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Rugby's route back to relevance: More back stabbing, vicious boardroom sagas, and Evil Emperor Waugh

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Expert
28th May, 2024
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Every week, two things occupy the minds of rugby fans in this part of the world. The first is the question of how, exactly, are we to revive the popularity of the sport of rugby union in this great nation which has such a sporadically proud history in the game?

The second is, will we ever see an end to the frightful off-field infighting, backbiting and blame-shifting that plagues Australian rugby and makes it near-impossible to turn the spotlight onto the on-field action?

There is no doubt that these two issues are connected, and many people believe the way to make improvements on the first point is to try to eliminate the second. The question is whether this is even possible – when you put together the dire financial state of the game in this country, the general confusion and fear around the future of the game, and the fact that everyone in a position of power in Australian rugby, to all appearances, seems to get a real kick out of huddling in backrooms and scheming to find the next great idea for kicking the sport in the crotch, it would be a Herculean effort to end the obsessive focus on off-field matters.

Allan Alaalatoa of the Wallabies looks on to the referee after a penalty during game one of the international test match series between the Australian Wallabies and England at Optus Stadium on July 02, 2022 in Perth, Australia. (Photo by James Worsfold/Getty Images)

(Photo by James Worsfold/Getty Images)

Given that, I think it is time to take a fresh approach, think outside the box, push the envelope, and several other phrases I read in Marketing For Dummies. I believe rugby union can indeed regain a state of mass popularity in Australia, but it is going to take a bit of innovation.

For my plan I have taken inspiration from the television show Succession, one of the most popular programmes of recent years, as measured by the only metric of popularity that matters in the 2020s (Guardian thinkpieces).

Now, people loved Succession. They got a huge kick out of the wacky adventures of the feisty Roy family and their eternal quest to destroy each other’s lives. And the thing about Succession is, in all four seasons there was barely a single scene featuring rugby union, or indeed any other code of football. In fact the show was, overall, shockingly light on story arcs involving athletic activity. And yet, people loved it. Why is this? I will tell you.

The fact is, people really, really love watching other people plotting and scheming against each other, and wrestling for status, wealth and power. They love it way more than they love watching people running into and throwing balls to each other. Look at how successful Survivor has been: do you think that reality franchise would’ve lasted this long if every episode was just the physical challenges? Would anyone care about Survivor if the winner of each series was just the person who was best at sport? Of course not: people love Survivor because the victory goes to the player who has been the best at manipulating others. Just like in Succession, only with less expensive wardrobes.

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There is a lesson here for Rugby Australia, and for all the local franchises – indeed, it’s a lesson that rugby bodies around the world could take heed of: if you really want to capture the public imagination, don’t give them a silly sporting display; give them a vicious and spiteful boardroom brawl for control of corporate entities.

Let’s face it, rugby has been trying to compete on the basis of on-field action for decades, and it has been losing by it. Soccer dominates the world. The NRL and AFL rule in Australia. Now, we can argue all day over why this is – maybe it’s because those other codes are simpler and easier to follow, maybe it’s because they have better-structured competitions, maybe it’s because none of them stress the beauty and entertainment value of lengthy periods of play where the ball is invisible. Impossible to know for sure.

The point is, it’s time for rugby to stop trying to compete with other sports as a sport, and start competing with them as a compellingly bitchy saga of administrative malfeasance. Really, it’s just a matter of playing to your strengths, and it’s been pretty clear over the last few years that what rugby is REALLY good at is men in suits doing their jobs badly and sniping at each other in the press.

So what I suggest is, we lean in to this. Let’s have more squabbles between clubs and national bodies. More groups of angry old men writing open letters demanding board spills. More furious debates over the right direction for the game to take that ultimately go nowhere. More strategic reviews. More sackings. More disillusioned coaches staggering out the door with knives sprouting like mushrooms from their backs.

(Photo by Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images)

Look at the opportunity for promotion that the Melbourne Rebels have given us. Think of the potential audience if we replaced the ho-hum broadcasts of Rebels games with thrilling adrenalised coverage of the franchise’s struggle to keep existing. Millions would tune in to see if the Rebels could survive another week, to follow one brave rugby team’s fight to avoid annihilation at the hands of the evil Emperor Waugh.

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Now, obviously, we’d keep on playing the games. There needs to be a sport there to give credibility to the administrative show. But it’s important, going forward, that we downplay the actual sport and try to keep it from being viewed by the public as much as possible. The last thing we want is for the new fans who’ve been attracted by the exciting cut-and-thrust of Australian Rugby’s elite directors to become disillusioned by seeing what rugby actually looks like – particularly when played by Australians.

It’s pretty much a no-brainer. If the success of Succession doesn’t convince you, look at the other great entertainment franchises of the world. Lord of the Rings. Star Wars. Game of Thrones. McLeod’s Daughters. They’re all about two things: who ends up ruling everything, and who gets killed along the way.

And really, that’s what rugby union has already been about for years – we just need to monetise it. Get people talking about who is going to be the next CEO, and who is going to be the next casualty of backroom bastardry.

Let’s make rugby great again by putting the focus where it belongs: the corporate boxes.

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