Where to now for rugby?

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AS THE OTHER football codes continue to flourish, Australian Rugby has been having an extremely trying time, as PHIL BURFURD reports:

TO PARAPHRASE The Bard, 2017 has been Australian Rugby’s winter of our discontent! For the game they play in heaven, this has been one helluva year.

Whichever way you look, Rugby in Australia is verging on irrelevance. For the Australian rugby franchises the 2017 Super Rugby season was an unmitigated disaster.

Australia’s five Super Rugby teams lost all 26 Trans-Tasman clashes against Kiwi teams – they have only beaten Kiwi opposition three times in the past two years – while the Australian conference combined managed just 21 wins from 76 games this season with only five of the wins against foreign opposition.

To make matters worse, interest and support for the code in both spectator and TV viewing audience numbers is plummeting. Last week Australia’s last remaining team in the competition, the Brumbies, got bashed up by the Wellington Hurricanes in the Super Rugby quarter final at Canberra Stadium and a mere 9,771 fans bothered to show their support. Could you imagine that number turning up to a semi-final of the AFL or NRL?

As rugby writer Eamonn Tiernan lamented in the Canberra Times: “The game simply doesn’t catch the imagination of the public like it used to and the only people tuning in these days are the diehards and purists.”

He further pointed out that the fans aren’t even turning up to watch the Wallabies these days with a record low crowd of 13,583 watching Australia play Fiji in Melbourne last month.

And all this with the Bledisloe Cup series on our doorstep. We haven’t won the Bledisloe since 2002 and with the first match set for Sydney’s ANZ Stadium on August 19, New Zealand are already unbackable favourites to extend Australia’s winless run to 15 straight years.

But the lack of wins, crowds and TV viewers is only part of the diabolical mess the ARU has got itself into. From the outside looking in like all rugby followers in this country, the game’s administration under Bill Pulver, appears unable to make up its mind on the important decisions necessary to pull the game back from the brink. In short, the game lacks all semblance of leadership and direction.

For the uninitiated, Super Rugby is on the rack and Australia’s role as a relevant part of the competition requires some tough decisions. The ARU and SANZAAR, the controlling body of the Southern Hemisphere competition, deemed back in April that Australia needed to cut one team from the conference, either Western Force or Melbourne Rebels.

But after months frozen like deer in the headlights, the ARU is still no closer to making a decision. All the time, owners, players, staff, management and supporters have been left in limbo. In Melbourne and Perth, the season is long over and the players and staff still don’t know if they have a job to come back to next season. And that doesn’t take into account the fans who, rather than wait to see if they still have a team to support next year, will likely drift off to follow the Storm, Victory or some AFL team.

Yet, even with reducing Australia to a four-team conference the competition is still on life-support and not predicted to survive.

As rugby correspondent Paul Cully wrote this week, all indications are that the Super Rugby concept may have had its day. “In two of its foundation markets, Australia and South Africa, fans have been walking for the exit. The financial books of some Australian franchises must be a sea of red after recent crowd figures.

“But getting punters through the gate has become an increasingly complicated process. How do you encourage fans to attend games against teams from 11,000 kilometres away whose players they barely know?” he questioned.

And there’s the rub. While AFL, NRL and more recently soccer have been building their brands nationally around teams and players fans know and follow, rugby is pinning its very existence around an Australia that is in disarray, South Africa that is losing teams and players to Europe and teams from Japan and Argentina who in reality are well off the pace.

So, what is the solution if rugby is to remain relevant in a highly-competitive Australian football market? There will be a stay of execution for the next two years until the current broadcast agreement runs its course, but beyond 2020 some things will need to have changed dramatically if rugby is not to be spat out by the other three codes.

The truth is rugby’s solution does not rely on getting bigger, better, global. Far from it. The solution lies in getting right back to basics. The successful codes build their supporter base, their player nursery and their financial strength from grass roots support.

It’s not that a Super Rugby type concept will not work sometime in the future but first the code needs to get its house in order and build powerhouse local support on and off the park.

It’s not often I agree with Alan Jones, but on what ails rugby and the medicine to fix it he has the right prescription.

In a recent interview on Fox Sport he cut loose as only Alan can on what he rightly described as a broken model in Australian rugby.

Jones believes the oversized 18-team Super Rugby format is harming the game and the game’s administrators have taken their eye off the ball by not sufficiently nourishing the grassroots.

“The game derives from schoolboys, club rugby, provincial rugby and then the Wallaby side. Now we are not spending enough money on the schoolboy stuff. It’s almost forgotten and unacknowledged. The club side is basically abandoned by Australian Rugby, the provincial stuff – Super Rugby – is awful and the standard is terrible,” Jones said.

He believes the transport and accommodation costs for five Australian rugby teams could be better spent elsewhere. “We are being overtaken in schools by soccer and AFL. There are fewer kids playing schoolboy rugby; we’ve abandoned the Sydney grade competition.

“We’re not promoting the game; we’re not encouraging people to play the game. People look at it and it’s boring. You can look at an 80-minute game and you might get 20 minutes of rugby. Who’s going to watch that?”

Jones is not alone in his criticism of the administration, the coaches, the players and the mediocre game rugby has become. This winter of discontent has seen rugby greats like Stirling Mortlock and Simon Poidevin questioning the leadership of the ARU and the future of Super Rugby, and the knowledgeable rugby media across the board calling for change.

The telltale sign of discontent under Pulver’s stewardship bubbled up again this week with the sudden departure of ARU chief financial officer Todd Day, hot on the heels of the resignation earlier in the year of the chief operating officer and heir apparent to Pulver’s corner office, Rob Clarke.

While there may be nothing untoward in these two senior resignations, the alarm bells are ringing. The game is dying a death by a thousand cuts in Australia and it doesn’t look like changing anytime soon.


Author: Phil Burfurd

PHIL BURFURD entered journalism at the Melbourne Herald 50 years ago. He wrote tennis and AFL football before becoming the inaugural editor of Australia’s first weekly national football newspaper, Inside Football.

He was chief football writer for the Sunday Observer during the 1970s before hanging up his pen to enter corporate life. He moved to Sydney more than 20 years ago and is now a professional sports fan. He follows NRL as well as AFL and has added Melbourne Storm and Melbourne Victory to the teams he follows.



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