Sport Rugby

Monday 11 December 2017

Aussie sports fans not paying their Union dues

Eamonn Sweeney

Sorry about this but, even after dutifully taking on board life-threatening amounts of insane Sky Sports hype, I still can't bring myself to regard this as a real Lions Test series.

My first problem is that one of the mainstays of the Lions is tradition. And there's not much tradition when it comes to a tour of Australia. This is only the Lions' fourth Australian tour proper. Prior to 1989, with the exception of course of the 1899 tour which I'm sure we all remember fondly, the Aussies were occasionally shoehorned in as a warm-up for or after-thought to the main business in New Zealand.

Think of the great historic Lions moments, Cliff Morgan's tour de force in 1955, the Lions scoring four tries to none and getting beaten by six penalties in 1959, the Gareth Edwards try and JPR Williams drop goal in 1971, the unbeaten team of 1974, and you think of New Zealand and South Africa.

There has always been a genuine glory attached to the prospect of scoring a rare win over South Africa and New Zealand. The Lions have managed one win in 11 series against the All Blacks and four out of 13 in South Africa, two of which came in the 19th century. Against Australia, on the other hand, the score in Test victories is, at the time of writing, 16-6 to the Lions.

The problem is that an Australian tour brings up the vexed question of why it should take the combined might of the four home nations to defeat a not particularly stellar rival. Defeating the All Blacks or South Africa in a series on their home turf remains one of sport's big achievements. Both the Springboks (1974 v Lions, 1996 v All Blacks) and the All Blacks (1937 v South Africa, 1971 v Lions) have only lost two full Test series at home in the last hundred years. Even Ireland, on the other hand, have won a Test series in Australia, in 1979. There's not the same mystique. But perhaps the greatest buzzkill is that a Lions series isn't the be all and end all for Australia as a sporting nation. I recall talking to a player who'd been on the ill-fated tour of New Zealand in 2005 and he spoke of his amazement about how every single person there seemed obsessed with the Tests to a degree which generated a really hostile atmosphere for the tourists. "If I could do anything in rugby," he said ruefully, "it would to be to win there and properly sicken them."

There's not the same edge in Australia because rugby union doesn't define that country in the same way that it does New Zealand and to a somewhat racially limited extent South Africa. In fact, it's at best the fourth most popular sport in the country. The average attendance at Super Rugby matches this year, 17,990, was dwarfed by those at Australian Rules football's major league fixtures which stood at 35,087. It was also exceeded by the National Rugby League which had an average attendance of 18,268. The far greater number of games in the latter competition gives it a total attendance of 1,169, 140 to Super Rugby's 467,752.

An even more surprising statistic is that the Australian team's average home attendance of 44,510 in the Rugby Union Championship with the All Blacks, South Africa and Argentina is less than that of the three biggest Rules clubs. Ten Rules clubs have a higher average home attendance than the country's biggest Rugby Union side, the Queensland Reds. So does Australia's leading Rugby League club, the Brisbane Broncos. A further six Rules clubs and five Rugby League clubs draw bigger crowds than Australia's second biggest rugby union club, the New South Wales Waratahs. When it comes to TV viewing figures, the disparity is shocking. A total of 123m viewers watched the AFL last year, 113m the NRL and a paltry 7.8m turned in to Super Rugby which actually dropped behind soccer's A-League.

Then you have cricket, traditionally Australia's number one sport, which had 96 million TV viewers, the highest level of adult participation and could draw over 46,000 spectators to a Twenty20 game in January between the Melbourne Stars and the Melbourne Renegades, 10,000 more than the biggest Super Rugby crowd of the year. While in terms of participation among schoolchildren, rugby union lags behind the likes of swimming, netball, basketball, tennis and gymnastics.

So while it's great to see Irish players doing so well with the Lions, let's not cod ourselves. The average Aussie sports fan cares more about Tadhg Kennelly than he ever will about Brian O'Driscoll.

And maybe this series isn't that big of a deal at all.

Irish Independent

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