Peter FitzSimons: Australian rugby pays for neglecting its grassroots

Australian rugby has faced stern times before.

In 1908, of course, a seismic schism occurred when rugby league broke away, took the money and ran.

In World War I so many rugby players volunteered to serve most of the Sydney and Brisbane club rugby competitions had to shut down. (In 1915, 197 of 220 regular first-grade players were on active service.)

The same occurred in World War II, as rugby league pulled ever further ahead.

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In 1973, the Wallabies infamously lost to Tonga, and in 1981/82, despite playing great rugby, the Australian team didn't win a single test on their swing through mainland Britain.

But never have things been as grim as right now, with something of a perfect storm forming before our very eyes, and threatening to decimate it.

On Saturday, the Wallabies lost to Scotland – Scotland! – before a crowd of just 30,000 people. The week before, when the Wallabies played Fiji in Melbourne, just 13,000 people could be bothered to turn up.  While average attendances for a professional rugby game in Australia in 2013 were 22,654, by last year it had fallen to 18,818, and this year so far has fallen to... 11,187. When NSW lost to the Kings on April 21, they did it in front of just crowd of 10,555 fans; the lowest number for a home game in 21 years.

While fans have been refusing to come to the turnstiles, and some have accused the Wallabies of not bleeding for the jersey as they should, such sponsors as there are have been rushing for the exits, and just two weeks ago one of them, Buildcorp, pulled a million-dollar sponsorship out of the game saying the Australian Rugby Union had been too slow to get moving in bringing on a women's competition on par with the National Rugby Championship.

The loss to Scotland means the Wallabies have lost 10 out of their last 17 matches, and it is pushing a decade-and-a-half since the Wallabies won the Bledisloe Cup. In the last seven years, the Wallabies have won just two Bledisloe matches.

In Super Rugby, Australian sides have played 23 matches against Kiwi sides this year to record – dot three, carry one, subtract two – NO wins at all. Last year, they managed just three wins. This is, obviously, a hard sell to get Australian fans interested.

Once the prime-time heartland of rugby union, the North Shore now has rugby goal posts torn down to be replaced by ever more Aussie Rules posts. Once unthinkable, both GPS and CAS schools now boast Aussie Rules as a sport, and just last weekend the Knox Prep School's Aussie Rules team qualified as one of the eight best in the state.

While the game continues to produce champion footballers, it can't always afford to keep them, with some of Australia's best players now playing for teams in Europe and Japan – while the rising star of the Rabbitohs, Angus Crichton, was an Australian Schoolboys rugby union player just four years ago.

As we speak, the ARU and its provinces are fighting like cats in a sack. Two-and-a-half months ago, it became apparent that Australian rugby would have to lose one of its five Super Rugby franchises. Most at risk are the Melbourne Rebels and the Western Force, and both are simply refusing to go.

All up, the perception has grown that the game is an elitist endeavour, run by snobs, who just don't get it. No less than the Betoota Advocate recently began their own analysis with a stark write-off: "Privately-educated-upper-middle-class man unable to identify problem with Australian rugby union . . . The game needs to be more approachable," he said, from the helm of his 34ft ketch. "That responsibility lies with the boarding schools."  

All up, things are so bad, soooooo very bad, that an emergency meeting has been called for Tuesday for the key stakeholders and there appears some chance the embattled CEO, Bill Pulver, will resign. Personally, I would be surprised if the Australian Rugby Union wants his resignation, and if it would solve anything, but we'll get to that.

Meantime, what ails the game? Well, how long have you got?

There is a variety of factors but, as this correspondent has long and loudly bleated, a large part of the problems above come down to poor decisions over the years with the professional sector of the game having taken the lion's share of available resources all while the grassroots wither, disaffected fans turn away, and the once gushing supply line of great talent dwindles away to a trickle.

Over the years staggering sums have been put to short-term solutions that have proved to be no solution at all, which has seen a series of rugby league players – with no demonstrable feeling for the game – cruising into the Wallabies, taking the money and cruising back to rugby league. Other huge amounts of money have been put to causes of highly questionable wisdom. An example is committing a reported A$750,000 a year to giving David Pocock a sabbatical year, allowing him time off from the Wallabies, while keeping him secure for the 2019 World Cup.

As fine a player as Pocock is, as crucial as he is to the Wallabies performing well, it is madness to pay that much money to one player, to not play – his only commitment this year is to do three, one-hour meet and greets with individuals of the ARU's choosing – all while the rest of the game is crying out for development officers, for resources, for fertiliser to make the grassroots grow.

Perhaps the key factor however, is that while the game worldwide is booming as never before – as the essence of the game is so strong, and so inclusive of all body types and abilities, requiring little more than a field and a ball to play with – in Australia it has been squeezed terribly by three other football codes that are well organised, well funded and eager to take over rugby's territory.

The way forward then?

I have no glib answers. There are no easy fixes that present themselves, beyond the obvious of pruning ludicrous extravagances – which, sadly, really does include trying to sustain five Super franchises. One way or another, that must be reduced.

Pulver's exit would just see some other poor b****** having to sort out the problems that he is familiar with. The fact that Pulver even wants to stay is testament enough to his passion for the code, and to his credit he has already shaved away many costs of administration.

My chief hope is that the course taken is one of trimming the sails, of pulling back from grand visions of winning World Cups any time soon – of even prioritising World Cup victories as the be-all and end-all – and instead setting ourselves for the long haul. This includes getting Wallabies connected back to the grassroots, so they care, and the grassroots know they care.

Ladies and gentlemen, we are in for a long period of wet-weather football, sustained tough times that will need long-sprigs, limited ambitions, and satisfaction in moving the game forward by inches if necessary, just so long as it keeps moving.

It will be one for the True Believers.

We have a great game. We have many wonderful people involved. We still have resources to use that were unimaginable in the amateur days. So let's put those resources to what counts: to juniors, to grassroots, to development officers, and to professional players who want to commit to Australian rugby even on lesser coin.

If the Australian game can't afford you, so be it. We've still got enough cash to shout you a taxi to the airport.


 - Sydney Morning Herald