Dylan Cleaver on sport
Sport analysis and comment from Dylan Cleaver

Midweek Fixture: Australian rugby in deeper trouble than thought

By Dylan Cleaver

30,000 fans attended the Wallabies clash against the Springboks on Saturday. Photo / Getty
30,000 fans attended the Wallabies clash against the Springboks on Saturday. Photo / Getty

There are 22,000 reasons Australian rugby is in bigger trouble than we possibly imagined, and they were staring me in the face from every conceivable angle of Suncorp Stadium.

Let's start by saying Suncorp Stadium is a magnificent place to watch footy. Twickenham has history and a certain grandeur but if I had superpowers and could transport any rugby stadium to my backyard to watch the 1996 All Blacks play the 1971 Lions from here to eternity, it would be Suncorp.

So there I am, in a footy stadium made by smart people. I've got beer, I've got a seat near the halfway line and I'm there for free (see clearly marked declaration of interest at the bottom), so I should be one happy little camper.

And yet...

Gee that was awful.

For the record, Australia beat South Africa 23-17. It was a match so lacking in imagination that the producer asked to cut a half-hour highlights package from it is now sedated and safely locked in a padded cell.

Bad games can be good games if the intensity, atmosphere and sense of occasion act as make-up to cover over the blemishes.

Not this time.

Just 30,000 turned up for the only Rugby Championship test in Brisbane this year. That meant 22,000 empty seats. Last year the same fixture attracted 7000 more people at the same venue. It will be down again next year too unless the Australian Rugby Union can figure this thing out.

The night before, 43,000 had witnessed the Brisbane Broncos beating the Gold Coast Titans at the same venue. Perhaps more worrying, down the way in old Sydney town, 60,000 people turned up to watch an AFL derby between Greater Western Sydney and the Sydney Swans.

Rugby isn't just losing this battle for hearts and minds, they're getting blown out of the park.

Even accounting for heavy pre-match rain that would have dissuaded some casual punters from attending, newly minted Queensland Reds CEO Richard Barker said they were expecting just 35,000.

The difference between the two Suncorp products was stark. The NRL playoff wasn't a great game. The Broncos cantered away 44-28 on the back of some dreadful officiating, but there was plenty happening (including, ahem, an ugly post-match brawl on the concourse).

There was an energy to the night. Some crackle and pop.

The test offered nothing. South Africa got off to a fast start but it was a mirage. Australia clawed their way inexorably back into the game. It was a slow strangle that left the crowd begging for mercy.

Winning ugly might be more meritorious than losing pretty, but when you're in the sort of battle Australian rugby is to hold interest, it really can't afford to do either.

It would take a breathtaking display of cynicism here to suggest the Brisbane Global 10s is the answer to Australia's woes but as Barker said, it can't hurt.

Queensland rugby needs a shot in the arm following the precipitous fall of the franchise following their maiden Super Rugby title in 2011.

"Our challenge is different to New Zealand," he told the Herald. "Our crowds have declined. This tournament provides a different overview as to what rugby can offer."

Barker, who played for Queensland Country in 1984 against the All Blacks in a 0-88 loss, is realistic about the challenge he faces.

Rugby is a distant second to league in the city. If the AFL's Brisbane Lions rise again - in their flag-winning pomp in the early 2000s they averaged home crowds of 30,000, but slipped to 17,000 this year - they could slip to third.

"For one weekend, we'll be the epicentre of the rugby world," Barker says of the Tens, noting the international flavour with the addition of teams from Toulon, Japan and Samoa.

If the Tens mirrors the success of the Nines, that might well be true.

After all, it can't hurt.

THE WEEK IN MEDIA ...

From The Undefeated, an amusing oral history of Shaquille O'Neal's surprisingly successful foray into the music biz.

A football manager legend, a striker, a transfer negotiation that nobody can agree on.


* The trip to Brisbane was courtesy of Duco Events, who are hosting the inaugural Global 10s in the city on February 10-11.

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