Rugby union: A dying sport or on the mend?

26 October 2023

Written by: Hugo OCallaghan

More and more parents are parents keeping their kids out of the sport amid safety concerns, but Rugby Australia is still positive about the game's outlook.

As Australia woke up to the news that the Wallabies had been embarrassed by Wales at the recent Rugby World Cup, the all-too-familiar feeling of disappointment set in for their fans.

While not many had high hopes that the Australians would come home as champions of the world, few imagined that they would suffer their worst ever World Cup campaign. It was the first time in their history that they did not make it out of the pool matches and into the quarter finals.

Since the 2015 edition where Australia finished runners up, the team has won 41 games and lost 46 matches, losing 18 of their last 25 games. Dave Rennie and Eddie Jones have been the past two coaches of the Wallabies, and both have negative win-loss records. The last time a coach of the Wallabies had more losses than wins was David Brockhoff who last coached the national team in 1979.

So, why has the Wallabies’ form in recent years gone so downhill?

It might be about participation rates.

While the numbers for grassroots rugby have had a slight increase, the percentage of the population who play rugby in total has gone down.

One reason that fewer people are playing may be because some parents don’t want their kids to play what is seen as a dangerous sport. Amanda Hutchinson, the mother of an 11-year-old and an eight-year-old, refuses to let her children participate in rugby due to safety concerns.

“Rugby is such a dangerous game that is normally dominated by big kids at junior level. I don’t feel comfortable as a parent letting my children play,” she tells upstart.

“I am obviously all for my children playing sport and exercising with their friends, but I just don’t want them to risk serious injuries while playing and I think rugby creates situations where a serious injury may occur more than other sports.”

Another factor has been less elite talent coming through the ranks over the last decade, so much so that Rugby Australia had to get rid of one of their five teams in the Super Rugby competition. Community Rugby General Manager, Michael Procajlo, says Rugby Australia is intent on increasing participants.

“As you bring new people into any sport you get an opportunity to also bring more coaches, match officials, administrators, volunteers and spectators,” he tells upstart.

“All of those stakeholders are critical to the game functioning at community level and further to that are largely responsible for all the people who have a terrific experience and continue their involvement in that sport.”

The Wallabies’ TV ratings has also declined heavily, which is a blow for the sport as their cross-code rivals NRL and AFL rating have seen an increase. Rugby’s TV rights deal with Channel 9 was purchased for $30 million a season for the next three years. In comparison, the AFL signed a $4.5 billion deal over seven years and NRL have a deal for the next four seasons worth $2 billion.

Procajlo says while there has been some advertising for rugby, the national organisation would like to see a lot more to help grow the game even further.

“There has been more exposure for Community Rugby through our current Broadcast partner, but this is an area we would like to increase significantly,” he says.

Hutchinson lives in Sydney where the sport is quite popular but says that her kids haven’t been too interested in watching – so far anyway.

“My kids haven’t really wanted to watch any rugby on the television. My oldest has started to watch a little bit but only because my husband watches it and doesn’t seem that invested in it,” she says.

If the Wallabies are to get back to their best and become a powerhouse of international rugby once again, it appears imperative that the governing body must find a way to try and increase the level of interest in the sport itself.

Whether that be for kids like Hutchinson’s, or those who have lost a once burning love for rugby, the more eyeballs, the better, as far as the sport is concerned.

Photo: Bledisloe Cup 2009 by Michael Zimmer available HERE and used under a Creative Commons license. This image has not been modified.