Australian Rugby is going through a tough time at the moment, far from the days of regular World Cup finalists and occasional winners.
Is Rugby big in Australia? Rugby Union is one of the most popular sports in Australia, but it still struggles to compete with the likes of Aussie Rules, Rugby League, Cricket and Basketball.
Why is Rugby big in Australia?
Rugby Union is certainly one of the biggest sports in Australia. It is partly due to settlers in Australia bringing the game over as early as the 1950s. The game began to become a lot more popular and the first club was established at Sydney University in 1864. The country played its first test match against New Zealand in 1903 at the Sydney Cricket Ground.
The history of the sport means that it became incredibly popular in Australia in the 1900s. One of the other reasons for it being so successful is that the Australian National team has been one of the most successful in international rugby.
Currently ranked as the 6th best team in World Rugby, Australia were an excellent team in the 1990s. They won the 1991 and 1999 World Cups. The team in the early 1990s was led by Australia’s all-time leading scorer Michael Lynagh who scored more than half of the team’s points in the 1991 World Cup final against England.
The 1999 team helped to inspire a generation. They dominantly defeated France 35-12 in the World Cup final, with fullback Matt Burke scoring 25 points in the final, more than twice what the entire French team scored.
This combined with the 2003 World Cup being held in Australia led to the sport becoming very popular in the country. Australia has a very well-organised system for rugby as a school sport, producing multiple school sports associations which are very good at producing international talent.
Reasons why Rugby is declining in Australia
1. Lack of Success
Australia were the best rugby team of the 1990s, winning two World Cups and just barely losing to England in the 1995 World Cup Quarter-Finals. Domestically, you also saw the Brumbies win the Super Rugby title in 2001 and 2004 as well as reaching the final in 1998, 2000 and 2002.
The national team made it to the final in the 2003 World Cup and just barely lost out to England. Since then, the team got closest in 2015 when they once again reached the final, this time losing to New Zealand in the final. But since that World Cup Final loss, Australia has been declining domestically and internationally.
Australia won the 2015 Rugby Championship which included a very impressive win against New Zealand despite two yellow cards during the match. Since then, Australia have failed to win the competition despite beating South Africa in four of the five competitions since.
Domestically, despite all of the moving around in the championship, an Australian team has failed to reach the Super Rugby final since 2014 when the Waratahs shocked the Crusaders to win the championship.
Australian teams have made the semifinals five times since but still have yet to make the final. That lack of success means that aspiring young athletes may look to join more successful sports in Australia.
2. Safety Concerns
Safety is something that is becoming a big issue for rugby. The sport is seeing more and more former professional players experience long-term head injuries like CTE and dementia. Concussion is becoming a much more recognised and talked about issue in rugby as the long-term repercussions become clearer.
It is why we are seeing fewer parents want to put their kids into rugby worldwide and this is hurting Australian rugby. Rugby is a dangerous game and when it is not coached correctly, can cause serious injuries. It is why parents are looking to put their kids into non-contact sports like Tennis and Golf.
3. Lots of Alternatives
In terms of popularity in Australia, Rugby Union is around sixth depending on which metric you look at. The AFL is the most popular sport in the country, with more than double the viewing figures of Super Rugby in some places of Australia.
AFL is just seen as being much more free-flowing than rugby, as it has fewer stoppages, more turnovers and more freedom. It is part of the reason why rugby is trying to decrease the number of stoppages in the game as this makes it more appealing to spectators.
Australia’s massively successful cricket team also attracts a lot of spectators and young players, while horse racing and soccer outperform rugby when it comes to attendance.
4. Rugby’s reputation
Rugby Union still has a worldwide reputation for being culturally associated with wealthy and privileged people, something that England Head Coach and Australian Eddie Jones has spoken about extensively.
That reputation means that it is not always attractive to the wider audiences, with private schools having much higher participation levels than public schools. It is also why you see the majority of young people looking at other sports which have fewer barriers to participation.
This reputation is not helped by the fact that Super Rugby games are on pay-per-view, with AFL games being free to watch for TV audiences. That reputation is also why Rugby League is more popular than Rugby Union.
Rugby League does not have the same reputation as Rugby Union throughout the world and it is helping the sport to become successful. The National Rugby League (NRL) is much more popular than Super Rugby in Australia, in terms of participation and audience. If rugby is to grow in Australia, it needs to get rid of this reputation.
Where is rugby most popular in Australia
Rugby is the most popular in New South Wales and Queensland, where rugby participation levels are at their highest. When a study was taken in 2000, 82.3% of rugby participation levels in Australia were attributed to these two regions and it is not great as Australia needs the game to be enjoyed nationally for it to be successful in the long term.