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Australian Rugby's State of Play

Michael Cheika is due to link-up with the Argentina squad in Australia. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

Australian Rugby is as at one of the lowest points in its long history.

The Wallabies world ranking slid down three places to 7th after the 23-19 loss to the Pumas on the 15th of the September on the Gold Coast.


This loss has put immense pressure on coach Michael Cheika and indeed his whole squad, toss in drunken fans abusing the players and accosting them after the game and you have a really bad look for Rugby Australia. On top of this, there is enormous push-back from supporters and fans and grassroots rugby in general. The negative comments on social media are in their thousands and you really have to read through hundreds of them to find anything positive written about the Wallabies or Rugby Australia.

How did Australian Rugby get to this position? It has been a long slow slide but the warning signs have been there and Rugby Australia have not managed to correct the slide and also added to the dysfunction. The disconnect between Rugby Australia and the grassroots can be summed up by former Rugby Australia CEO Bill Pulver declining to fund Sydney and Brisbane Premiership Clubs, stating in a 2016 interview with Sydney Morning Herald “I’m not making any money available for the Sydney clubs to piss it up against the wall.”

As for the Wallabies, is there any other choice for coach besides Michael Cheika? I don’t think so, the next coach has the same problem. Players lacking basic skills and not really up to top-level international rugby. Gone are the days where a World XV would have six or more Wallabies in it. The Wallabies would be hard pressed even to get Israel Folau into a current World XV jersey. As mentioned in a previous article, imagine All Blacks Coach Steve Hansen having hookers turning up who can’t throw a ball into the lineout, a basic skill, never in a million years. Coach Cheika struggles to find even one hooker who can do the job.

I played NSW Under 21’s and Australian Under 21’s with Michael Cheika – that was 20 years ago and I have just seen him a few times since. We had a great Under 21’s side and beat New Zealand at Ballymore. Cheik was a tough uncompromising Number Eight, loved putting the slipper in and the best sledger ever. Cheik was a great team man and was liked by all. He went on to play many seasons for Randwick in their golden days of multiple back-to-back Premierships. Cheik was not quite big enough or athletic enough for senior representative teams but he certainly was a great Sydney first grader. The passion you see on the TV is real, he hates losing and the Wallabies would really be putting in the hard yards.

Let’s look at current playing numbers in Australia, World Rugby has 669,635 Total players listed for Australia and 150,727 listed for New Zealand which is simply ridiculous and completely inaccurate. I think the most accurate census on playing numbers comes from the Australian Sports Commission (ASC). The ASC lists Rugby Union as the 18thranked sport for Children playing organised sport outside of school hours. The numbers are demoralising against rugby’s main winter sport competitors:

Listed by ranking

1. Soccer 674,094 players

2. AFL 366, 462 players

11. Rugby League 126,754


18. Rugby Union 57, 429

In 2016 the ARU stated that 275, 307 people had a rugby participation experience. The ASC in the same period found that 141, 500 people aged 15 plus participated in Rugby. If the ASC numbers are added up that 200,000 mark is close but the ARU literally put in every participant, even a single-event touch rugby expo at a Primary School makes the list.

Stats are boring, I know, but what they clearly show is that rugby union – during the critical time of recruitment, which is school age children – is getting smashed by its competitors. AFL and soccer are just huge and rugby league has more than double the players that rugby union does. Rugby Australia simply has to copy what the AFL are doing and it needs to start in Western Sydney. AFL have massive funding and saturate all markets with their school programs linking players to local clubs. Rugby Australia needs to start in Western Sydney, the third biggest City in Australia, where soccer, AFL and rugby league are investing millions in development.

Playing standards have dropped across all levels of rugby. In the 1990’s just the Sydney and Brisbane club competitions were producing a World XV standard player every 18 months, now there are none. So even with massive income coming into the game and the growth and then retraction of Super Rugby teams the game is actually worse off than it was when the income was minimal. There is one shining light in this mess and that is Sydney’s Shute Shield. With no assistance from NSWRU or Rugby Australia they have organised their own TV deal and the competition is good enough to supply every Super Rugby franchise with players.

I played in both Sydney and Brisbane club competitions in the early and mid-1990’s and they were both world class, very physical and tough competitions. Brothers versus Souths, for example. In 1993 there could be 16 Wallabies on the field, big home crowds and lots of support. With the advent of professional rugby, this world-class competition in Brisbane started to unravel and sponsors disappeared. Brisbane was a small city with numerous professional teams so if you had a dollar you put it with the Broncos, the Reds or the Bulls. Every Brisbane club went broke except for Sunnybank with proud clubs like Brothers even closing the doors and after match functions being held in the beer garden. I watched some Brisbane club games a few years ago and they had really deteriorated to a second-grade level, a real shame.


So if you are looking at reasons for the Wallabies decline to seventh in the World Rankings look no further. The powerhouses of Australian rugby, the Sydney and Brisbane club competitions, slid into obscurity with the start of Super Rugby in 1996. Rugby Australia ignored the clubs and treated them with disdain. All rugby administrations lost a strategic vision for development. AFL, soccer and league smashed them with funding, programs and linking development programs to clubs. Australian Rugby even poured funding into the NRC competition against the advice of clubs and are paying the price. It is Australia’s Bermuda Triangle of sports, apparently it is on now but no one knows who the teams are or where it is.

The fans are switching off big time, no one talks about rugby, no one is watching it and attendances are woeful. Super Rugby crowds are really bad, this has been well reported. The Wallabies’ last two games had dreadful crowds; half full stadiums really looked poor on TV. There were 16,000 people at the Gold Coast Test against the Pumas. The same number of people attended the Shute Shield Grand Final in Sydney.  I hope some Rugby Australia Board Members made it to North Sydney Oval and saw where their funding should be headed. Grassroots rugby with passionate supporters and players, pulling in big crowds and playing good rugby deserves just as much funding as elite players disappearing on 12-month sabbaticals or other such rubbish that Rugby Australia tips their money into.

I thought the Wallabies would win their two Rugby Championship home games against the Boks and Pumas and then drop the two away games. Unfortunately, after the Wallabies’ woeful performance on the Gold Coast they are looking at three losses in row. I think they have no chance in South Africa and Argentina is like playing on the moon, zero chance. The only glimmer of hope is that the match is at sea level in Port Elizabeth; I would rate the Wallabies as a zero if the match was at altitude. Look to the beautiful city of Buenos Aires this weekend, I am tipping the Pumas to edge the All Blacks for their first ever win against New Zealand.

In other news:

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