On G&GR over the past weeks, we’ve had a stack of stimulating discussion about Australian rugby advertising. But to me, advertising is just the window dressing, what we really need to discuss are the brands.
At the core of any brand is the product itself, which punters connect with through a story.
For the Reds, their product of Quade-fuelled champagne rugby, together with an underdog / comeback story that has more than doubled memberships and stoked the fantasies of rugby fans outside of Queensland’s borders. The Rebels also have their narrative – hard bitten professionals forging a band of brothers in new, uncharted territories.
But as someone asked astutely on another post – what about the Tahs? There’s no fairy tale story here – they keep getting close, but disappointingly with no cigar, leaving expectations unmet. What fairytale story do they have?
And what about their product? Despite stats like the ones in Austin’s latest post showing that they ran more metres and scored more tries than the flamboyant Reds, they’re perceived to be the boring Australian super franchise – of one out hit-ups followed by a hoof downfield. Perhaps because of this, even with comfortably the biggest player base and the most recent success of any franchise in Australia the Tahs membership numbers remain comparatively disappointing, being topped by new kids on the block in Perth.
The answer for the Tah brand? For me, it starts with the product. There’s a notion going around – purported by some respected commentators – that the only way to win and entertain under the latest rule interpretations is to play ostentatious, wide-running rugby.
Not true. These pundits (and so many other Aussie rugby followers) have confused forwards-centric power game with defensive/negative rugby. What’s the difference? In the latter you use your forward strength to slow the game and find field position from which to kick goals (see England’s natural fall back and South Africa 2009). In the former, you use power and pace of recycle to attack with your forwards, either smashing your way to the line, or creating space for pacey runners out wide (see the Blue Bulls 2010, who scored more tries in the regular season than any other team).
This is every bit as thrilling to watch as any other type of rugby, and I would argue moreso. It is real continuity, not pointless breakdown after pointless breakdown from one side to the other, but forwards powering forward and backs living off it. Pop balls, pick and goes, offloads, supporting players driving on the hip of the ball carrier, clearing out past the ball, driving mauls, back row moves. The sort of skills French packs seem to be born with.
Here’s just a few examples of what I’m talking about
What is more, the Tahs have just the team to do it with. The pack this Friday will weigh in at whopping 912kg. But these aren’t old lumps in the squad – Polota-Nau, Palu, Mowen, Dennis, Douglas, Mumm, Robinson (and anyone who doubts Waugh’s vitality hasn’t watched him play) – all players in their youthful prime able to sustain the intensity required. On form, TPN and Palu are game-breakers at this level. In the set piece, there’s plenty of height in the line-out and the best scrummaging front row in Australia.
Marshalling them is the guy who epitomises bustle and threat around the ruck – Luke Burgess. There’s no hot-stepper with golden hands at 10, but this gamplan doesn’t need one – both Barnes and Halangahu can direct a backline and put the ball in the right parts of the paddock. In midfield you have a powerhouse and defensive brickwall in Carter, Horne and Cross – all of whom can take the ball over the gain line and set targets for the pack to run off.
The cherry on the cake is probably the most dangerous back three in Super rugby this year – Beale, Mitchell and Turner. If the forwards suck in defenders and shatter defensive lines, these three will run amok out wide and with inside balls through unders lines. Let them kick return at your peril.
So, if that’s the product, what’s the story? Well, it’s clear the Tahs can’t be the underdog. So fuck it, don’t be. Be the bullies. Be the giants and gods that men aspire to be. Give the crowd something to howl “Blooooooooo!!” about like we did back in the 80’s when I was a kid, giving us a bloodlust as we see yet another opponent’s pack get left splintered across the field. Be leaders, not followers.
But most of all CHOOSE. Own a style in Australian rugby that, as it happens, the Wallabies are desperately in need of and no other code can come close to. Make the Blue Bulls vs the Waratahs the clash of the titans that everyone looks forward to. Make retaining that monstrosity of a pack a tradition to not be let go of – where juniors like Greg Petersen at 204cm and 122kg are commonplace and specialist skills like line-out calling and tight-head propping are passed down through the generations like the heirlooms that they are.
In marketing terms it’s called being a leader. Build this story using the right product, and they will come.