Australian rugby’s biggest battles aren’t on the pitch

If ever there was a microcosm of the battle for hearts and minds in Australian sport, then today’s fare is it.

It will be Saturday night, here in Melbourne (11:05am Irish time), when Ireland kick off their bid to stay alive in their series with the Wallabies, at AAMI Park. At the same time, 600 metres away, at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, Aussie Rules club, Hawthorn, will be approaching the end of the first quarter in their Australian Football League (AFL) clash with Adelaide Crows.

By that time, over at the Etihad Stadium, Carlton, another of the Melbourne area’s 10 clubs in the 18-team AFL, will have played Fremantle Dockers. Add to that a full slate of National Rugby League (NRL) games in the 13-man code and did we mention there is a World Cup on?

Tonight, as Hawthorn go toe to toe with Adelaide and as Ireland collide with the Wallabies, Australia’s Socceroos will be on the television from Russia, kicking off their group campaign against France, in Kazan.

There is only so much an armchair viewer can watch, let alone a more eager supporter can attend on one evening, and with a wild night of hail and rain forecast, the sensible option may be to stay home and commandeer the remote control.

The Australian Rugby Union has taken the logical precaution of renting the 30,000-capacity AAMI Park for tonight’s second Test against Joe Schmidt’s Grand Slam winners.

Four years ago, when the Lions were in town for their second Test, the venue was the 53,000-plus Eithad.

This year’s series opener, in much warmer Brisbane, had attracted 46,273 to Suncorp Stadium, to see Michael Cheika’s side take a one-nil lead in this best-of-three contest, but chillier Melbourne, in the AFL heartland of Victoria, is a much harder sell and the ARU has done well to have sold 28,000 tickets, with another thousand or so walk-ups expected, if the weather holds fair. If.

On the other side of the tracks, literally, which roll out of Flinders Street Station, the MCG are expecting 35,000 supporters for Hawthorns’ mid-table clash with Adelaide, the second AFL game at the ‘G’, following last Monday’s derby between Jim Stynes’ old club, Melbourne, and Collingwood.

That attracted a bank holiday crowd in excess of 80,000, as Ireland and Australia began their second Test preparations very firmly out of the spotlight.

You would have had to search very hard for coverage of the second Test in the Melbourne papers, until an Irish columnist threw some barbs at David Pocock, which went down like a lead balloon in both camps.

Not all publicity about the game is good publicity, particularly not in Australia, where the axing of the Western Force as a Super Rugby franchise and the homophobic thoughts of Israel Folau have hardly endeared any non-believers to the Union cause.

As is so often the case, the revenue streams are the major determiner of sporting success and Union has a real fight on its hand to get a piece of the action, underlined by the varying rights deals Australian sports can command. The AFL and NRL are the big dogs in the market, with Aussie Rules landing a record Aus$2.5bn (€1.6bn), six-year deal in 2015 and starting last year with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, in conjunction with secondary partners, telecoms giant, Telstra, and terrestrial Channel Seven.

It is currently the biggest sports rights deal in Australian television history, worth €270m per annum, while the NRL’s deal (which started this year with Murdoch’s Fox Sports as the pay TV partner, along with Channel Nine and Telstra) is worth $1.8bn (€1.16bn) over five years, to 2022, and is worth €232m a year.

According to the AAP news agency, the third most lucrative rights deal was struck in April and will see Australian international cricket matches net $1.2bn (€0.77bn) over six years for the scandal-hit governing body, Cricket Australia.

A big drop to fourth puts the Australian rights for the English Premier League above the home-based A-League, with a deal worth $186m (€120m), compared to the 11-season-young domestic product, which nets slightly less per annum from its six-year, $346m (€223m) deal (it runs to 2023, with €37.15m compared to the EPL’s €40m).

The ARU receives marginally less again. Its $285m (€145m), five-year deal with Fox Sports will net €36.75m per year until 2020.

There are positives, though, and the ARU continues to make its pitch to Australians, both to engage with its professional franchises and national team and to attract new players (official participation statistics place Union very much as a minority pastime).

The ARU strongly rejected a 2017 survey, which reported that rugby union participation for players aged 14 and over had dropped 63% since 2001, to 55,000 players, putting it far behind soccer (623,000), AFL (253,000), and rugby league (127,000), and on a par with ballroom dancing as the 26th most popular sport in Australia.

The governing body argues that 271,528 people played “more than five games, or ‘structured sessions’, of rugby, in competitive and social environments, a 1.5% increase on the previous year”.

Club participation was down by 0.8% in 2016, adding to a 7.6% drop the previous year. The ARU’s schools programme, ‘Game On’, has boosted participation for under-sixes to U11s by 3.5%, it argues.

As mentioned in dispatches from Brisbane, head coach Cheika is a willing advocate of the 15-man code, ever willing to present his case in school assembly halls, on sports show sofas, or over the radio.

Sevens is another access point, with the women’s side topping the HSBC Sevens World Series last weekend, after a runner-up finish in Paris.

Furthermore, the appointment of a new, female chief executive at the ARU, New Zealand sports administrator, Raelene Castle, breaks from the traditions of selecting a rugby establishment figure.

Castle was chosen with the input of the four remaining Super Rugby state unions and she has no ties to any of them.

Will that put more bums on seats at AAMI Park today?

No, but the ARU is taking a much longer view of the future of its code.



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