Ireland tour in the shadows as Wallabies at a low ebb

The first of a three-match Test series between Ireland and Australia takes place at the weekend in Brisbane, writes Jack Anderson.

Ireland tour in the shadows as Wallabies at a low ebb

Coverage of the rugby series has been muted in the local press.

In Melbourne, the sports pages remain dominated (as ever) by AFL. In echoes of Gaelic football punditry, there are concerns that Aussie Rules has become too defensive and tactical and that fewer players, restricted zones, and even more umpires may be needed.

Moreover, the centrepoint of the rugby league season, the State of Origin series between New South Wales and Queensland, has just begun.

Then there is the small matter of Australia’s qualification for the Fifa World Cup in Russia. Australia are in the group we would have been in had we defeated Demark.

The Soccerroos’ opening game against France is on at the same time as Ireland’s second Test against Australia in Melbourne.

The reason for the lack of coverage of Ireland’s rugby tour is not just related to events elsewhere, it is also because the game is at a low ebb in Australia.

In 2017, a research firm estimated that the number of active rugby union players (aged 14+) in Australia was as low as 55,000, a 63% decline since 2001, making it the 26th most popular sport in the country.

Rugby Australia (RA) strongly criticised that report’s methodology. However, figures from the end of 2016 from the Australian Sports Commission (ASC) found that just over 70,000 Australians aged 15+ had participated in organised rugby at least once per week.

Bare participation statistics are not always kind to competitive, contact sports. For example, rugby is only the 16th most popular sport and recreation activity for men in New Zealand!

Nevertheless, a report published in April, again by the ASC, projects a worrying future for the sport.

In a comprehensive survey of the organised physical activity of Australian school children outside of school hours, rugby union barely made the top 20 with a 1.7% participation rate.

The game is also under significant financial pressure, reporting a Aus$7.5m (€4.8m) loss in 2017.

RA’s annual report cited the axing of the Western Force, the Perth based Super Rugby outfit, and poor ticket sales for the Wallabies’ Test series in June 2017, as reasons for the losses.

Last year, and up against a Lions tour to New Zealand, ticket sales for Australia’s games against Fiji, Italy, and Scotland were poor.

Ireland’s visit this year, as Grand Slam winners and world no. 2, is hugely important to the immediate financial well-being of Australian rugby.

The deeper structural weaknesses in Australian rugby are encapsulated in the recent woeful performances of its teams in the Super Rugby competition. TV viewing figures are low, attendances are in decline.

The decline is epitomised by the fate of the Brumbies, based in Canberra.

When the Brumbies last won the Super Rugby competition in 2004 they were backboned by players who had won a World Cup in 1999 and reached the final in 2003.

Coached by the IRFU’s current performance director, David Nucifora, they beat the Canterbury Crusaders at home before a capacity 25,000 crowd.

Last month, the club’s executive had to write to members to encourage them to return to Canberra Stadium. The letter warned the club was in danger of ceasing to exist if attendances did not increase.

On May 12, the Brumbies had their lowest ever home crowd for a Super Rugby game with 5,283 fans attending.

The Brumbies’ average crowd for this season is likely to be around the 9,000 mark; for Super Rugby overall, the average is 10,000.

As the Brumbies pleaded with their fans to return, the NSW Waratahs’ loss to the Auckland Blues on May 5 was the 38th consecutive Super Rugby game in which an Australian Super Rugby side had lost to one from New Zealand.

Radical solutions for the future of Super Rugby are now being mooted by administrators and TV broadcasters including a suggestion by former Wallabies great Mark Ella that an open-door policy should be introduced allowing players more freedom of movement between the countries in the competition.

In December, RA appointed a new chief executive, Raelene Castle, a Kiwi with an administration background in netball and rugby league.

From the very beginning, she has faced a barrage of criticism and especially from former Australian coach, and now media firebrand, Alan Jones.

In a recent piece he appeared to blame Castle for everything from concussion rates in the sport to abandoning rugby’s grassroots, to poor coaching standards at Australian Super Rugby franchises.

Castle needs time and, to be fair, in her five months in office she has barely had any.

In recent weeks she has, for example, had to deal with a two-month, cocaine-related ban imposed on Wallabies prop and Queensland Reds captain James Slipper and the fallout, including significant pressure from sponsors, arising from homophobic comments made by star international Israel Folau.

One common denominator in all the criticism is that Castle should look at the IRFU model of operation including the central contracting of players.

In this, Ireland’s tour of Australia may not only be of short-term financial benefit to RA but also of long-term consequence to its running of the game in Australia.

Whatever about the long-term future of Australian rugby, it will still be a difficult series for Ireland to win. Cheika knows us well.

Famously, we haven’t won a series in Australia since 1979 — coincidentally the last time a Pope visited us — when Campbell replaced Ward and Gibson played his last game.

The 1979 tour did not play a game in Melbourne. This one does and the second test next week is at AAMI park, the ‘rectangular’ stadium, as footy-obsessed locals sniffily put it, in the Olympic park precinct.

That area is dominated by the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG), one of the most iconic stadiums in world sport. The MCG was the main stadium for the 1956 Olympics.

At the Yarra park side of the MCG, just outside Gate 3, there is a commemorative stone plaque listing all the gold medallists in athletics from the 1956 Games. Ronnie Delany’s name is there.

Delany’s win was an outstanding sporting achievement at the time. He defeated one of the greatest 1,500 metre runners of all, the home favourite John Landy.

Delany’s win was also an outstanding Irish achievement of the time. The joy on seeing Delany’s outstretched arms at the finish line extended around the world in a decade when we lost 15% of our population to migration.

Near to Delany’s plaque, there are a series of bronze statutes dedicated to Australian sporting heroes — Don Bradman, Betty Cuthbert, Ron Barassi, etc. One of them is for Jim Stynes.

The Stynes’ statue commemorates the Dubliner’s AFL career but more importantly his relentless youth and charity work. He was a remarkable man.

And so, if you are in Melbourne for the second test, take a short detour to the MCG and give a nod to two Irish sporting legends. Take in Delany’s name, and stand in Stynes’ shadow.

Names, to paraphrase Yeats, to still your childish play and whose achievements inspire to this day.

And then go next door and shout on Ireland.

Jack Anderson is Professor of Sports Law, University of Melbourne and Adjunct Professor of Law, University of Limerick

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