby would point to incredible growth of the game as proof of success. I’d suggest that the growth is primary due to sevens, women’s competitions and developing union countries. This is fantastic – and I mean that genuinely – but the most important measure of growth should be growth of the already established men’s game in Tier 1 nations, because this is an indicator of where the ceiling is for the code as a whole.
The objective should be to raise the ceiling as much as possible, and the only way to do this is to improve the entertainment value, because entertainment drives eyeballs, which drives revenue, which drives growth and success.
Yes, there has been quite a lot of innovation since 1995, when the code turned professional. But from an entertainment point of view the biggest issues still remain, like scrum resets and endless penalties, whereby players and spectators scratch their heads and wonder why. World Rugby should make it a priority to clean up the game by resolving the biggest issues.
World Rugby is to be commended for tackling the breakdown issue. In March 2020 the new breakdown law application guideline made its world debut in Super Rugby Aotearoa and Super Rugby AU. The results have been positive but the benefit has been mainly there for avid viewers – it is unlikely to make a significant difference in attracting casual viewers.
The scary statistic is that the ball was in play for an average of 36 minutes 15 seconds – this was considered positive because it was three minutes 42 seconds longer than the average time in the previous season. Ouch! How can we turn casual viewers into avid viewers as well as attract new casual viewers when the ball is in play for an average of only 36 minutes 15 seconds?
It would be great if World Rugby would tackle the issues that contribute to the ball being out of play for the bulk of the remaining 45 minutes. Why hasn’t this happened already? Because union is a happy camp where enough avid viewers turn up anyway and there is no competitive pressure to innovate more quickly.
A hypothetical world schoolboy rugby team was picked nine months ago. Three Australian players made this team. So what’s happened since then in the real world? The one Australian forward recently got signed up by the Melbourne Rebels union team. The two Australian backs got signed up by NRL clubs several months ago. Ouch!
While the flow of union players to league has slowed since professionalism and there is now even some flow the other way, NRL clubs have an excellent track record of targeting junior superstars, and the NRL still seems to be the preferred home for superstars. I’d suggest that’s why it’s hard to find the superstars in the current Wallabies – league has picked them up before union has had the opportunity to see them in union beyond school.
Can you imagine if this happened in England? In fact the opposite is true: since professionalism England union is the preferred home for superstars, the most recent example being Sam Burgess. My point here is that he made the switch, not whether or not he was successful.
How about if England were playing a union Test match and 20 minutes after kick-off a big chunk of TV viewers switched to an English rugby league club game? That would mean lower TV ratings, which would mean less money and that union management and players would have to take a pay cut. Superstars would be targeted by league. England would be experiencing the same competitive pressure as Australia.
If England felt the competitive pressure, you can bet that the northern hemisphere and World Rugby would feel the pressure.
Hence the title of this article: Rugby Australia should invest in English rugby league to make it stronger. I can’t think of a better way to create competitive pressure than to drive World Rugby for the benefit of union internationally. Can you?