Watching rugby leagues gala event, the Dally M Awards, live from The Star in Sydney, tonight, one questions what is the future of a code that has been relegated to “boutique” status that rugby union now occupies. Queensland and New South wales are the only true “rugby” states in the Australian landscape with the Australian Football League (AFL) dominating the rest. I am reminded of a guy from Melbourne I was talking to in China, in 2011, and how he remarked that it was incredible to him that Australia did so well in rugby union when most of the country does not understand the game; at the time we were ranked No. 2 in the world behind the New Zealand (who went on to win their second World Cup later on that year).
A stark contrast to our near neighbours, New Zealand, that absolutely worship the code from Auckland to Bluff. I remember visiting there in the late 1990s and being amused by the New Zealand Herald’s coverage of news being dominated by rugby union. Even the real estate pages making note of All Black legend Murray Mexted (1979~86) selling a property in Auckland. So often I scan the Courier Mail in the hope that there’s a least some mention of rugby union amongst the voluminous coverage of rugby league and more often then not there is not any.
Mal Meninga (Kangaroos Coach) made a great speech praising the exploits of Dally Messenger, from which the awards are taken. Reiterating the fact that this rugby union great was instrumental in the creation of rugby league in this country over one hundred years ago. Built on mateship and looking after the guy who was injured on the weekend playing the game he loves without any recompense from his employer. Once rugby union became professional in October 1995, the relevance of rugby league would then come under question. However, this was not to be, the stranglehold of that code has on the eastern states of Queensland and New South Wales were to prove too strong. The fact that the State of Origin has such a powerful following in those two states, akin to the AFL grand final in the rest of the country, that to supplement it would be sacrilege.
Growing up in a decidedly pro-rugby union family the code has always been my passion. To pull on my high school’s 1st XV jersey was an honour that I will cherish to the grave. The opportunities and friendships that it has created for me throughout the world bodes testament to a code that has relevance, just maybe not so much in my home country, Australia. Having played in Canada, USA, Japan, France and even China has opened my eyes to a sport that is truly an international game and growing stronger and broader every year. There is not an international bar in Asia worth its salt if rugby union games are not telecast, sadly that is not the case in Brisbane. I have driven to several pubs on a Friday night trying to find a venue showing the Super Rugby, despite the local Queensland Reds playing, to no avail.
After what I described as our annus horribilis the code will surely resurrect itself and hold a prominent position on the Australian sporting landscape. If it takes billionaire, Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest, in Western Australia to inject the capital to garnish more interest in rugby with his IPRC than that is not a bad thing. There will surely be more pain before a silver lining, but the code will survive and hopefully come out better for the anguish that has been caused in 2017.