It’s been an interesting couple of weeks in the rugby world.
Japan have emerged as a potential top tier nation, the rest of the Northern Hemisphere sides have been roundly bitchslapped and most importantly, almost across the board, attacking, positive rugby has been played in sunny conditions. Best RWC ever? We’ll leave that to the experts to judge after the weekend.
The final itself has thrown up a rather predictable pairing, if a novel one for a World Cup final. The auld Antipodean enemies will lock horns, with plenty of subplots and little battles at play.
Who’ll come out on top? My money is probably on the men in black, unless ‘Pooper’ (sorry!) can pull out a serious performance to nullify Ruchie and co.
Who should we want to come out on top?
Well that’s another question entirely.
A dying sport?
I was lucky enough to spend two months traveling around Australia earlier this year, visiting all the major east coast sights. As a sports fan with a keen interest in local media, one thing stuck out for me beyond all the beautiful tanned people, sun, scenery and *cough* latent racism.
From Melbourne to Sydney to Townsville to Cairns and back down to Brisbane, rugby union really seems to be a dying sport in Oz.
Now I’d heard Matt Williams talk about how little media coverage was given to the sport. But until I saw it for myself I didn’t actually realise the dearth of interest in union Down Under.
I like to buy local papers when I’m away, talk to locals about the one thing I have in common with them, a love of sport, and watch as much local sports coverage as I can. But that’s hard when there’s little to no coverage to speak of.
At the time I was there in late Spring, the much loved NRL was getting started, the AFL was in full swing, there was cricket on and the soccer season was being played out too. Union was relegated to minuscule coverage 6-7 pages back into the sports section. Even in Sydney, where the Waratahs were winning and should have been big news, league was the only show in town, with wall to wall coverage of Origin and the multiple local Sydney sides.
The vast majority of union games are on paid TV and a quick look at any Super Rugby game in Oz will show that bums on seats are another issue, even in sports mad cities.The other codes are on free-to-air television and on radio every weekend – without fail, and both the NRL and AFL do an incredible job marketing their sports. The hype around a grand final or Origin game is similar to a Champions League Final.
A losing Lions tour won’t have helped, nor will years of ARU turmoil and scandal.
The numbers don’t stack up well either.
Sure, Australians have a notorious love of sport, but it’s an incredibly saturated market. The speed and skill of league, simplicity of soccer, ‘occasionality’ of cricket and the tribalism of AFL, particularly around of Melbourne, meant that union was very much an afterthought. Sure, the ‘Tahs win and the the re-birth of a solid club competition will have helped, but not to a huge degree it seems.
Having grown up on Campese, Ella, Eales, Gregan, Larkham, Latham and Giteau, I felt slightly disappointed if I’m honest. Talking to locals, particularly in Brisbane, union was met with disdain at worst, ambivalence at best.
So here’s my point.
People love getting behind winning teams with interesting characters.
We’ve seen how success and hype can breathe new life into a game – think about how this country reacts when Ireland is doing well in any sport, or look at how union has grown in England since 2003.
Cheika’s Wallabies have the characters and heroes that kids can identify with, including Izzy, Pocock, Moore, Hooper and Gits.
Now Australian rugby needs a world cup in the modern era to go along with it.
We’ve heard multiple journalists braying in the past few weeks about how world rugby is a closed shop made up of a few teams who can win the thing, and there is some truth in this. If union was to die out even further in the sun kissed land, if sporty young Aussie kids were further pushed away from rugby and invited into other sports, our game would lose part of its heritage – the caricature carefree, bolshy, attack minded Aussie that always believes he’s better than anyone else.
The All Blacks are a team for the ages, and will be remembered as probably the best side to ever grace the field.
But for the sake of the game, for the sake of maintaining a traditional superpower in a sport where there’s a small amount of them, I’ll be channeling Alf Stewart, grabbing a Carlton Draught, donning my yellow and getting my inflatable kangroo pumped up for the weekend (I actually did bring one of those home!).
Come on Cheiks and co. Come on Wallabies. Do it for the good of the sport.