Rugby has been a major part of my life ever since it was introduced to me at high school. But events this week have brought me to a point where I am questioning where my interest will be in the future. The actions at the top of the tree, so to speak, have left me with an array of feelings: anger, resentment, frustration, embarrassment, disillusionment.
During the 90s and early 2000s rugby in Australia was at a peak. We had won 2 World Cups, successfully staged a World Cup ourselves and the Wallaby ‘brand’ was something to be proud of. We matched it with the All Blacks year after year and played a style of rugby that entertained even the non-rugby folk in the competitive Australian sporting market. But over the last 15 years it has been in decline to a point where it now feels it is almost in free-fall. You’re almost embarrassed to admit to being a rugby follower now in Australia and feel helpless trying to defend it.
But over the last couple of days I have found myself trying to make sense of it all and considering what the future of rugby will be in this country. Here are some of my thoughts:
The Wallabies are not rugby in Australia. Rugby in Australia are all the boys and girls running around early on a wintry weekend morning. The dew-sweepers, whose playing fields are marked with cones and surrounded with excitable parents. The kids who dream of one day playing for Australia but for now just love running around with their mates.
The Wallabies are not rugby in Australia. Rugby in Australia are all the Uni students whose dreams of representing the Wallabies are rapidly disappearing but continue to play for the chance to relive the highlights of each game every Saturday night with their mates over a beer.
The Wallabies are not rugby in Australia. Rugby in Australia are all the men and women in the small country towns who are happy to drive for hours every weekend just to get a game. They don’t have a high-performance unit behind them and are often battling with drought and other complications of living in rural Australia, but rugby is their escape from the realities and so much more.
The Wallabies are not rugby in Australia. Rugby in Australia are all the men and women who would give anything to be able to strap on the boots one more time. To relive that feeling of being put into a gap or putting one last shot on an opponent. The men and women who catch up every year to celebrate past premierships or just to relive the hay day of their youth.
The Wallabies are not rugby in Australia. Rugby in Australia are all the volunteers at grassroots. The line markers, the canteen supervisors, the coaches, the managers, the water runners, the jersey washers and of course the referees. All the people that keep the rugby clubs and competitions around Australia ticking so that thousands of boys, girls, men and women can get a game every weekend.
Rugby in Australia are all these people. The people that play their part without remuneration. No mega contracts or match bonuses to be seen. They do it because they want to be a part of something, to feel part of a community. They do it because they love the game & they know what it can offer. The feelings, the emotions, the rewards, the memories, the intangibles.
None of these people will ever get to play in front of massive crowds, they won’t have sponsors chasing them, they won’t have massive Instagram followings or YouTube highlight reels but they turn up week after week, season after season to be a part of their local rugby club & part of something much bigger.
Rugby, like all sports, is something much bigger than just 1 player or 1 team. The lucky few may get to don a Gold jersey but for every Wallaby great there are dozens of club stalwarts who make the game tick all around the country.
Captaining your country is a great achievement but just because you were good on the field should not give you a louder voice at the table. Just as rugby is a game for all different makes & builds on the field so it is off it: the local copper, the lawyer, the tradie, the nurse, the landscaper, the accountant, the teacher. Despite misconceived perceptions it’s a game that welcomes all regardless of background, colour, race or gender and as such the decision making of the game should not be restricted to a limited elite.
Obviously ex-Wallaby captains can make a strong contribution to the game going forward but it’s important that those who are at the heart of rugby in this country are also given a voice……..and perhaps those at the top remember their own journey through the game.