Can New South Wales solve its crowds crisis?

With all that has happened to the Waratahs in 2021 so far, from suffering six defeats in a row to sacking coach Rob Penney midseason, it seems the fact that hardly anyone is going to matches at all, is being overlooked by many. While many fans are wary to come back to live sport while […]

Can New South Wales solve its crowds crisis?

With all that has happened to the Waratahs in 2021 so far, from suffering six defeats in a row to sacking coach Rob Penney midseason, it seems the fact that hardly anyone is going to matches at all, is being overlooked by many.

While many fans are wary to come back to live sport while the threat of a pandemic still hangs over the country, other codes have shown us recently that there is an appetite to consume sport at the ground again, so while no-one is expecting the Tahs to sell out the Olympic Stadium, the numbers they have put up this season are pretty dire by any measure – well, the ones they are willing to release anyway.

The last crowd figure the Waratahs posted was over a month ago, on 5 March, when just 4264 people filed into Parramatta’s Bankwest Stadium to watch the Tahs take on the Force. Since then the Waratahs have played two more home games, one at Stadium Australia and the other at the SCG, but neglected to release the attendance figures.

One can only speculate upon the numbers, but almost all doubt they are being withheld because they are higher than previous crowds.

So rather than lament how Waratahs crowds have dropped on average by approximately 20,000 since 2005 or sit around and patiently wait for the new stadium to be built and the team to start winning again – two things that will surely bring some fans back – I have decided to be proactive and outline four key areas that the Waratahs need to address immediately to help build crowds again.

(Speed Media/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

1. Build a match-day experience
The atmosphere inside stadiums begins outside. The match-day buzz should be felt long before you you find your seat, particularly in areas like Homebush and Parramatta.

Bars and restaurants need to be adorned with Tahs paraphernalia, and the organisation needs to go out of its way to let the local community know that it is game day in town today. This may be as simple as creating a match-day bar and putting up banners at the train station or having a meeting point and making a Waratahs walk down Church Street leading towards the stadium. On Olympic Boulevard at Homebush there could be pop-up marquees and fan zones to try and fill the very expansive area outside the stadium.

The Waratahs have created an online match-day guide called the Tah Times; this could be a great guide to what the club is doing round the match-day experience, yet all it included for the Reds game was a team list, which included what private schools the players went to. In this day and age, with so much choice available, fans expect and appreciate more for their ticket price.

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2. Tap into Sydney’s event-loving culture
While the NRL has its own issues with attendance in Sydney, it is light-years ahead of Super Rugby. If you look at the Easter weekend crowds at Homebush, they were both well above 20,000, and why? Because they were huge Easter events.

Both the NRL and its clubs have worked hard in recent years to create must-see events around the Good Friday and Easter Monday games. The same goes for Anzac Day for both the NRL and AFL.

Due to the relatively short nature of Super Rugby AU, the Waratahs could create an event around every home game, whether it is against our cross-state rivals the Brumbies or playing on the Sydney-Melbourne one-upmanship. And then there’s perhaps the greatest rivalry in Aussie sport, New South Wales versus Queensland.

When you look at it in isolation any event featuring (sky) Blue versus (dark) Red should be an instant success because the heavy lifting has already been done for rugby. The Waratahs have only a handful of games in the super Rugby AU set up. They need to work hard to make each one of them a must-see event.


(Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

3. Engage active fans
There is no hiding from the fact that Waratahs home games at present are devoid of any atmosphere. They need to find fans who will bring the noise, whether it is by finding groups of passionate Sydney club rugby fans and offering them free tickets and merchandise to turn up to Super Rugby or by seeking out European expats to bring a football atmosphere to the games. However it’s done, loud engaged and passionate fans make others take notice and want to be part of something.

Many will argue this goes against the proper culture that rugby has spent generations cultivating, yet it is clear that in Australia’s egalitarian culture rugby’s ‘proper culture’ is missing the mark. As a Greek migrant who still lives in Western Sydney I have seen firsthand how rugby can welcome all, yet there are elements of the game that shun those who come across as less prosperous or unrefined. The game needs to shake off this perception of exclusivity and bring the noise.

4. Collaboration with other sports
The Waratahs share the state and particularly Sydney with many other high-profile teams, and while the media and sometimes the codes themselves love to perpetuate the code war narrative, I highly doubt relations are as frosty as some make out. The Tahs should therefore work with teams such as Sydney FC, the Swans and GWS as well as the Roosters and Parramatta Eels on either a double-header scenario where possible or a multiple-game ticket to try and engage different fans from across the state.

A fan from outside of the city may be more likely to make the journey if they can get multiple sports from the one ticket, and it could also be a way to introduce rugby to a new audience.

