Former Wallaby and respected newspaper columnist Peter FitzSimons wrote during the week that the Rugby World Cup was dwarfing the AFL and the NRL.
He was referring to the global nature of rugby and the fact that the AFL and NRL were popular only in Australia (and the north of England and New Zealand in rugby league’s case). While it is hard to disagree with his assessment what he fails to mention is that the two sports that aren’t grabbing worldwide headlines are smashing rugby off the map where it counts – at home. The AFL and NRL competitions are so far superior to that of the watered-down, contrived and frankly second-rate Super Rugby competition that they barely warrant comparison these days. The proof is in the numbers in Australia where rugby is struggling to keep ahead of the quickly-growing A-League and second tier sports like basketball while having little impact on the bigger NRL and AFL competitions.
New Zealand is a different story – rugby has a more sacred place in our sporting DNA but there has been a clear and seismic shift in how the country supports the game now. Instead of being fans at all levels the majority of Kiwis seem to be All Blacks fans rather than rugby fans. The passion for supporting the national side is as strong as ever but below that there is a sense of apathy about Super Rugby and provincial rugby. Empty seats, a lack of newspaper column space and dwindling junior numbers are plaguing the sport. In a worrying trend big unions such as Waikato can’t even attract enough under 19 players to form a provincial club competition.
The NRL continues to dish up a competition that creates significant interest even if the Warriors are not particularly competitive at present. Sports fans now have a greater appetite for an Australian club competition than the so-called best domestic rugby in the world. If you don’t believe me try spending an hour in rugby sponsors Rebel Sport where NRL merchandise of overseas clubs dwarfs its New Zealand rugby counterparts.
Rugby has far more global appeal though the sport remains small by world standards. It commands interest in western Commonwealth countries but not in the highly populated areas of Africa, the Americas and Asia. A measure of major sports (http://biggestglobalsports.com/) rates rugby union the 19th biggest sport in the world and a long way behind the major global games. While rugby union certainly outranks AFL and rugby league on a global sense there is a good argument to suggest that too much emphasis is being placed on growing the game abroad than creating meaningful competitions for fans to consume on a weekly basis at home and continue the growth of the sport in its heartland.
Rugby league has been toying with the idea of trying to grow the international game. I hope they look at rugby union and see the mistakes being made in that sport. The priority should always be your own backyard first and to never compromise that.
So while FitzSimons and his rugby mates are trumpeting the success of the global World Cup what mess will the domestic game be in five years from now? As good as the Wallabies’ win over England was on Sunday morning, Johnathan Thurston and the North Queensland Cowboys’ performance in the NRL Grand Final Sunday night ensured the water cooler talk around Australia on Monday will be about the 13-man code.