Rugby Union expert Brett Moore, is a special guest writer for this article. Brett is the ex-Media Manager of the NSW Waratahs and was previously the editor of Australian Rugby Review when it won the 2003 Magazine of the Year award for its Rugby World Cup coverage. A flyhalf trapped in the body of a goalkicking hooker, Brett has watched sport around the world and tried his hand at pretty much all of them however it’s in writing about Rugby where his sporting talent really lies.
Last week The Call of the Wallaby premiered on Fox Sports. The excellent first part of a six episode season gets Australian Rugby fans to have a good hard look in the mirror. It asks the question, where have all the Wallaby fans gone?
From the 1990s when the Wallabies were twice crowned World Champions, to the brilliant 2001 Lions tour and an amazing 2003 Rugby World Cup which had Australia buzzing, the 15-man code has steadily slipped down the pecking order of Australian sport over the last decade.
The Call of the Wallaby is taking an active role in developing The Gold Brigade, recruiting core of 3000 dedicated fans keen to pull the gold scarf out of the bottom drawer and take the atmosphere at Bledisloe Cup matches back to where it was 10-15 years ago.
The growing apathy amongst Rugby fans is no more evident than in Sydney where the Waratahs are the most-maligned professional sports team in Australia’s biggest city.
Starting each season with great expectations and finishing each one with nothing has been simply too much for many who are not prepared to part with their hard-earned and cheer on their team. In recent times, some of those who have actually turned up have changed from cheering to booing their own team.
In 2006 the Waratahs averaged almost 34,000 to each home game – it was the hottest ticket in town. However Wendell Sailor’s drug ban on the afternoon of their final regular season match started a steady slide that has only now started to flatten out. The Waratahs went on to lose that match, costing them a home-semi and they lost the ensuing playoff game the following week.
In 2007 a string of injuries plummeted the Tahs to second last and crowds started going the same way as the results.
In 2008 the Ewen McKenzie-coached Waratahs hosted a semi-final at the Sydney Football Stadium before falling at the last hurdle to the Crusaders, but despite a strong season the average crowd was now just 27,000. In 2009 it was less than 24,000 and in 2012 under 21,000 were rocking up.
Last year, the Waratahs average crowd was 16,949. Remove the blockbusters against the Reds and Brumbies and that number drops to 14,623.
So the calendar flips to 2014 and the Waratahs are the team to watch. Minor premiers, a seven-match winning streak, the best attack, the most tries in the competition. Oh, and a former AFL player they call ‘Izzy’.
But the crowds have not come back. At least, not yet.
There were matches this season when the Waratahs did not even announce an attendance figure. Why? Well, with the numbers where they were, the figure would either be embarrassing or worse yet, a lie.
Which brings us to this weekend where the Waratahs host a home semi-final for the first time since 2008, and the administrators could not have asked for a better match-up than to take on the Brumbies at Allianz Stadium.
Ticket sales were strong after the Tahs secured a home semi and those holding out to find out their opponent have started to snap up tickets following the Brumbies’ two-point win over the Chiefs on Saturday night.
Waratahs Brumbies in Sydney. A place in the Final on the line. Possibly a Super Rugby Final at the Olympic Stadium against the competition’s eternal frontrunners, the Crusaders. It’s a marketers dream.
And the Waratahs should win this weekend. They are the form side of the competition having not lost since Anzac Day and just three weeks ago they touched up the Brumbies by more than 30 points.
But footy’s a funny game; the Brumbies won a sudden death match against the Force to qualify for the finals and backed it up in an elimination rematch of the 2013 decider. To knock of the Tahs this weekend is not beyond the realms of rugby possibility, particularly if NSW succumb to 19 years of statewide expectation which is firmly pushing down on their collective shoulders.
However where the Waratahs can definitely win – and need to – is in the stands. If the full house sign is to go up on Allianz Stadium this Saturday night it will mark the biggest step forward for rugby in NSW since Jonny Wilkinson struck down years of progress with a right-foot drop goal in 2003.
It will be a clear indicator that the Rugby fan, who for the best part of the last decade has preferred to sit by the fire with a glass of red in hand and the IQ remote in the other, no longer lies dormant.
The Waratahs need them there. Australian Rugby needs them there.
And rest assured, should the Tahs be victorious in bringing the Rugby crowds to Sydney, the hard thing will not be finding 3000 fans to fit in the Gold Brigade come-Bledisloe time – the problem will be finding enough space to fit them all in.