Rugby in Australia has experienced turmoil in recent years – poor on-field performances, financial woes, structural and governance conflicts, instability, and poor viewing figures.
I want to present a more positive view, because I believe it.
Ultimately, rugby’s great strength is that it has an international dimension that can appeal to Australians the most out of all our sports and cannot be matched by the two great domestic rivals, NRL and AFL.
There is no doubt the NRL and AFL will continue to dominate their territories and rugby cannot compete in their landscape. In fact, the continued strength of contact sports domestically does support my argument that rugby benefits from being the contact sport that has the most international appeal.
I use myself as a case in point. I have written previously about being attracted to rugby in my late 20s (30 years ago!) by seeing a Wallabies game on TV (I think it was the Lions tour of 1989) and being fascinated by the popularity and the national anthem being sung – here was a team representing me and my country and I didn’t know anything about them. I was hooked and have been ever since.
It would be more satisfying to say I saw rugby being played locally, was involved in grassroots, but that’s not the case. I played Aussie rules in the northern suburbs of Perth for 20 years and knew nothing about rugby.
TV was the way in for me but what cemented it was going overseas and experiencing first hand how rugby transcends borders.
I still look forward to putting my Wallabies shirt on to see them play at Cardiff, which I’ll be doing in November this year again. The atmosphere in the streets and pubs is electric and that’s before you enter the ground.
Years ago, I never thought I’d see the Wallabies in Perth, but I have on a number of occasions. Sydney and Brisbane sometime in the future is my dream.
(Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)
So why rugby as the number one international sport?
I am sure there are many other Aussie sporting tragics like me who watch every moment of the Olympics, Commonwealth Games, Ash Barty in tennis, Cam Smith in golf – sports that enable patriotism to be unearthed in a positive, organic way.
The Wallabies have that opportunity every year, which is a massive sponsorship and promotion opportunity.
There is a chance to see Aussies win silverware every year – through Super Rugby team (sometime!), the Bledisloe Cup, the Rugby Championship – and the World Cup every four.
Now, I realise the Wallabies have the opportunity for silverware but not the talent to achieve it, but just the opportunity to compete drives interest and improvement.
Besides, as evidenced by the win over the world champions over the weekend, the Wallabies may not have competed with the best over the past few years but they can!
So, why not the other codes, you may ask?
NRL and AFL are great sports but have a limited international dimension and this will remain so.
Soccer is clearly the world’s most popular international sport but not Australia’s. I follow the Socceroos and wish them the best in every tournament but they have no realistic prospect of winning the World Cup. Ultimately, like USA, participation is increasing and the game deserves respect but it cannot light the fire of potential converts the way rugby can.
Living in England currently, I even go and support local team on the terraces but, like many Australians, the ‘falling over’ antics and abuse of referees puts me off.
Basketball does have the potential to gather extra support, as shown by Boomers’ bronze at Tokyo, which is why rugby needs to strike now to maximise the advantages it has.
Patty Mills. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)
Cricket is a summer sport, of course. I love it equally to rugby and the Ashes has similar appeal but it’s not international in the way rugby is and will increasingly be, so has a limited number of countries.
Rugby’s international appeal is really growing. The MLR in USA/Canada has taken off and Australia is well placed to benefit from that growth, as in South America also.
I’m painting a positive picture but clearly it’s not that simple. So here are some barriers and potential solutions to finish off.
1. Wallabies performance
Clearly this is key and we’re turning the corner.
We have a good coach in place with good coaches ready to take over in Darren Coleman or Dan McKellar. Our forwards getting are better and we are once again becoming competitive with the top teams.
2. The Giteau law
This should remain to protect our assets. There will always be some losses to overseas clubs, of course, but the current exemptions could be increased slightly, if needed.
The bottom line is that if the Wallabies improve, who wouldn’t want to be part of a once in a generation Bledisloe Cup, Lions and Rugby World Cup winning team?
3. Structure of Australian rugby
No, it’s not in a good place. There have been so many excellent articles recently about this topic and I could not do justice with my limited experience.
What is clear, though, is that the tier below Super Rugby since the demise of NRC is missing. Apparently, Rugby AU do have a plan but need further funding. Without this being sorted, the foundations for success in the future are less stable.
We have Lions tour in 2025 and may host the Rugby World Cup in 2027. This is massive, as the building blocks are now in place for the Wallabies to be serious competitors in both. The profits must be directed to grassroots coaching, participation and the structures below Super Rugby.
If someone had said to me 20 years ago there would be a Super Rugby side in Perth containing Wallabies and Test matches in the city with full crowds, I would have laughed. Who would have thought there would be a professional league in North America? Changes happen.
Australian rugby has the chance to convert others like me but need to act now as planning takes place to secure future success.