SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - SEPTEMBER 03: Australian Rugby League Commission Chairman Peter V'landys speaks to the media during a NRL press conference at Rugby League Central on September 03, 2020 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

I've said for a long time that only two things prop up rugby union in Australia.

The private schoolboy network of Brisbane and Sydney, and the many rugby union fan boys in Australian sports media (the latter not surprisingly also being made up largely of the former).

Other than that tenuous hold in a small sector of Australian society, rugby union has been largely irrelevant and dwarfed as a sport by rugby league since rugby league deigned to exist in Australia from 1907-08 onwards.

Lately, the rugby union fan boys based at publications such as the Sydney Morning Herald and Nine's Wide World of Sports (sorry, same thing), The Daily Mail and general sports (though it heavily favours rugby union) website, The Roar, have become somewhat overheated at the prospect of being published somewhere other than in the rear of the newspaper with the racing form guide.

Rugby union's latest attempt to appear relevant in Australia has been to consistently hiss propaganda in the direction of rugby league while spending money it doesn't have on under-developed rugby league players like Sydney Roosters' back Joseph Suaalli – all the while threatening to spend more money on rugby league players (and coaches) who once held a Gilbert ball (or once saw one while passing a sports store window).

The NRL has been attacked for having the temerity to respond to the reams of bile spewing from Australian rugby union, most of it self-serving rubbish that seems beyond the ability of sports journalists to fact check – or often, even to attach their names to.

It is almost certain rugby union continues to bleed money at an astonishing rate in Australia. Trumpeting a small profit of $8 million in 2022 (after delaying the reporting of same for months), Australian rugby union head Hamish McLennan continues to attack the NRL to garner a few headlines while waxing lyrically about events to take place from now in two and four years, respectively (those being the British and Irish Lions tour in 2025, and the World Cup in 2027).

Meanwhile, back in the reality of 2023, Super Rugby Pacific is a competition on the brink of collapse. Australian sides are still unable to beat New Zealand ones in all but freak circumstances. A mere two years ago, this was a dire concern for Australian rugby union. And what – it isn't now?

Television coverage of the Super Rugby Pacific competition has all but disappeared – in reality only delivered to a handful of diehards of dubious number at Stan Sport.

Apparently, there is some free-to-air coverage of this competition in 2023, but the numbers for it are so low that they do not make reporting figures. The Stan coverage is watched by almost no-one at all compared to the burgeoning figures for NRL on pay (and free-to-air) TV.

Potentially the only thing saving rugby union from having a lower crowd average for Super Rugby Pacific than the A League (the latter currently averaging around 7500 per match) is the fact that rugby union crowds are almost never reported, presumably out of sheer embarrassment. This is an old trick from the Rugby Football Union days in England: no-one can criticise crowd numbers, not least rugby union journalists (who refuse to do so anyway), when they can't be found.

Against this backdrop of a failing Super Rugby competition in 2023 – a competition which is likely to haemorrhage even more money than last year – rugby union in Australia is soon to be caught up in a cycle of private equity money which will see the private equity provider(s) extract something in the order of 20 per cent of future revenue.

Add in more than $25 million - $40 million in loans (subject to which source you believe) already taken out by Australian rugby union in the last couple of years, and the financial future of the Australian rugby union still looks shaky at best (Suaalii's back-ended contract in rugby union would be of concern if I was managing his affairs).

In 2023, Australia will play only two home internationals in rugby union (compared to six in 2022), thus cutting further into its earning potential in the current year. While Australian rugby union talks about an entirely speculative figure of $200 million coming into the game for a rugby union Lions tour in 2025 and a home Rugby (Union) World Cup in 2027, it fails to mention that it will apparently be propping up further domestic losses in 2023 and potentially in 2024 before those events even take place.

With the New Zealand Rugby Union losing more than $47 million in 2022 largely by hosting the Women's (Rugby Union) World Cup in that year, the Women's (Rugby Union) World Cup in Australia in 2029 is more likely to lose money than make it. It therefore represents a further potential financial anchor around rugby union's neck in this country.

This doesn't even factor in the potentially disastrous effects of private equity – something both NRL and the AFL are extremely loath to engage with (why would you want to cut another party in for 20% for a quick shot of sugar? – in the case of Australian rugby union, it seems they had no choice or they would have gone broke before now).

The English domestic rugby union competition is also nearing collapse with literally hundreds of millions of pounds of debt (several clubs are threatening to go under, after two have already collapsed recently). Australian rugby union going down the same route is a distinct possibility.

The Top 14 rugby union competition in France is also a deficient model with its traditional reliance on wealthy benefactors to prop up clubs that often lose money; something also behind the “retirement” competition that is Japanese rugby union. Not the way you would build sports structures in 2023 if you had a say in it.

In contrast, the NRL has all the players and all the money. The NRL's balance sheet for 2022 was $62 million profit (or nearly eight times that of rugby union for the same year) – and it would have been more like $90 million profit in 2022 without the purchase of the Gambaro Hotel in Caxton Street, Brisbane by the NRL during the reporting period.

The NRL is averaging close to 20,000 spectators per match so far in 2023 (well up on last year) and is on course to repeat being Australia's most popular sport by again dominating television in Australia for the second year in a row (NRL TV ratings are up nearly 20% on last year's record viewership, which dominated AFL by some 20 million viewers across the whole of 2022).

The NRL also continues to be well underpaid for being the dominant sport on Australian television compared to the AFL – which gives it great scope to improve its financial position over the next fifteen or twenty years in comparison to the already (at near saturation point) AFL.

With prime locations for further expansion available to the NRL (Perth, a second team in New Zealand, Adelaide, another team in Brisbane, Pasifika, Papua New Guinea, etc.), it has enormous potential to leverage new markets and old in the decades to come, thereby bringing literally mountains of gold into rugby league every year.

In contrast, Australian rugby union has nothing to fall back on in the future other than another World Cup in Australia in (maybe) 2051, another Lions tour in twelve years (2037), and a failing domestic competition (Super Rugby Pacific), with a dysfunctional local club scene underpinning that.

Given this dire outlook, is it any wonder that rugby union journalists in this country are unwilling to look at the true state of their game in 2023, and seek to distract with witless attacks on the most popular sport in Australia at this time (NRL)?

Of course, this is no surprise when rugby union's abysmal history of attacks against rugby league all around the world are considered.

Many of us who have been around rugby league for long enough have heard all the dismal propaganda currently emanating from rugby union, many times before. The best thing rugby league can do is deny rugby union figures the publicity they seek so desperately to obtain by piggy-backing on the strength of rugby league in 2023 – and focus on fulfilling rugby league's vast potential which currently lies before it.

1 COMMENT

  1. The future for rugby union may be best served by reverting to an amateur game, played just be people who like the game, without a raft of expensive administrators sitting at the top of the pile.

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