After the Waratahs success on the weekend, I have been having a bit of a think about rugby in Australia.
Cover photo by Keith McInnes
No sport in Australia is so pre-occupied with the ‘state of the game’ as rugby. The discussion is constant and wide-ranging. Crowd figures are meticulously scrutinised. Financial statements are pored over. Playing numbers are eagerly anticipated. All of these factors (and many more) are all consumed hungrily to formulate the answer to the burning question: how are we going?
The prevailing view, especially in NSW, is ‘not well’. It seems accepted wisdom in some quarters that rugby is in decline, and will inevitably become a sporting non-entity as the juggernauts of League, Soccer and AFL roll on. So every little success or failure is always discussed in the wider context of the ‘health of the game’. Every win by the NRL is seen as a loss for rugby, or AFL, or whoever. All stories are now viewed through this lens, as if all the codes are contestants on ‘The Bachelor’ competing for the interest of the sporting public.
This may be appropriate if we were talking about mobile phone companies, or fast food chains. But the reason why this habit shits me to tears is we are talking about sport. And as Saturday night proved, sport is very different to anything else in the world.
Saturday night is the reason that rugby will never die in this country. It can endure years of tumultuous failure, but as long as it can produce a game like that from time to time there will always be a large audience for it. It reinforced to us (the fanatics) what makes our game so great, and showed to the habitual watchers that it has all the drama and intensity of any other sport out there.
Because all of the balance sheets, all of the coaching debacles, all of the offshore player debates, all of the grassroots investment problems, all of the minutae that we pore over from day to day… fades into nothing when Bernard Foley lines up a kick from 45 out to win the title. Regardless of who you are, where you are from or what sport you follow (if any) when that kick is sailing towards the posts your eyes are glued to the screen. It’s what makes sport so great, and what makes rugby a great sport.
League is a great sport too. So is AFL. So is Soccer. I am glued to the screen for a final set of six with the game on the line, or when Leo Barry soars above the pack to take a mark deep in the defensive 50 with a minute left in the Grand Final. It’s the same feeling as a bunched Sunday leaderboard on the back 9 at the Masters, or two cyclists going toe-to-toe up the Col du Tourmalet. Rugby can produce moments comparable to these, and it can do so on a yearly basis.
The wider sporting public hasn’t forgotten this, because every so often an event like Saturday reminds them. When you see a thrilling game with a big crowd and a great atmosphere you don’t worry about the rules and the intricacies you may not understand. That’s why you get a packed house every time the Lions come to town, and a big crowd with every Bledisloe.
That is why I tend to turn off when people start opining about ‘the state of our game’. Because it’s fine. Yes the budget may be a bit tight, and yes we may have some issues competing with cashed up French clubs or rival codes, or whatever you want to stress about. But I fucking love rugby, and always will. And I know plenty of other people that feel the same. The reason is simple- it can take me on an emotional roller coaster that is incomparable to anything else. That is the beauty of sport, and that is never going to change.
I’m not blind to the problems we face. I care deeply about the game and want it to succeed. But the reality is I don’t care that much about recruiting fans, or TV viewers, or sponsors. I don’t need rugby to be the dominant code and to have the support of millions to validate the game I know I love. I don’t care what peanut journos in the Daily Tele think. I wouldn’t care if I watched the Bledisloe in a crowd of 10 or 100,000.
Sometimes we all need reminding that rugby is just a game, and a fucking good one. One that leads us to waste so much time on sites like this when we could be reading Shakespeare, learning a language or being productive members of society.
Saturday night did just that. Thank God the kick went over.
photo by Keith McInnes