WE’VE ALL SEEN that new ‘national sport’ ad right? You know, the one from TAB that’s been sparking debates? If you’re not familiar, the basic premise is this: a news presenter makes the injudicious blunder of calling cricket Australia’s national sport, prompting a torrent of opposing views. Soccer, football (in all of its rugby union, rugby league, Australian Rules and American varieties), tennis, netball, swimming, basketball, golf, mixed martial arts, field hockey, motorsports, figure skating and even squash are subsequently put forward as more appropriate national sports, before the mob concludes that “sport is our sport”. For the record, it probably is cricket, but don’t tell the mob that.
Sport has been ingrained in Australian culture since the time before we even became a country. With a history of producing world-beating athletes and achieving results envied by far larger nations, sports have always captured the hearts and minds of Australians, and that won’t change anytime soon. However, with our dedication split between so many different disciplines, it was inevitable that one would eventually slip through the cracks.
The Wallabies have been all but eliminated from the 2023 Rugby World Cup, soon to be bowing out ingloriously in the pool stage for the first time in history. The Wallabies have been victorious in just one of their eight games in 2023. Their most recent loss, a 40-6 capitulation at the hands of a Welsh side that has been mediocre at best lately, was their biggest ever margin of defeat at a world cup.
This slump in results is not the product of a sudden change in mentality (Eddie Jones, you are vindicated), but a larger nationwide shift away from the sport of rugby union itself. Simply put, Union doesn’t have the support to thrive in Australia anymore. It’s plain to see that interest has diverged into other disciplines, begging the question of whether Australia has finally bitten off more sports than it can chew.
How can a nation have too many sports?
Not every nation has been so blessed with rugby union success that a pool stage exit is considered a national embarrassment. If you ever visit an Instagram fanpage for USA’s national rugby union team (which we don’t recommend), you’ll find a recurring claim that the reason the USA hasn’t emerged as a dominant force in rugby is because the nation is already devoting its premier athletes to other pursuits, like basketball and American football. This pitiful fallacy makes two equally ludicrous assumptions. One, that there are a finite number of athletes within any given nation’s population. And two, that if ‘premier athletes’ like LeBron James, Aaron Rodgers and Mike Trout picked up a footy, they’d instantly become the next John Eales.
Both of these are outrageous assumptions to make in a nation with a population of 331 million. Clearly, manpower isn’t what’s preventing the nation regularly topping the Summer Olympics medal table from dominating yet another sport—you can only field 15 players at a time anyway. The USA doesn’t dominate rugby union for the same reason Australia doesn’t dominate reindeer racing…quite the crowd drawer in Finland as it turns out. Most people just aren’t interested in it, they already have other sports to focus their attention on, meaning that the development of a crop of world-class players is unlikely.
Lack of interest is an issue typically attributed to holding back sports in developing markets outside of their traditional strongholds, but it’s also causing problems for rugby union in Australia, which is anything but a developing market. Australia has an appreciation for a wide range of sports, but with a relatively small population, there are only so many we can support.
Is Rugby Union declining in Australia?
Interest in rugby union has been diminishing for years. The average attendance of Australian Super Rugby matches dropped by 43% between 2013 and 2020. And the quality of Australian Super Rugby teams is declining so rapidly that top level local talent is now heading overseas. That point that could not be emphasised more potently than by Mack Hansen, who was born and raised in Canberra, scoring the only try in Ireland’s historic win over South Africa last week.
Participation in junior and grassroots levels of rugby union are another story entirely, at least according to Rugby Australia. In their 2022 annual report, Rugby Australia revealed that participation in schools was up 40 per cent, and up 1.7 per cent at clubs. These statistics are not indicative of the bigger picture though. Data from the Australian Sports Commission shows that rugby union doesn’t crack the top 20 sports in terms of nationwide participation.
Highlighting this lack in participants is the ‘poaching’ of athletes from other codes, most recently in the acquisition of prodigal rugby league star Joseph Sua’ali’i, who signed a lucrative deal to switch codes earlier this year. Poaching has become an increasingly common practice in Australian rugby union, demonstrating the lack of talent coming through the junior ranks. It’s evident that a dwindling talent pool, has been forcing Rugby Australia to look outwards to find its stars. After all, we rarely see rugby union players switching to rugby league.
Does Australia have too many sports for Rugby Union to have a future?
Compounding rugby union’s fall from grace is the fact that other sports are thriving in Australia. The Matildas’ best-ever performance at the 2023 Women’s World Cup, and the Socceroos’ run at the 2022 World Cup have sparked surging support for soccer. Even in the absence of former world number one Ash Barty, tennis is on the rise, with the next generation already soaring to new heights, most notably with Alex De Minaur reaching a career-high world number 12 ranking this month. There will be more Australian basketballers in the NBA than ever before this upcoming season, as the sport further cements its place in our culture. If recent world championship medal tallies are any indication, which they are, Australia’s swimming and athletics teams will soon be delivering another Olympic Golden Age. And clearly the AFL and NRL aren’t going anywhere.
The rise of other sports makes rugby union’s decline stand out even further, even if the writing has been on the wall for years. The Wallabies haven’t held the Bledisloe Cup for 21 years, haven’t won a World Cup this millennium, and have only claimed a Rugby Championship title once in the competitions current format. Meanwhile, the All Blacks, Springboks, Ireland, France, England and even Fiji have risen to a pace that Australia can’t seem to keep up with.
With our attention, interest and participation shifting to other sports, it would appear Australia doesn’t have room for rugby union anymore. With an outlook like that, a pool stage elimination is hardly surprising.