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‘It’ll take a miracle’: decades of decline leave Australian rugby at dire crossroads | Angus Fontaine
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‘It’ll take a miracle’: decades of decline leave Australian rugby at dire crossroads | Angus Fontaine


It is currently the final week of summer and people across the country are preparing their footy scarves. The NRL is getting ready for a double-header event in Las Vegas. The AFL’s main stadium has been endorsed by Taylor Swift, and the Matildas are ready for the last stage of their Paris 2024 Olympic qualification, along with their 12th consecutive sold-out home game.

Where can rugby union be found? The new Super Rugby Pacific season quietly began in New Zealand last week. However, a new documentary airing on Thursday served as a reminder of the 2023 World Cup disaster. Efforts are also being made to sell tickets for the Melbourne Rebels v ACT Brumbies round one game on Friday, despite the former being in administration. For the sport known as “the game they play in heaven”, 2024 is shaping up to be another difficult year leading up to a final judgement.

The 2024 Super Rugby Pacific season kicks off on Friday night.

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For the past twenty years, the Australian rugby industry has deteriorated from its top management down to its grassroots level. The formerly esteemed and influential sport is now divided in numerous areas, with little hope of being restored. It faces large amounts of debt, a flawed structure, declining involvement, low viewership, disappointing attendance, and significant challenges on the playing field – as well as in financial records.

When facing a difficult situation, the only option is to persevere and continue onward.

Morgan Turinui, Wallaby #782, acknowledges that there is a significant amount of PTSD from the previous season. He admits that there were many errors and missed chances throughout the year. Although the system still has its flaws, there are promising events on the horizon such as the women’s team being favored to win Olympic gold this year, a British & Irish Lions tour in 2025, and both men’s and women’s World Cups being hosted in Australia in 2027 and 2029. These are all incredible opportunities that rugby must not let slip away.


In 2024, Rugby Australia will begin a major overhaul. Last year, Chairman Hamish McLennan and coach Eddie Jones left, and were replaced by new CEO Phil Waugh and chairman Dan Herbert, who was previously a Wallaby player (#715). The new team also includes Wallabies coach Joe Schmidt, high performance director Peter Horne, and the first female coach of the Wallaroos, Joanne Yapp. Their goal is to revive the sport and bring together the divided rugby community.

Eddie Jones walked away from Australian rugby in October last year.View image in fullscreen

Some individuals lack confidence in the state of Australian rugby. According to one executive at RA, it represents dysfunction at its peak. There was a lack of proper management when it came to hiring Eddie Jones, which resulted in utter chaos. The culture that former coach Dave Rennie had established was ruined by Jones. While Phil Waugh is highly respected among players and well-liked, it will require a miracle to fix the issues that have plagued the sport for the last two decades.

The upcoming weekend marks the beginning of the Super Rugby Pacific season, also known as the “miracle mile.” This is an appropriate time to address the shortcomings and future of the game. It has been seven years since an Australian team has won a Super Rugby title, and none of them are profitable or able to draw large audiences. However, this wasn’t always the case. From 1996 to 2005, Australia’s three teams – the NSW Waratahs, Queensland Reds, and ACT Brumbies – had a 68% win rate and attracted large crowds.

According to Turinui, 2003 is commonly seen as the year when things took a turn for the worse. This was the year when Australia hosted the World Cup and reached the finals (but ultimately lost to England with a score of 20-17). The event sold two million tickets and generated a profit of $46 million. Instead of investing this money, it was used to expand the game on a national level. However, this decision has not yielded positive results and there are now widespread calls for the removal of the Western Force (established in 2006) and Melbourne Rebels (established in 2011) in order to streamline player resources.

Phil Waugh and the Wallabies celebrate victory over the All Blacks in happier times at the 2003 World Cup.View image in fullscreen

According to Turinui, finding a solution to this dilemma is a crucial aspect of the puzzle for Australian rugby. He believes that in order for rugby to thrive, it must have a national presence and utilize the pathways provided by Western Australia and Victoria. However, there is a debate that our pool of talented players and coaches is stretched too thin across five teams. The decision for RA is whether to continue expanding by adding Super US and Japan teams, or to scale back and focus on strengthening their foothold in the local market by creating a national competition that can compete with the AFL and NRL.

The amount of money earned and the viewership on television will play significant roles. According to Hunter Fujak from Deakin University, rugby’s revenue is only 14% of the AFL’s. RA’s contract with Nine/Stan for $30 million is much smaller than the AFL’s $650 million deal for 2025. In order to secure larger deals, rugby needs to improve its level of entertainment. One possible solution could be reducing the number of teams and focusing on acquiring top talent, which could also raise the overall quality of play, generate more interest, and engage with markets that have been overlooked or untapped.


