The Roar
The Roar


On a global scale, Australian rugby's war with rugby league is meaningless

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Roar Rookie
1st April, 2023
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Joseph Suaalii? Never heard of him.

Be it league, union, AFL or NFL, team contact sports have a place in our lives, they enthrall and get the blood up.

I have fond memories of turning up to play in far-flung corners of the globe, like the Bahamas and the Cayman Islands. Island rugby with sandy pitches, big breezes and those endearing little bottles of Amstel Bright while chatting to expats from across the globe was great.

Rugby is global – and we aren’t talking about the “Global Rapid Rugby” comp. An African mate of mine played sevens for Spain. Recently I met someone who coached rugby in Cambodia, his training numbers were larger than our grassroots rugby team roster here in Australia.

People in my network play rugby from Fiji to the Netherlands, Jersey to LA, Italy to Andorra and we have representatives of our tiny grassroots rugby club coaching in Hungary.

Most European countries have a presence. Heck, Israel now has a pro side playing in the Rugby Europe Super Cup alongside teams from Romania, Georgia, Spain, the Netherlands, Portugal and Belgium. Yup. Belgium has a pro squad, too.

Before this gets pointy, this is meant to give some scope as to how the rest of the world feels: positive about rugby.

Here are some World Rugby participation numbers. These figures are pre-COVID, so who knows how accurate they are.

If we look at registered players Kenya and Russia had a quarter of the players Australia did. Columbia – far more famous for soccer and narcotics – seems to have more than half of the total that Australia did.


America supposedly has three times more players than Australia, which leads to the obvious question for anyone who has watched Major League Rugby: “Then why are our players staffing their teams?” Coaches as well – here’s looking at you, Darren Coleman. Big fan, by the way.

It’s interesting reading for sure, but someone smart has decided not to conduct or publicise more recent data and that is telling.

Also, tellingly, Shute Shield sides have topped up with New Zealand and UK talent.

If you need convincing that rugby is alive and well in the rest of the world, Google it and we can have a yarn over that later. It’s everywhere, from Korea to Columbia, folks, from Canada to Kenya, from Marseille to Madagascar. Positive, alive, growing, attracting audiences.

Which brings us back to rugby in Australia: shrinking, throttled, given no space in the news with declining audiences who have to jump a paywall – thanks, Stan. You have heard it all before.

At grassroots, more and more people expect to be paid, as that’s what league does. Our audience is declining, our numbers are petering out. Our facilities are a shambles, reliant on benefactors who don’t generally have cash from pokie machines.


I’m involved with a great group of passionate people, who volunteer their time, energy, effort and money to keep the lights on at our grassroots club. That’s an unintentional pun as the NSW government, who owns our field – that the club built in the 60s – hasn’t let us replace the blown field lights.

The replacement lights have been sitting in the shed for two years. They are a dusty reminder of neglect for a team that trains in the near dark, especially as daylight savings ends next week.

It’s not a stretch to imagine that the powers that be don’t care about rugby. If we were a league club would we be training in the dark? Possibly not.

Maybe you are asking where we are heading in this piece…

Suaalii? Never heard of him.

Joseph Suaalii. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

No one in the rest of the world has. People in Ireland and South Africa aren’t quaking over highlight reels of this chap. They are scratching their heads and asking each other if this is a joke. South African rugby has a dozen examples of genius schoolboys who didn’t get paid millions without a pedigree – think Curwin Bosch or Pat Lambie, more recently Canan Moodie.


Scotland wants the other Tuipulotu to complete the set, that’s a clever signing. Jack Dempsey just re-signed for Glasgow, that’s a smart signing. How does Suaalii stack up?

But more importantly, many of the people who are the sinews of rugby here in Australia are tired of battling the attitude that rugby is dead and league is the only relevant code. Hope is not a strategy, but a lack of hope will kill just like cancer does: slowly at first.

Sure, this Suaalii flash of publicity is great. Let’s ride it.

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Of course, a few million dollars would be great for grassroots rugby. What would be even better is an attitude change. Rugby isn’t dead. It’s growing all over the world. It may be losing a battle with the league here, but it may be up to the rest of us to keep it alive until Rugby Australia wakes up with a new plan.

The Rugby World Cup is later this year and in 2027 is here in Australia: that should be the shining light, that should be the rivalry. Australia versus the rest of the world.


Rugby Australia vs NRL? That’s not the rivalry that we should be focused on. If the NRL was full of world-beaters that could change the fortunes of the Wallabies at an RWC, then that’s a conversation to be had. I’ll speak to Josh – a Canberra Vikings legend and coach about this and get a more informed view.

Australia versus everyone else should be the messaging here. Suaalii isn’t the answer to that.

We need an answer for all the players, supporters, coaches and support staff who keep saying: “If you can’t beat em, join ’em,” and leaving union for league.