With the Nine Network now broadcasting both the NRL and rugby, a double-header starring the Tahs and an NRL powerhouse could be a broadcast hit and go some way to unifying two sometimes fractured fan-bases.

Rugby is seen as undergoing somewhat of a revival here in Australia, and it is no more evident than here in Sydney. You cannot walk 20 metres in the CBD without seeing a Waratahs player plastered on a billboard or the back of a bus, and while this may be making a difference in regard to streaming views, it definitely isn’t selling tickets to rugby games in New South Wales.

The Waratahs are the biggest team in the biggest rugby state, but at the moment their crowds are at an all-time low. The Waratahs cannot just hide the figures and hope the situation fixes itself on its own. They need to go out into the community and build proactive engaged support before there are no fans left.

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Coach’s Corner Issue 7: What position for Petaia?

Thanks once again to all who contributed questions to the latest round of Coach’s Corner. Why has Jordan Petaia had such a slow start to the year, when compared to his performances for the Reds and Wallabies last year? – Chunks Jordan Petaia unloaded a kick from his 22 on the weekend which seemed to […]

Coach’s Corner Issue 7: What position for Petaia?

Thanks once again to all who contributed questions to the latest round of Coach’s Corner.

Why has Jordan Petaia had such a slow start to the year, when compared to his performances for the Reds and Wallabies last year?

– Chunks

Jordan Petaia unloaded a kick from his 22 on the weekend which seemed to cross the line at the 60m mark. He looked very comfortable doing it. If he was moved to 15 (even though Campbell has done nothing wrong and runs good lines himself), do you think this would open up the hard-to-manage running game we all know he has?

– TC

Jordan Petaia’s best position represents probably the single biggest Gordian Knot in Australian rugby in 2021. Should he play number 13, on the wing, or, as Tim Horan has suggested, at fullback?

The problem is the Reds have some good players competing for game time in all these spots – Hunter Paisami and Hamish Stewart in the centres, and Filipo Daugunu, Jock Campbell and Suliasi Vunuvalu in the back three – so time spent experimenting with Petaia also means time lost with at least one of that group.

I do not feel the positional uncertainty has left Jordan Petaia in a happy place:

His body language after a kicking error lacks energy and animation. At the very least, it communicates a sense of restlessness and loss of confidence.

Jordan Petaia needs a role in which he can be on the ball at least 10 to 15 times per game, guaranteed. He needs to be involved, and influencing matters with ball in hand as much as possible to play himself out of the rut. Somewhere, somehow, he needs to be the centre of attention.

Jordan Petaia. (Photo by Albert Perez/Getty Images)

Players in front of the ball feature quite a lot in the modern game. Can you show some examples of where it is done well, done poorly, done legally and where someone has got away with it?

– Exile in Oz

This question is an interesting technical issue in itself, and one which taps into the improvement in the Waratahs’ performance against the Brumbies.

Play ahead of the ball is unavoidable in many areas of rugby. All points of contact – scrum, lineout drive and breakdown – inevitably involve blocking of opponents, or forms of legal obstruction. Backline plays with decoys, shielding the receiver underneath the high ball, the box-kick ‘caterpillar’… the list goes on.

The Waratahs recognised the strength of the Brumbies’ driving lineout and used a variety of methods against it with some success. The most intriguing from the legal viewpoint was their use of a ‘back-off’ maul defence:

waratahs stand-off maul defence

At the throw, the defending forwards back off from contact instead of engaging, which means that no legal maul can be formed. There is clearly confusion about what can and can’t be done, on both sides.

If the ball stays with the lineout receiver (Cadeyrn Neville) the Brumbies can advance, but if they go forward after moving the ball to the back they will either be penalised for obstruction or the opposition will be free to sack the ball-carrier, as was the case in this match between Exeter and Glasgow:

The Brumbies keep the ball in Neville’s hands, forcing a commitment from the defence:

A second example occurred only a few minutes later:

In this case, the ball does move to the back after the Waratahs engage, and the fringe defender is penalised for sacking the ball-carrier after the offside line has been created.

In the context of the game, the Waratahs came out with a fair amount of credit for the variety of their lineout defence: mixing counter-jumps against the throw; back-off defence; and more orthodox attempts to stop the drive.

In the context of the laws, there is still clearly a sizeable grey area surrounding the ‘latch’ of attacking players before contact with the opposition, and for the referee to discern where the ball is in a maul and when an offside line has been created.

Can you do an analysis of the modern role/expectations of a prop, comparing Harry Johnson-Holmes with Taniela Tupou?

