The NRL and AFL are soaring. Australian rugby, not so much

The brilliance of the NRL and AFL grand finals at the weekend compared with Australian rugby’s continued failure to shine surely makes it even harder for the troubled code to dig itself out of the hole it has created for itself.

Nathan Cleary (left) brought the Panthers back from the brink in the NRL grand final and Collingwood’s Darcy Moore shone in the AFL clash.Credit: Artwork by Marija Ercegovac

The NRL grand final on Sunday was one for the ages: the Brisbane Broncos were seemingly on the verge of victory before the Penrith Panthers dug deep to conjure up a remarkable 26-24 victory for their third successive premiership. Some 3.52 million had watched the game on television or via streaming.


On Saturday, the Collingwood Magpies, a side that has made more grand finals than any other team (and lost more and won more, too) downed the Brisbane Lions to take their record-equalling 16th premiership in a game in which the lead seesawed 10 times. It has been called the best in the 21st century. Collingwood’s win attracted nearly 4.2 million viewers, making it the most-watched TV program this year outside the Women’s World Cup.

Match-winning players and coaches were deified too. Perhaps the sweetest moment came during the post-game presentation when Collingwood’s coach Craig McRae announced his wife had given birth to their daughter that very morning.

Meanwhile, at the Rugby World Cup, undoubtedly cherished by many nations and claimed by some to be the third-largest sporting event in the world after the soccer World Cup and the Summer Olympics, the Wallabies just kept their hopes alive at the weekend, scoring a 34-14 win over Portugal in their final pool match in France. It gives Australia a chance of making it to the last eight of the tournament and while we would not wish to put a hex on the Wallabies, it is hope dangling on a slim thread: the only way Australia can reach the quarter-finals is if Portugal, ranked No.16 in the world, beats Fiji by eight points or more during their final pool clash in seven days.


We hope, too, that the thread holds because rugby desperately needs success in France to counter the clear image of a code in deep trouble. Amid continued international losses and claims of administration-induced doldrums, the code has been floundering in recent times due to falling popularity courtesy of the disconnect between schoolboy rugby, club rugby and Super Rugby. And, unlike other football codes, Rugby Australia has been tardy in expanding its brand and properly developing and funding women’s teams. The World Cup results have brought calls for the resignation of coach Eddie Jones and Rugby Australia chairman Hamish McLennan, including by the Herald.

Australia has not won the World Cup since 1999, but there were aspirations that a winning team in France could bring back the crowds and television ratings that Wallabies matches had attracted in years past. Instead, the Wallabies’ campaign has been marred thanks to defeats by Fiji and Wales and the exclusive revelation by the Herald’s Tom Decent that Jones had been secretly interviewed by Japanese rugby officials to take over as the country’s head coach just days before our World Cup campaign started in France.

Clearly, an international tournament is different from grand finals. They are all about showcasing their codes of football and they have a proud history and tradition, but when juxtaposed against the success of the NRL and AFL grand finals, Australian rugby just cannot compare, let alone compete. Replicating the kind of competitiveness, sportsmanship, joy and sadness on display at the weekend grand finals shows the huge task rugby is facing to make a comeback. For the good of the game, rugby must rise.

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