Can ARU Reverse Its Decline?
The Wallabies’ 37-21 defeat against England in front of a chock-full Twickenham stadium two weeks ago put the cap on a depressing season that saw the Australian Rugby Union side lose nine of the 15 matches they played this year. It’s a far cry from last year, when they won 10 matches out of 12, losing only twice to New Zealand: 2015 was a much better example of the kind of rugby union that has made Australia and Australian players such revered contributors to the game’s history since 1899.
But Australia’s rugby union fans have more to worry about than one depressing season. Already a minority sport in Australia, rugby union is declining even further in sectors where it most needs to grow, if the Wallabies are ever to regain the form that won them two World Cups: namely, at school and club level.
Club and School Participation Dwindling
When Australia’s rugby union greats call on the ARU to pay closer attention to the game’s grassroots, as former Wallabies skipper Nick Farr-Jones and several other former players did in an open letter in October, it’s a warning that should be taken seriously. In recent years, the number of club rugby union players has dropped by 7,000; more than 7 per cent. The main reason players drop out is the difficulty they experience holding down full-time jobs and still participating at a competitive level in an underfunded discipline.
Rugby union gates are also falling across Australia, with fewer fans in stadiums, and those that do make the effort being less vocal and enthusiastic. It doesn’t help that Australian print and TV media devote very little coverage to rugby union, or that it is only the 18th sport, in terms of participation, among Australian school children who are 14 or older. With football, basketball, horse riding and tennis among the much more popular sports, the king of all is still Australian Rules Football.
Of course, the AFL promotes Aussie Rules through a number of youth development programmes, including AusKick, and also supports a thriving club culture, both of which help explain its perennial popularity across the whole nation. If rugby union is to expand beyond its traditional private-school home base in Queensland and New South Wales, and if the newer Super 15 franchises in Melbourne and Perth are to help create that growing fan base, rugby union at school and club level needs a similar commitment of resources and support from the ARU and sports media, right across Australia.