Has Australia fallen out of love with rugby union?

The Wallabies have returned home after a heavy defeat to England in front of a capacity crowd at Twickenham. Taking a beating from England is never easy for any Australian sports fan, but the result was softened by the fact that the match reports hovered slightly above the weekend’s lawn bowl results. Rugby union is largely out of sight and out of mind here.

If you don’t live in Australia, it is hard to believe that rugby union features so low on the sporting agenda. The Wallaby jersey has been worn by some of the game’s greatest players and the country’s contribution to the sport has been enormous historically, but the game is losing relevance for Australians. The country’s stadiums are barely filled and the crowds are muted.

This year the Australian Rugby Union released figures that tell part of the story. There had been a 7.6% reduction in players in club rugby. Essentially, 7,000 players have decided that they don’t want to continue in the game. In positive news, female participation has increased in the sevens game, boosted by Australia’s Olympic gold medal in Rio. However, many clubs are suffering from a lack of funding from the ARU and are fighting to attract players who are struggling to combine work with a game that isn’t being supported financially.

Australian children are not taking up the game the way they did in the past. Research commissioned on the top 20 sports for Australian children showed that rugby union featured 18th for children aged 14 and over in terms of participation – behind volleyball, horseriding, netball, tennis and football. Sports such as football and basketball are gaining popularity among youngsters, while Australian Rules – which has used youth programmes such as AusKick to introduce the game to children at an early age – remains far in front.

It is possible to see rugby league, AFL and cricket Test matches on terrestrial television but, for reasons best known to themselves, the administrators elected to televise Super 15 and test rugby on paid television. While they can use some of the TV money to fund salaries and keep the standard of play high, few Australian children know who any of the players are. It is rare to see a child in Sydney or Brisbane wearing a Wallabies jersey; their international team doesn’t resonate.

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