‘It’ll take a miracle’: decades of decline leave Australian rugby at dire crossroads

<span>Photograph: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

It’s the last week of summer and footy scarves are being dusted off nationwide. The NRL is gearing up for a double-header in Las Vegas. The AFL’s main arena just received the rolled gold endorsement of Taylor Swift, and the Matildas are primed for the final leg of their Paris 2024 Olympic qualification - and their 12th straight sold out home game.

Where is rugby union? Launching a new Super Rugby Pacific season on the quiet in New Zealand last week, bracing for a reminder of the 2023 World Cup disaster after a new documentary went to air on Thursday, and trying to get tickets on sale for the Melbourne Rebels v ACT Brumbies round one game on Friday, despite the former being in administration. For “the game they play in heaven”, 2024 is another fresh hell en route to a final reckoning.

For two long decades, Australian rugby has rotted from its head office to its heartland. The once-proud and powerful code is fractured in so many places, in so many ways, few believe it can be rebuilt. It has heavy debt, a “broken system”, struggling participation rates, anaemic broadcast numbers, bleak crowd figures, major struggles on the field – and balance sheets.

But when you’re going through hell, what else is there but to keep going?

“There a fair bit of PTSD from last season,” says Morgan Turinui, Wallaby #782. “It was a year of big mistakes and wasted opportunities. We’ve still got a system with plenty of flaws. But we’ve got a women’s side who are favourites for Olympic gold this year, a British & Irish Lions tour in 2025, and a men’s and women’s World Cup in Australia in 2027 and 2029 – all great opportunities. Rugby can’t afford to squander them.”


For Rugby Australia, 2024 is the start of the great reset. Chairman Hamish McLennan and coach Eddie Jones exited last year and in came a new CEO (Phil Waugh) and chairman (Wallaby #715 Dan Herbert), a new Wallabies coach (Joe Schmidt) and high performance director (Peter Horne) and a first female coach of the Wallaroos (Joanne Yapp). Together, they’re planning to save the game, and unite rugby’s warring clans at last.

Many aren’t so confident. “Australian rugby embodies dysfunction at its worst,” one RA executive tells the Guardian. “There was no governance around the decision to hire Eddie Jones and he unleashed unmitigated chaos. The culture [fromer coach] Dave Rennie built, Eddie destroyed. Phil Waugh is a leader among players and a great guy but getting this game out of the mess it’s got itself in these past 20 years, it’ll take a miracle.”

That miracle mile starts this weekend with a new Super Rugby Pacific season. It seems as good a place as any to discuss the game’s failings and future. No Australian side has won a Super title since 2014, none generate a profit and all struggle to attract crowds and viewers. It wasn’t always thus. From 1996-2005 in Super Rugby, Australia’s three sides – the NSW Waratahs, Queensland Reds and ACT Brumbies – won 68% of games and drew vast crowds.

“Everyone pinpoints 2003 as the downturn,” says Turinui of the year Australia hosted the World Cup, made the final (losing to England 20-17), sold two million tickets and made $46m profit. “We should’ve invested that money but we spent it on giving the game a national footprint.” That gamble has backfired and there are now widespread calls for the Western Force (introduced in 2006) and Melbourne Rebels (2011) to be folded to distil player stocks.

Solving this quandary is a huge part of the puzzle for Australian rugby, says Turinui. “Rugby needs to be national and needs the pathways West Australia and Victoria bring, but there’s an argument our talent pool of players and coaches is spread too thin over five sides.” The crossroads for RA is to double down and expand – introducing Super US and Japan teams – or withdraw to deepen the local foothold with a national competition to rival the AFL and NRL.

Revenue and TV ratings will be key factors. Deakin University’s Hunter Fujak estimates rugby’s revenues are 14% of the AFL’s, with RA’s $30m broadcast deal with Nine/Stan dwarfed by the AFL’s $650m rights deal for 2025. To generate bigger deals rugby must produce better entertainment. Fewer teams with better talent might achieve that, while also lifting standards, generating interest and creating engagement in lost or untapped markets.


