Tuesday 26 September 2017

Kate Rowan: Can rugby union ever rule Aussie hearts?

Australia's captain James Horwill
Australia's captain James Horwill

FORGET Paul O’Connell’s Lions Tour ending injury. Forget James Horwill’s controversial exoneration from the citing commissioner. Forget the Digby Ioane arrest warrant. Forget the Melbourne Rebels getting steam-rolled by the Lions.

In Melbourne everybody is talking about the Brisbane Lions surprise storm to victory over the much-fancied Geelong Cats. As the locals put it is all about “footy” in Victoria. By “footy”, we mean AFL or Aussie Rules.

From just a stroll around the centre of the city and chats with the locals, it is clear to see that rugby is not in the forefront of most Victorians thoughts and seems the Australian tour destination most detached from rugby union.

As Australian Rugby Union participation manager Rob Drinkwater puts it, “Victoria is AFL heartland, it is a market we are trying to grow but our two biggest markets for rugby are in Brisbane and Sydney.”

Even at that last week when the Brumbies created history by being the first Australian provincial team since 1971 to be the tourists.

You might have expected the Super Rugby side’s triumph as the lead story splashed across the back pages and sports bulletins for at least a day after their historic achievement.

In the land Down Under that same night, there was also history being made in Stadium Australia in Sydney when the Socceroos, the national football side, qualified for next year’s World Cup in Brazil after a one nil win over Iraq.

And the following day Socceroos captain Lucas Neill and co hogged the headlines.

It would seem that one of the reasons why you don’t find the same level of excitement from all locals in Australia around a Lions Tour compared with New Zealand is that there are a of a lot of sports competing for attention, rather than rugby as the sole obsession.

Huge numbers participate in and attend sporting events in Australia.

Drinkwater, who is tasked with overseeing the growth in rugby participation from grassroots level up explains, “it’s a pretty tough market, you have a population of 22 million to be supporting probably in excess of probably 40 professional sports teams,” when asked about rugby’s position as a sport in Australia.

There are five Super Rugby franchises, 18 Aussie Rules teams, 14 for rugby league and nine professional football clubs in the A-League.

Irish sports fans may be surprised to learn that soccer has the highest participation level of any sport in Australia. Drinkwater credits this due to “mums want their children to play soccer because it is perceived as being safer than playing rugby or league or Aussie rules.”

Another reason why football is thriving is due the multicultural make of up of society, with strong immigration from Europe helping to keep football popular.

The relatively simple rules make it attractive to newcomers to the sport. Rugby in the 15 man format is comparatively more difficult to understand and so for this reason the ARU are prioritising “sevens as our vehicle for trying to capture a whole new market and whole new cultures.”

As a curtain raiser to each Lions Tour match in Australia the ARU have organised youngsters playing sevens rugby to help promote that form of the sport.

As well as sevens being attractive to watch, the big draw, in Drinkwater’s opinion, is the sport’s Olympic status from the 2016 games in Rio, “Our big competitors, AFL and League don’t have any Olympic links, we would say they have got no international or global outlook."

“AFL has an international arm with the combined rules series against the Irish. Rugby League has its world cup this year but Australia, NZ and England are driving that and then the NRL, league’s biggest completion is based in Australia so I would not say it is truly international.”

Despite putting together a “very strong marketing campaign for sevens rugby at the Olympics in 2016, going pretty big on women’s focus,” the ARU believe that the best advertisement for growing this form of rugby would be for an “Australian sevens team to be on the podium on Rio, with preferably a gold medal. The Olympic offer is huge for us.

Another key element of the Australian rugby landscape is the “Wallaby brand which historically been very strong. Look at Wimbledon when Lleyton Hewitt plays and you will see Wallaby jerseys scattered around. All over the world, the Wallaby jersey is an identifier that you are supporting an Australian athlete.”

So, to the current crop of Wallabies facing the best of British and Irish, and Drinkwater sees the tour as, “the size of and scope of the tour are a really good platform. In 12 years time we want some of the kids who are starting with the sevens now to be the Wallabies who will be next facing the Lions.”

Perhaps one of the best indicators of the state of rugby Down Under is the location of AAMI Park, the venue for clash with the Melbourne Rebels. The stadium is located in the area that formerly hosted 1956 Olympic Park. The same campus hold the MCG cricket ground and the Rod Laver Arena home of Australian Open Tennis – the heart of Australia’s crowded sporting market place.

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