– Big Sur

Who would you start at tighthead prop and why: Allan Alaalatoa or Taniela Tupou?

– Bobby

I compared the two leading tighthead props in Australia last year in August and then again in September.

The comparison indicated Alaalatoa had a higher work rate and generated more involvements in the open, and played within the unit disciplines of Brumbies’ set-piece. Tupou was more explosive and made bigger impacts in both areas.

My conclusion remains the same as it was then: shift Allan Alaalatoa back to loosehead prop and start Taniela Tupou on the other side of the front row. Have either James Slipper or Angus Bell on the bench alongside Pone Fa’amausili.

The comparison between Harry Johnson-Holmes and Tupou, based on their key 2021 stats, follows a familiar pattern:

Retention rate (overall) In opposition 22 Penalties conceded at tighthead
Harry Johnson-Holmes 81% 63% 8
Taniela Tupou 100% 100% 5

This is a clear win for Tupou, and it also reflects the poor development policies at New South Wales, where Johnson-Holmes has been shifted from one side of the scrum and back again without being able to learn a single position thoroughly.

Runs Metres per run Defenders beaten/breaks made
Harry Johnson-Holmes 40 1.2m 1/1
Taniela Tupou 21 3.4m 5/3

Harry runs one-off from the number 9, Taniela will frequently align outside ten, and make more breaks because of his explosive athletic qualities. Defence is probably the only area in which Johnson-Holmes’ sheer quantity of involvements gives him an edge over Tupou.

Tackles Tackle success Tackle dominance Involvement ranking within team
Harry Johnson-Holmes 42 84% 0 Third
Taniela Tupou 16 73% 1 Outside the top ten tacklers!
Taniela Tupou makes a break

Taniela Tupou (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

Ronan O’Gara currently is chief coach at La Rochelle. With high coaching ambitions after an outstanding playing career which saw him win 128 Irish caps and tour three times with the British and Irish Lions, O’Gara has coached at Racing 92, and was an assistant coach with the Canterbury Crusaders prior to taking the reins at Stade Rochelais.

The question: Where will Ronan O’Gara’s current trajectory take him to when the 2027 Rugby World Cup comes around?

– Mzilikazi

I would guess the short answer to that question is “back to Ireland”, Mz. Coaches who take the risk of going abroad, and especially of gaining experience in the opposite hemisphere, are really in a school of accelerated development. Graham Henry, Steve Hansen, Wayne Smith and Warren Gatland were the pioneers. They brought back a deep knowledge of the players, systems and most importantly the mindset and attitudes within UK rugby culture.

The first three in particular returned to New Zealand with an understanding of the game that was impossible to beat. The flow from north to south has been far more conservative. Stuart Lancaster gained a huge amount from his sabbatical year in Australia and New Zealand, and Steve Tandy volunteered for service with the Waratahs before returning to the UK as the current Scotland defence coach.

The knowledge base that O’Gara has built up with the Crusaders and in France would make him an invaluable asset in the Ireland national set-up in years to come.

Crusaders assistant coach Ronan O'Gara.

Ronan O’Gara during his time with the Crusaders. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

I would like to specifically know if Tate McDermott’s delivery is any better this year and if Nic White or Joe Powell currently possess the best pass from the ruck.

– Bourkos

I’m wondering about halfbacks, and how they are going under the new rules. Who is thriving and who is struggling?

– Ankle-tapped Waterboy

I’ve written a number of articles about Nic White, both when he was a player at Exeter in the UK, and on his return to Australia.

One of White’s great strengths is the clarity of his approach to running and passing situations. When he wants to pass, he stays low in his stance and delivers either directly off the deck, or with a very short ‘lift’, no more than ankle-height before distributing:

After a positive run by Rob Valetini, White knows the space will be out wide so he does not waste time lifting the ball off the ground or running sideways with it before delivering the pass.

When he wants to run, he stands up and engages a defender at ruck-side before releasing the ball:

In comparison, Reds scrumhalf Tate McDermott drops more easily into that no man’s land between running and passing:

On all three passes, McDermott is lifting the ball – and sometimes taking steps in the direction of the receiver – before passing, and he isn’t engaging the defenders at ruck-side. That simplifies life for the defence.

McDermott is built as a run-before-pass scrumhalf, and is at his most dangerous when he lifts the ball and takes on the forwards near the breakdown. His short run on second phase leaves three Brumbies forwards struggling on the wrong side of the next play, and that creates a long Queensland break down the right.

Tate McDermott of the Reds passes

Tate McDermott. (Photo by Jono Searle/Getty Images)

Thanks for all the questions, as usual I will carry forward the unanswered ones to future weeks.

Source : The Roar More   

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