In a corner of the Waratahs’ Daceyville base in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, there is a fenced area containing an earthquake monitoring station and a small box committed to recording seismic activity. It’s a cruel irony given the Waratahs have been no great shakes for over a decade, not since they took their one and only title in 2014, when 61,823 packed Stadium Australia to see Michael Cheika’s men defeat 12-time champions the Crusaders 33-32.

The Waratahs are the first state to adopt RA’s much-vaunted model of centralisation, the same system that has delivered such huge success to Ireland and New Zealand rugby. “Rugby is steeped in tradition so it’s natural to be nervous but our federated model is no longer functional,” says Waratahs CEO Paul Doorn. “If rugby keeps doing the same things, we’ll get the same results.” And those results continue to be dire, with Australian Super sides sitting at a sub-45% win-rate (in 2018 they lost 40 games straight to New Zealand sides).

So far no other states have followed NSW’s lead, but new Western Force CEO Niamh O’Connor says she is “fully supportive of the idea if high performance is integrated – we need that consistency in skills. If there’s a sticking point it’s about who is best placed to manage and be responsible for the risks. The west is a unique market so we need to be responsible for growing club and grassroot connections. The Wallabies are only a small part of that.”

Doorn argues that “with scale comes efficiency” and says the Waratahs and RA have been guilty of cannibalising each other’s ideas and sponsors in the past, while states still work in silos when it comes to sharing information. A centralised model would see every Australian player’s contracts, fitness, strength, conditioning and physiognomy consolidated in one database, reducing injury to players moving between club, Super and international levels.


It starts at the grassroots. Australia has one of the highest rugby participation rates in the world, but it is growing slower than other sports. In 2023, the Australian Sports Commission had 145,000 adults and 95,000 kids playing rugby. But Australian rules football had four times that many and over 500% more kids played basketball. It made rugby Australia’s ninth most popular sport, behind football, rugby league, cricket but also badminton and rock climbing.

“Perceptions about rugby changed with the data on injuries and CTEs from contact sports,” says Ace Naati, general manager of Gordon Rugby on Sydney’s once union-mad north shore. “Parents took their kids out of rugby and put them into safe sports like basketball, soccer or netball. By then the Wallabies were on the slide, other codes were raiding our talent pool and people were falling out of love with the game. RA didn’t do enough to stop those losses.”

Naati also says Australian rugby doesn’t produce the heroes for kids that AFL and NRL do. “Most kids today can name an entire NRL side but not a single Waratahs player,” he says. “The NRL are much more in your face on social media and their pathways are better. Rugby stuck to its amateur principles for too long when it needed to evolve. Loyalty to club and code still exists but now we’ve got 17-year-olds with agents. They want to know their value.”

Australia has the fiercest competition between football codes on the planet. But the rise of the AFL (18 teams) and NRL (17), and the slump of Super Rugby (five) mean opportunities, salaries and celebrity are far likelier if young athletes don’t want to be Wallabies. Although rugby players notch just 16-20 games a year (in Ireland and New Zealand it’s 30), schoolboy union prodigies like Angus Crichton, Cameron Murray and Kalyn Ponga still choose NRL.

Australia’s rugby nurseries still produce talent – the Under-20s were in the 2019 World Cup final – but the pathways are fewer. Unlike football’s A-League and cricket’s Big Bash, rugby’s last attempt to rival the NRL and AFL, the National Rugby Competition was a bust. Everyone’s got an opinion on whether or not axing the Force and Rebels strengthens or weakens rugby. “That’s the problem,” an RA insider says. “RA often runs on opinions, not on data or fact.”

Force coach Simon Cron says more work needs to be done in schools. “Watching the Wallabies at the World Cup, I felt sorry for those guys. Those kids tried hard but the core leaders, core skills and core strategies weren’t there. Those skills start young, from the age of five. When you get to age 12 and contact, then you introduce structure. But the most important thing – from the juniors to Test rugby – is the fun. They have to enjoy the game.”