In a specific location at the Waratahs’ Daceyville headquarters in the eastern suburbs of Sydney, there exists a secured space with an earthquake monitoring facility and a compact device dedicated to capturing seismic movements. This situation is particularly ironic as the Waratahs have not been very successful for more than ten years, since their sole victory in 2014. On that occasion, a crowd of 61,823 filled Stadium Australia to witness the Waratahs, led by Michael Cheika, defeat the Crusaders, who had won 12 titles previously, with a score of 33-32.

Australia has not prodcued a champion Super Rugby team since the Waratahs in 2014.View image in fullscreen

The Waratahs have become the first state to implement RA’s highly praised centralized system, which has proven to be incredibly successful for rugby in Ireland and New Zealand. Paul Doorn, CEO of the Waratahs, acknowledges that there may be some apprehension due to the traditional nature of rugby, but their previous federated model is no longer effective. He believes that if rugby continues to follow the same practices, they will continue to see the same unsatisfactory outcomes. Unfortunately, this has been the case as Australian Super teams have maintained a win-rate below 45%, with a staggering 40 consecutive losses to New Zealand teams in 2018.

Currently, there have been no other states that have adopted the approach of NSW. However, the new CEO of the Western Force, Niamh O’Connor, expresses her complete support for the concept of integrating high performance. She believes that this will bring consistency in skills. The main concern is determining who is most suitable to handle and take responsibility for the potential risks. The Western Force operates in a distinct market, so it is important to focus on developing connections with local clubs and grassroots. The Wallabies are just a small aspect of this overall goal.

Doorn suggests that efficiency increases as organizations grow in size. He mentions that the Waratahs and RA have both taken ideas and sponsors from each other in the past, while individual states continue to operate independently without sharing information. A centralized approach would merge all Australian players’ contracts, fitness, strength, conditioning, and physical characteristics into one database, minimizing injury risks for players transitioning between club, Super, and international levels.


The foundation of rugby in Australia begins at the grassroots level. While the country boasts one of the highest rates of participation in rugby globally, its growth has been slower compared to other sports. In 2023, the Australian Sports Commission reported 145,000 adults and 95,000 children playing rugby. However, Australian rules football had four times the number of participants and basketball had over 500% more child players. As a result, rugby ranks as the ninth most popular sport in Australia, trailing behind football, rugby league, cricket, badminton, and rock climbing.

Ace Naati, the general manager of Gordon Rugby on Sydney’s north shore, acknowledges that the perception of rugby has shifted due to the data on injuries and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in contact sports. As a result, many parents have opted to remove their children from rugby and enroll them in safer sports like basketball, soccer, or netball. This has had a negative impact on the popularity of rugby as a whole, leading to a decline in interest and talent pool. Naati believes that Rugby Australia (RA) did not take enough action to prevent these losses.

Balls at the Super Pacific trial match between Melbourne Rebels and NSW Waratahs this month.View image in fullscreen

According to Naati, Australian rugby fails to cultivate role models for children like AFL and NRL do. He points out that while most kids can name all the players on an NRL team, they struggle to name even one player from the Waratahs. He believes that the NRL is more proactive on social media and has stronger development programs. Rugby was too committed to amateurism for too long and failed to adapt. While loyalty to club and sport remains, the rise of young players with agents shows that they are aware of their worth.

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Australia has the fiercest competition between football codes on the planet. But the rise of the AFL (18 teams) and NRL (17), and the slump of Super Rugby (five) mean opportunities, salaries and celebrity are far likelier if young athletes don’t want to be Wallabies. Although rugby players notch just 16-20 games a year (in Ireland and New Zealand it’s 30), schoolboy union prodigies like Angus Crichton, Cameron Murray and Kalyn Ponga still choose NRL.

The development of talented players in Australia’s rugby programs is still successful, as evidenced by the Under-20s team making it to the World Cup final in 2019. However, there are not as many opportunities for players to advance in the sport compared to football’s A-League and cricket’s Big Bash. In a previous attempt to compete with the popular NRL and AFL leagues, the National Rugby Competition did not succeed. There is much debate surrounding the decision to remove the Force and Rebels teams from the league, with some believing it will strengthen the sport and others believing it will weaken it. According to an insider at RA, the organization often relies on opinions rather than data and facts.

Coach Simon Cron believes there is a need for improvement in schools. He expressed sympathy for the Wallabies team during the World Cup, noting that their core leaders, skills, and strategies were lacking. Cron emphasizes the importance of developing these skills at a young age, beginning as early as five years old. As players progress to age 12 and contact is introduced, structure becomes more important. However, Cron stresses that the most crucial aspect, from junior level to Test rugby, is for players to have fun and enjoy the game.

