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What can Australian rugby learn from constantly losing?

cispt2 new author
Roar Rookie
5th September, 2021
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cispt2 new author
Roar Rookie
5th September, 2021
165
4864 Reads

What does it take to be an Australian rugby supporter?

For me, there are two things I feel it takes to be a rugby supporter. I assume most are Australian (or live in Australia), and you need to enjoy watching and/or playing rugby.

Me? I’m Australian, but have lived in the US for the past 15 years. I lived the glory years of the 90s and early noughties as a Wallabies fan, and carry the burden of elevated expectations knowing what can be achieved.

When I arrived here in the US, it was almost impossible to watch Super Rugby or the Wallabies, and I’d have to reconstruct games from YouTube highlights and Facebook posts. Now it’s simple to watch rugby here in the US.

Live games are tough (they take place between 1am and 6am), but I roll out of bed, fire up the Apple TV, and hit up the relevant app: ESPN, Flo Sports, Peacock (NBC), even the RugbyAU app.

But I’m a husband and dad with limited time, and have to chose the games I watch, which has led to a simple and uninspiring rule: when I wake up, I check the Aussie team scores, and only watch the games we win.

I haven’t watched much Super Rugby in the past five years. And I’m at the point where I can’t watch Wallabies matches against New Zealand either. In fact, a few weeks ago, I had to step away from my Twitter account for a while (atNrcSydney – yep I’m that much of a fan) because I just couldn’t emotionally take yet another weekend of reading through threads picking apart why we are ‘so bad’, whether the referees are biased, etc.

You see, I think I know what is going wrong! Seriously though, I want to start a conversation about some difficult topics – topics that result in anger and accusations, but are probably the topics that genuinely need to be addressed.

Australian rugby is declining and shrinking, both off the field (attendance at games, for example), and on the field (Super Rugby, anyone?). Returning to our criteria for being an Australian rugby supporter: enjoy watching the game is essential, and who wants to watch losing? Who wants to lose for that matter?

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The professional Australian rugby landscape at Super Rugby and Wallabies level is defined by one simple fact: Australian players lose many more games than they win. Why? Because they mainly play teams from New Zealand, and New Zealand have skill/depth/quality and have been far better for two decades.

Angus Bell and the Waratahs look dejected

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

And it’s getting worse, mainly because we’ve trimmed Argentina and South African teams from Super Rugby, taking away the chance for some occasional wins.

So what can be done?

New Zealand
It’s not their fault, but New Zealand are the root of all our problems. Do we really need to play the best to be the best? I don’t know the answer, but for the past two decades we’ve tested the concept, and failed to improve despite playing the best.

And, let’s be honest, it’s great for NZ. They get to constantly keep their foot on the throat of Australian rugby at all senior levels – we haven’t been able to breathe for two decades. It’s time to step away from New Zealand rugby, because they are too good.

Yes, we need some engagement, but constant losing – and let’s be honest it’s basically constant – is pushing people away. Who wants to watch a game we are 90 per cent likely to lose when there’s so many sport alternatives available with great domestic competitions.

I really didn’t understand why everyone was so upset when New Zealand tried to push Australia to only two Super Rugby teams. Let’s be honest – they are right.

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We don’t like the idea in Australia because it doesn’t fit our domestic team reality of five sides (and the pain of cutting the Force when it was the wrong team to cut).

Australia should engage in a Super Rugby comp with NZ, accept that they can field five sides as good as the Wallabies, and pick two teams for that comp that pools our players – and win a couple of games.

Who would those two teams be? There is no non-painful answer I’m sorry: Sydney and Brisbane. Why did New Zealand want two Australian teams? Because they recognise that we aren’t offering much for the current Super Rugby tournament format. They have fans that want to watch competitive games too.

And a reduced SR format for Australia might keep some players in Australia too. Yes, the salaries in Europe and Japan are attractive, but if I had played a few seasons of Super Rugby I’d also wonder whether seven or eight more seasons of being whipped by New Zealand teams is worth it.

Moving to a European or Japanese club at least means they will win games, and maybe a competition! Stay in Australia and lose…. or earn more in an even competition overseas. It’s a no-brainer.

