Rugger me!

In the minority

Watching the Wallabies take on the mighty All Blacks last Saturday got me wondering how sports-mad Australia could have fallen so out of love with rugby union. Before I arrived on these shores in 2010 I had ignorantly assumed that union was one of the most popular – spectator and participation – sports in the country. It didn’t take long to realise that it was dwarfed in comparison with the other winter football codes; Aussie Rules and rugby league. Overall, some have claimed it to be only the ninth most popular sport in the country. It seems it has been on the slide ever since Jonny Wilkinson landed that kick in the 2003 RWC Final.

In the 1990s Australia won the Webb Ellis Trophy twice – in 1991 and 1999 – but its relative decline since then has been marked, with only one Tri-Nations Series win in the past ten years.

The Wallabies have always overachieved relative to its size of playing base, with rugby union considered a sport of the privileged Eastern Suburbs of Sydney, in contrast to the larger footprint of rugby league in the city’s west. As professionalism has developed, it seems the rest of the Tier 1 nations are bringing the advantage of their greater playing numbers to bear out on the field.

Glancing at the bald statistics, Australia ranks tenth – below the US, Japan and Sri Lanka(!) – in terms of sheer numbers of registered male players (adults and juniors). It comes as no surprise that the percentage of Aussie males playing the sport is considerably lower than the equivalent proportions in England, South Africa, Ireland and New Zealand. Worryingly, with the sport growing in popularity in Japan and the US, many Tier 2 nations have greater potential to extend their lead in terms of actual player numbers. Of course, having a large pool of players doesn’t guarantee success, just look at England.

Clearly, to be able to compete in the four-nation Rugby Championship, and be currently ranked as the number two side in the world, Australia is doing a lot of things very well. But, as AFL grows in popularity and rugby league continues its hegemony of oval ball-minded youngsters in its Sydney heartland (junior league registrations have grown from 79,000 in 1999 to 120,667 in 2008), it remains to be seen for how long over 75,000 people will attend one-sided Bledisloe Cup contests (as they did on Saturday), and whether the country will have even fewer playing resources from which to draw upon in the future.

Table showing the 15 rugby union nations with the highest number of registered male players

Country Total registered

players (males)

Playing base as percentage

of top 15 countries’ total

Male population Registered players as percentage of each countries’ male population
England

1,428,862

40.2%

23,922,144

6.0%

South Africa

633,229

17.8%

16,275,424

3.9%

France

302,023

8.5%

30,311,870

1.0%

United States

276,353

7.8%

155,244,097

0.2%

Ireland

140,716

4.0%

2,261,149

6.2%

New Zealand

132,910

3.7%

2,107,347

6.3%

Japan

117,709

3.3%

61,939,779

0.2%

Argentina

102,543

2.9%

19,754,484

0.5%

Sri Lanka

87,602

2.5%

9,965,629

0.9%

Australia

85,283

2.4%

10,584,820

0.8%

Italy

61,432

1.7%

29,125,996

0.2%

Malaysia

60,000

1.7%

13,946,639

0.4%

Wales

49,226

1.4%

1,403,782

3.5%

Kenya

39,148

1.1%

19,895,274

0.2%

Scotland

36,237

1.0%

2,469,407

1.5%

Source: Wikipedia and GeoHive

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One thought on “Rugger me!

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