Sera Naiqama, along with her Wallaroos teammates, thoroughly enjoys playing rugby, but she is feeling tired.

The 28-year-old stated that their day begins with a radio show at 5am and ends with training at 10pm, with a lot of hard work in between. They consider themselves fortunate compared to other female athletes who wake up even earlier, work on-site all day, and still make it to training while also juggling financial responsibilities and family support. The reason for this dedication? A deep love for the sport. Despite the challenges, the rewards are worth the immense effort put in.

Sera Naiqama charges forward during the WXV1 match against France in October 2023.

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For many years RA’s private school patriarchy was guilty of neglecting one of the few areas of the game that is flourishing: women’s rugby. The twice world champion women’s sevens side have been the code’s star performers for a decade, taking gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics and winning over 90% of games since. “For my generation, they were the spark,” says Naiqama. “We followed the sevens girls’ journey, saw what they did and imagined a future in the game.”

In 2020, a study placed the women’s sevens team in third place in Australia for their strong emotional connection with the public and high scores in pride, trust, enjoyment, and respect. This ranking placed them behind the Matildas and the women’s national cricket team. The Wallaroos, Australia’s women’s XVs team, came in 10th place. Surprisingly, the Wallabies, who are a major source of revenue for Australian rugby, ranked 12th.

According to Turinui, the Wallabies will always be the top story, regardless of whether they win or lose. However, the sevens girls are the most talented players in the country. Recently, RA revealed plans to invest an additional $3 million into women’s rugby, a 61% increase from 2023. Despite a 20% increase in participation since the inaugural Super W competition in 2018, the Wallaroos are still only semi-professional. This is in contrast to the world’s number one team, England, who made the switch to professional status in 2019. However, there are doubts about Waugh’s goal of making the Wallaroos professional by 2025.

The women’s sevens team have provided some rare success for Australian rugby in recent years.View image in fullscreen

Soon after the Wallabies departed for the World Cup in September, Naiqama played a significant role in creating a powerful social media post that criticized RA’s disregard for women’s rugby. She explains, “We were breaching our contracts, but it was necessary to speak up. It was the most courageous and challenging action I’ve taken in my career. The potential consequences were daunting, but it was necessary to share our personal experiences publicly. Surprisingly, that post sparked a major shift for the better.”

“Phil Waugh promptly responded, stating, ‘Would you like to have a conversation? We are available to listen.’ We met in person and discussed our concerns, addressed any misunderstandings, and felt a sense of understanding. Even when Phil traveled to New Zealand for the WXV tournament and joined us in the locker room for a drink after the game, we appreciated the gesture. This is in stark contrast to Eddie Jones, who was supposed to oversee both the men’s and women’s programs, but we never saw him even once.”


This leads us to the Wallabies, the dominant team in Australian rugby who have not claimed a Bledisloe Cup victory in 22 years, a World Cup victory in 25 years, and are currently ranked No 9 in the world. Inconsistent, disappointing, or pitiful, their unsuccessful performances have greatly hurt the reputation of the sport. “Most Australians can handle defeats against talented teams like the All Blacks,” states Naati. “But the Wallabies’ style of play – the errors, poor decisions, and lack of discipline – is what truly disappoints fans.”

According to Cron, the renowned “Wallaby Way” of fast-paced, attacking rugby can continue to be the style of the Wallabies under new coach Joe Schmidt. Cron believes that playing carefree rugby is no longer viable due to the limited time and space on the field. He trusts that Schmidt will enhance the team’s skills through training and help them understand their strategies, ultimately creating a unique playing style tailored to the abilities of his players. Cron also believes that winning games will contribute to this success.

“It’s easier said than done,” expressed winger Mark Nawaqanitawase, reflecting on their team’s disappointment of being the first to not make it to the World Cup finals. Upon returning home from France, Nawaqanitawase immediately signed with the NRL. Prop James Slipper shares similar sentiments, stating, “We will always be remembered as that team, those guys.” Even after some time has passed, Angus Bell still vividly remembers the despair he felt after their 40-6 loss to Wales. “It’s something that I think about constantly. It still hurts. We fell short and I am completely devastated, heartbroken, and raw. We simply weren’t good enough.”

Is it possible for them to improve? Will Australian rugby experience a resurgence before 2027?

Turinui believes that we must remain resilient. He mentions that we have two home games against South Africa this year, providing us with two opportunities to defeat the world champions. Additionally, he mentions the Lions in 2025. He also acknowledges that the 2023 World Cup brought a significant revenue of $2.5 billion to France’s economy, and he believes that our 2027 World Cup can bring even more success if it is pushed back two weeks to avoid competition with the end of the AFL and NRL seasons and if it includes 24 teams instead of 20. Ultimately, he emphasizes that winning is the key to solving all problems.

Source: theguardian.com