If we engage in a competition where Australian teams have the right skill/depth and win, people will watch, and people might play, and people might stay.

Will Skelton of La Rochelle

Will Skelton. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

As for the Bledisloe, Australia won’t win it while they need to win twice in a year (which would be true for a two or three-match series). So it’s time to step away.

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New Zealand rugby is Australia’s absolutely essential partner. Australian rugby needs to be realistic about how much rugby is good for us.

Super Rugby AU was awesome! Yes, it was borne of COVID necessity, but for a little over two months, people were excited about rugby! Why? Scheduling was great, all games were on our timezone, and an Aussie team won every game!

People watched, people signed up to Stan, my league-watching relatives watched the finals, and everything was going to be ok! Australian rugby needs Super Rugby AU, with five (or 6) teams. These players could feed into two Super Rugby teams with squad depth.

Not enough games. Okay, so we have Super Rugby, and we have international windows. Our players who aren’t in the Wallabies squad basically stand down in June, and then don’t top-flight rugby again until Super Rugby trial games in January.

In my opinion this is the fundamental flaw in Australian rugby. While New Zealand players are in NPC, ours literally don’t have an option. We are missing a national competition.

Australia A and a next-tier international competition. Remember real rugby tours with mid-week games? Yep, I’m old, but those games were awesome when you could watch them playing France A, or Munster, or whatever.

They also allowed a shadow 23 to develop depth for the Wallabies. Accepting that those may be a thing of the past, RA should explore bringing together a next-tier international competition. Teams are aplenty in our time zone: Japan, Tonga, Samoa, Fiji, heck even the US, Canada, Uruguay, Argentina A, Brazil…regular games for the “next XV” of Australian rugby will build depth, and regional rugby.

You may cringe, but those countries contain over half-a-billion people! I’m going to double down and say when the Wallabies tour Europe at the end of each year, Australia A should be touring also.

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Michael Hooper ponders another lost Bledisloe series

(Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)

Club competitions
I am going to get this out of the way. The Shute Shield is a suburban multi-grade competition, out of the control of NSWRU and Rugby Australia.

It’s interest is in… Shute Shield (mainly in the Eastern half of greater Sydney). That’s how it should stay, and how it will stay.

It’s a great comp, and I love watching my beloved West Harbour on Stan Sport now. Shute Shield can’t be a Suburban comp, and also build a top-flight first-grade comp. Penrith being kicked out demonstrates no long-term interest in growing the Sydney rugby community and player numbers – the main gripe was that Penrith couldn’t field enough teams for all grades at other clubs to get a game.

A national competition
I was a huge fan of the NRC. As a national competition, it provided a development pathway for up-and-coming players, it was competitive, and it offered to fill a place in the calendar where competitions weren’t there.

Sydney Rugby elected to pro-actively disrupt NRC, probably because it wasn’t Shute Shield, but it was taken seriously everywhere else. Current Wallabies developed in that competition, and it gave promising coaches a chance to be tested (it’s how we found Brad Thorn!)

Yes – it isn’t profitable, but it’s worth investing in NRC again when the money is there. Because without a way to build depth and build player skills with more games, there will be less and less and less money there for Rugby Australia anyway.

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As it currently stands, our Australian players lose most games. No one wants that, but we commit to competition structures that guarantee it will continue.

I believe it’s because we play the wrong competition (we need to get away from New Zealand for the sake of Australian rugby’s fan-base while we still have one), and because our players don’t play enough top-level games (way too much down-time without a national competition).

Yes, but you don’t understand the commercial model.
Yes, but there are lots of Kiwis in Australia who want to watch their teams.
Yes, but a national competition isn’t profitable.
Yes, but the 1991 World Cup-winning team came from club rugby.
Yes, but the Australian Rugby Championship was a disaster.

Those are all valid, as will be lots other points. In my opinion (and this pains me to say), the Australian rugby community spends a lot of time pretending it’s on an equal footing with New Zealand rugby. We aren’t, and the ‘constant losing’ is shrinking the game.

We need to focus on providing a product people in Australia want to see (a domestic competition where a local team wins), that also serves the purposes of building player confidence, player skills, and pathways for player development.

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