No longer is the bastion of world rugby the southern hemisphere. Gone are the days where the world cup boiled down to New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and other. And they only have themselves to blame.
Make no mistake, the All Blacks are still the greatest side in world rugby, if not the greatest sporting team in the world. Even their provincial sides were a match for some of the greatest international players of the northern hemisphere as seen in the recent Lions tour. The rest of the traditional Three Nations, Australia and South Africa however, are in dire straights.
The issue doesn’t land at any one person or groups door. SANZAR are partly responsible. The conference system to be shown to separate and water down talent accross the nations. Yet the inclusions of the Argentine Jaguares and Japanese Sunwolves will have positive outcomes for both growth and the game and quality. The ARU and SARU are also culpable. The franchises themselves haven’t always put their best foot forward and it is the fans and the players who suffer.
In Australia there is increasing dissatisfaction with the ARU and the Wallabies. About to drop a franchise, although none have been successful in 2017, 0 and 25 against New Zealand sides not a good look for any professional league. The struggles of the national side where players from down the corridor at the NSW Waratahs are seen to be favoured, regardless of form. In fact, further evidence of this favouritism is seen with the coach selecting a large majorities of players from the Waratahs each year despite being the most underperforming side in the whole of Super Rugby history.
South Africa also has many problems. Luckily slipping their two Super Rugby relegated side into the Pro12s saving players and coaches careers and potentially offering further opportunities to improve and grow as sides. The national side however has seen a string of terrible defeats since the World Cup of 2015 starting with the loss to Japan. Since then South Africa have seemed to have withered; an undeserving fate for the twice World Cup winners.
There is still plenty of talent around though, it just seems not to be getting through or given the opportunity to flourish and grow. Last week at a game between TSS XV and BSH XV in the Queensland GPS system was a fantastic exhibition of good running rugby. A very tight and competitive first half showing lead to one side adapting better to the opposition and running away victors. The standard of refereeing was good, the standard of play exceptional for what is essentially an under 18’s round robin tournament. A great example of fantastic rugby and a bright future.
Just recently there were some fantastic games for the Australian Schoolboys Rugby Union Championships. The ACT quite unexpectedly ran out champions of the tournament with QLD II runners up. The 3/4 play-off was won by QLD I triumphing over NSW I. Despite this, only two ACT players and six QLD players were selected for the Australian Schoolboys team. Meanwhile, NSW made up 11 of the possible 20. At this point it is reasonable to ask questions of the selectors at all levels of Australian Rugby.
Meanwhile, the ARU is MIA. Not willing to admit that Rugby, always a stalwart of private schools, is declining in popularity now undoubtedly the fourth code in Australia after AFL, NRL and Football. Ticket prices remain at a premium, locking out many young people, students, families and many others who have only a passing interest. The ARU although being active in the womens game for a number of years, has failed to capitalize on the current zeitgeist around women’s sport despite the Wallaroos consistent and considerable success. Rugby Sevens is also increasingly popular with inclusion in the Olympics and the Commonwealth Games and yet with the exception of the Sydney Sevens in Australia in makes very little noise.
In fact the only noise is for the ever disappointing Super Rugby or perhaps the NRC. The NRC possibly the only currently successful product being offered, although still with exceedingly small reach or airtime. The uptake of online streaming for First Grade rugby also offering a potential grab for viewers all too fleeting attentions. Despite these success the Unions, Associations, and clubs are struggling in a fiercely competitive market.
As we are seeing the problems with rugby in Australia and at the ARU are systemic. Not helped by the conference style of Super Rugby competition, which has compounded the failings of the bureaucrats who lack leadership, business nouce and are disconnected from a passionate fan base. Fans and supporters left in limbo season long, whilst one of their beloved sides is about to be axed by men in suits behind closed doors who seem to care little for their base. Top talent heading overseas seeking to play with quality coaches and securing their future. Meanwhile Australian selectors punish those who do so, banishing them from any hope selection. Funnily enough most players understanding the best way to play for the Wallabies is to sign for the Waratahs.
Still around the world Rugby is becoming increasingly popular. The acceptance of the Seven’s format into the Olympics and Commonwealth games in recent years meaning sides from around the world are developing rapidly to compete. There is increasing popularity across the Americas, Africa and Asia, all vying for coveted spots in the next World Cup. There has been expansion in the European competitions and whilst it could be argued the Irish and Welsh teams have seen a recent decline, Scotland, Argentina and Japan have all had strong showings in recent time to rival the strength of the traditionally strong Northern Hemisphere powerhouses England and France.
The traditional Southern Hemisphere power base is considerably weaker than it has ever been. Despite top level competitions, players and coaches half of the teams seem to be fighting an uphill battle. The SARU may recover, clever maneuvering meaning they still have six top level provincial sides to develop their talent. The ARU however has failed to follow in the footsteps of other provincial code development nor international trends.
A failure to develop and reward grass-roots rugby has lead to a seeming decline in youngsters. Talented players are leaving to secure their futures. 20% of the Australian conference is about to be cut. Michael Cheika only success a World Cup semi-final feels like a long time ago after recent losses; 3-0 to England, Scotland and the ever increasing dusty cabinet space where the Bledisloe Cup sat, once upon of time. I hope for Rugby’s sake there is a way out of the darkness.