Back in the day, my wife and I went to all of the Force games, as high-level members. We happily flew to Brisbane and Sydney to watch the Wallabies play All Blacks or South Africa, went to Hong Kong to watch the Bledisloe, had an absolute blast talking to John Mitchell after the game… even flew to Twickenham to watch the Poms get beaten.
One night in Brisbane was huge fun, upon returning to our hotel well after the game and pub crawl celebrating a Wallabies win, the wife and I still in our gold jerseys, thought we’d have a last drink at the bar/lounge only to realise we shared our hotel with the All Blacks, who were relaxing in the bar after the game.
Having lost to the Wallabies (and seeing how kiwis hate losing) we were feeling a little self conscious that night as the only ones wearing gold in the bar. But the entire team were absolute gentlemen and we had a good old chat with a couple of players. We had a blast (and I’m 6 foot and boy, some of them are HUGE).
We bought new Western Force Super Rugby jerseys and shirts each year, new Wallabies jerseys, scarves, spray jackets, all of it. We bought a couple of Wallabies framed jersey with signatures, a framed and signed pic of the Force’s first win at home… We were all in.
Now, we rarely watch rugby.
I say all of the above because undoubtedly there will be some types who’d say ‘if you were a true fan you’d still watch’, but after many years of lack of engagement by Rugby, we walked away.
So, Rugby Australia – do you want to know what happened?
It started at the Force. We were paying big bucks for membership (and also with the AFL’s West Coast Eagles at the time), year after year, had really poor seats, and one day I watched Matt Giteau just going through the motions on the field, again, and again. I have no issue losing week after week, but not when players are obviously treating it as just a job.
Meanwhile, we got excellent seats and got to hear from and meet several West Coast players each week at the Eagles’ after game ‘Captains club’.
I’d played Rugby and encouraged my young son to join our local club. The club itself were amazing with the kids and they all looked up to the coaches with awe as they were either ex Australian 7’s representatives, or still playing in the WA local comp.
Yet my son also got to see, hear from and meet West Coast Eagles players at each home game… It didn’t happen at the Force. No one came to his rugby club.
‘Grass roots’ is often cited as the solution for engagement with Rugby’s problems. But although we were hardcore rugby followers with a son playing, traveling all over Australia and around the world to watch our teams, buying all the merch, it was the disconnect between grass roots rugby and seeing the reality of Wallabies players in Western Australia clearly treating games as just a job that brought home the fact that there was no passion, no ‘die for the jersey’ attitude, they were just marking time.
Both the Force and the then ARU (despite my efforts encouraging our son) had no idea how to connect with young players or enthusiastic supporters.
My son kept talking about the Eagles, and they connected with him. They made themselves available and I’m sure it was a chore for them, but they did it regardless. Although we continued to encourage him with Rugby, he was all about the Eagles.
And the ARU? Nowhere to be seen. One Wallabies visit to the club in several years. No player engagement through the Force and all the while, Eagles players were here for this or that every week.
Eventually, we gave up. My son started following the Eagles week in and week out, played Aussie rules (despite his size and skills being more suited to rugby) and then gave it away once reality set in for him.
After watching the Robbie Deans/ Ewen McKenzie debacle, then the train wreck of Michael Cheika, it became obvious that Rugby in Australia was so engrossed in its own politics that us, the fans were an afterthought.
So I gave it away too. The wife and I now watch NFL and College football now, we even fly to watch games live, and buy all the merch.
There’s no TMO changing the course of a World Cup final (with World Rugby later admitting the TMO overstepped their boundaries) to destroy the showpiece. We watch on average five games per week – that’s 3 hours a game, 5 times each and every week. Think of the Rugby broadcast partners getting a hold of that?
So Rugby Australia, in my opinion, you don’t just need a high performance manager and central contracting. You need to headhunt the best AFL grass roots executive, the best NRL schools executive, identify the people behind what both the AFL and NRL do so well and spend the money on that – not players like Joseph Sua’ali’i.
Get the people cleaning you up out there in the market place with kids like mine inside your tent, regardless of the cost!
Spend the time and money on finding out at a grass roots level how you are being decimated, who is doing it then pull out all stops to get a hold of those people and get them involved in growing Rugby. Sell it to them as a part in making Australian rugby great again on the world stage, whatever it takes.
We, the Rugby fans, even less engaged as I am, would support the expenditure at any price for the good of the game. Stop writing reviews and get out there to fight for kids like mine, who were captured by the AFL.