Like her Wallaroos teammates, Sera Naiqama is loving her rugby – but she’s exhausted.

“My day starts at 5am with a radio show and ends at 10pm at training, with a whole lot of hustling in between,” says the 28-year-old. “And I’m one of the lucky ones. Some of the girls are up earlier, onsite jobs all day and still at training, while paying mortgages and supporting families. Why do we do it? We love the game. It takes a huge effort but it gives plenty back.”

For many years RA’s private school patriarchy was guilty of neglecting one of the few areas of the game that is flourishing: women’s rugby. The twice world champion women’s sevens side have been the code’s star performers for a decade, taking gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics and winning over 90% of games since. “For my generation, they were the spark,” says Naiqama. “We followed the sevens girls’ journey, saw what they did and imagined a future in the game.”

In 2020, a survey ranked the women’s sevens team third in Australia, behind the Matildas and the women’s national cricket team, for emotional connection with the public and the metrics of pride, trust, enjoyment and respect. Australia’s women’s XVs side, the Wallaroos, were 10th. And the Wallabies? Australian rugby’s major revenue generator came in 12th.

“Win or lose, the Wallabies will always be the No 1 story,” says Turinui. “But the sevens girls are the best players in the country.” Last week RA announced a further $3m funding into women’s rugby, an increase of 61% on 2023. Yet despite XVs participation growing at 20% since the first Super W competition in 2018, the Wallaroos remain semi-professional (world No 1 England went pro in 2019) with Waugh’s target of 2025 drawing scepticism.

Shortly after the Wallabies flew out for the World Cup in September, Naiqama helped author an extraordinary social media post attacking RA’s neglect of women’s rugby. “We were breaking our contracts but it had to be said,” she says. “It was the bravest and hardest thing I’ve done in my career. The risks were huge but it was time to take the pain of our lived experience public. And that post turned out to be a massive catalyst for change.

“Phil Waugh came straight back and said: ‘You want to talk? We’re here to listen.’ We got in a room together, thrashed out our issues, corrected some inaccuracies, and we felt the care. When Phil flew to New Zealand for the WXV tournament and came into the sheds after the game for a beer, that wasn’t lost on us. It’s certainly more than Eddie Jones did. He was supposed to oversee the men’s and women’s programs but we didn’t see him, not once.”


Which brings us to the Wallabies, the “rainmakers” of Australian rugby who haven’t won a Bledisloe Cup in 22 years, a World Cup in 25 and are now ranked No 9 in the world. Wobbly, woeful or woebegone, their losing ways have badly damaged the code. “Most Australians can cop the losses to highly-skilled sides like the All Blacks,” says Naati. “But the way the Wallabies play – the mistakes, the dumb decisions, the ill discipline – that’s what hurts fans.”

Cron says the fabled “Wallaby Way” – aggressive, uptempo, ball-in-hand rugby – has been, and can still be, the Wallabies’ way under new national coach Joe Schmidt. “You can’t play laissez-faire footy anymore,” says Cron. “There’s simply not enough time and space. I think what Joe will do is train them better so their skills improve, get them to understand the processes, then develop a style built for the players in his squad. Winning will help too.”

Easier said than done. “Knowing we’re the first team to never play World Cup finals is a shit feeling,” says winger Mark Nawaqanitawase, whose first action on coming home from France was to sign with the NRL. James Slipper agrees: “We’ll always be that team, those guys.” Angus Bell still can’t shake the dead eyes he wore after the 40-6 defeat by Wales. “I think about it all the time. It hurts. We failed big and I’m devastated, gutted, raw. We just weren’t good enough.”

Can they be good again? And can the good times return to Australian rugby before 2027?

Turinui reckons we need to hang tough. “We’ve got two home games this year against South Africa, two chances to knock over the world champs. And then the Lions in ‘25,” he says. “The 2023 World Cup was a $2.5bn injection into France’s economy and our 2027 World Cup – pushed back two weeks for clear air from the end of the AFL and NRL seasons, and with 24 teams not 20 – can make us even more… but yeah, winning is the solution to everything.”