By Peter FitzSimons, Sydney Morning Herald

Who said rugby is dying?

Actually, I think it might have been me, on the ABC’s 7.30 last week. My theme was actually that the professional game in Australia is in real trouble, with only 10,000 or so showing up to home Waratah games and just 54,000 who could be buggered to turn up to the opening Test of the Bledisloe Cup series, in a stadium that that can hold 84,000.

The All Blacks have sealed the Bledisloe Cup with a late win over the Wallabies in game two.

But the amateur game, in club rugby land? It is actually flourishing as never before. For you had to be there last Saturday to believe it! North Sydney Oval was so chock-a-block they had to close the gates. One report had it that it was the biggest crowd there since 1922, cricket and league included. Even allowing for hyperbole, most estimates put it north of 20,000.

And still that doesn’t do the scene justice. The rugby on the field was fabulous with the ball going back and forth, left and right, with gay abandon, the lead changing half-a-dozen times, and the crowd yelling themselves hoarse.

Alive and well: Warringah players and fans celebrate their Shute Shield success. Photo: James Brickwood

At half-time fathers, mothers, children and teenagers jumped the fence to kick the ball around, and soak up the late winter sunshine. At full-time, as Warringah held on to beat Norths in a thriller, half the crowd charged on to the field to engulf their heroes from both sides – and 45 minutes later were still there!

There must have been security people there I guess, and police, but I couldn’t see any, and certainly none were needed. This was just rugby people, at a rugby festival, having the rugby time of their lives – for the buzz was so strong it sounded like 10,000 bees let loose in a 44-gallon drum. All of us were reminded – for some it was the first time in many years – of just why we had loved rugby so much in the first place.

Where had all this come from?

Ten years ago grand finals of the Shute Shield were getting a third of that number attending! Five years ago I called up and said: “What time does it start?” and they said: “What time can you get here?”

Adama Grace, 7, at North Sydney Oval on the day of the Shute Shield grand final. Photo: Michele Mossop

But here we were – not only one for the old days, but better than the old days! One person who can take a deeper bow than most, as it happens, is my mate, Nick Fordham (full disclosure, he also manages my and my wife’s electronic media contracts) who, with his business partner John Murray, got wind in 2014 that the ABC, due to waning interest and budget cuts, was going to dump their broadcast of club rugby.

Fordham and Murray were intrigued. After all, the Shute Shield went back to 1923, had a strong demographic of followers that commercial partners would be interested in, and they both felt that with the right free-to-air commercial broadcaster, they could revitalise the whole competition.

Outside crew: Sean McMahon must remember who pays the Wallabies’ wages. Photo: Darrian Traynor

“The first rule of having a popular sport,” Fordham says, “is that it has to be on free-to-air television. Without that, you are always going to be pushing it uphill, because while you might know how great your sport is, not enough other people do. We thought that if we could put out a great broadcast on free-to-air commercial television, it would be the perfect way to start.”

And so it proved. Just a week before the start of the Shute Shield in 2015, they struck a 10-year broadcast deal with first the Sydney Rugby Union to get the rights, and then Channel Seven, with the principal club match going out on one of their digital channels – and the rest is history.

Though they had no commercial partners or sponsorship revenue when they started, meaning they had to underwrite the entire broadcast in its first year themselves, to the tune of $1 million, the ratings kept rising and the sponsors came, starting with a major naming rights deal from Intrust Super – just as the crowds slowly started to build.

While the 2015 grand final at Concord Oval was impressive, there was still a lot of work needing to be done, and the next year they brought on commercial partners such as Canon, Fujitsu, B&O and put huge effort into social media, and game day entertainment to get the people back to the grounds. They also put huge effort into duchessing the press, radio and TV to get some interest back to the comp. The crowds grew some more, and with growing passion for the club game, the standard of the rugby itself improved. Moving the grand final to North Sydney Oval in 2016 proved a masterstroke, with a record crowd and another wonderful day.

“We continued to grow in 2017,” Fordham says, “with a 100 per cent sponsorship retention rate, growing social media interest and crowds have been up 45 per cent. For the first time ever our broadcast was seen internationally via the Rugby Channel in New Zealand and the Pacific Islands with the 2017 grand final being broadcast in over 20 Asian countries, via a last-minute deal with Rugby Pass. Last weekend’s success was not luck, it’s been three years of hard work on so many levels by an incredibly small, but passionate, team that has worked tirelessly.”

So good luck to them. In the wake of this success, the obvious challenge beckons. Whoever takes over from Bill Pulver as CEO of the Australian Rugby Union has to work out a way to gather some of that magic dust from the grassroots game – all that colour, passion, and sheer tribalism – and get it back into the pros.

The first step, surely, is to do whatever it takes to get more of the Waratahs and Wallabies matches on free-to-air, using the same down-home methodology to build interest.  And another key thing, for me, is take down the walls that have been built up between the professional game and the rugby mob that the pros so desperately need. We need to see more Wallabies and Waratahs turning out more often in club games, and actually proudly representing their club.

We need many of them to change their whole attitude to the grassroots.  A quote this week from Wallabies back-rower Sean McMahon, neatly summed up the gulf. When the question came as to what he thought of the criticism of the rugby community for the Wallabies poor efforts this year, McMahon sneered: “What other people have to say about us, we couldn’t give two shits to be honest. We’ve got to focus on doing our game and not listen to the outside crew.”

Sean? Bring it in tight.

Those “other people”, you are talking about, the “outside crew”, you are so dismissive of, are actually your pay-masters, do you get that? They are the people who pay their subscriptions, make the turnstiles turn, and provide your wages. In the new regime, they are not to be sneered at, they are to be treated with respect, the way the club teams treat them with respect.

Rugby in Australia can become a cohesive whole again, and grow, but the starting point has to be nurturing and loving the grassroots. For the pros live off them, not the other way around.



Peter FitzSimons is managed by The Fordham Company.

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