Is there an historical shift in which Australia is becoming a Red State rugby nation?
On January 23, Queensland Rugby issued a media release headed: “Queensland the leading state for Rugby participation.” The release justified this headline with the claim that there was a 37 per cent increase in Queenslanders playing rugby in 2013, with 259,690 Queenslanders playing the game. There was a massive increase of 62 per cent in Sevens Rugby, and a smaller but significant increase of 6 per cent in club rugby participation. And for those sports historians who invariably, from an outdated Marxist perspective, accuse rugby of being a “male hegemonic” game, 37,841 females played rugby in Queensland last year.
At Super Rugby level, the Queensland Reds had average home crowds of over 30,000 last season, about twice that of the Waratahs. The leading candidates for the captaincy of the Wallabies are Reds players James Horwill and Will Genia. Quade Cooper, the former Reds bad boy, is the Wallabies vice-captain. The Wallabies coach, Ewen McKenzie, coached the Reds to the 2011 Super Rugby title. And now there is murky talk of a QRU administrative takeover of the Waratahs and Rebels.
Admittedly, the Reds compete against only one Brisbane NRL team where the Waratahs have NRL teams from Penrith to Manly as opposition for the rugby dollar and the hearts and minds of sports fans in Sydney .
It is great for Australian rugby that Brisbane continues its growth as a significant rugby city. The Reds have 26,000 members with a target of 50,000. But the code urgently needs Sydney to re-establish itself as the major rugby city in Australia. Sydney is where the bulk of the best players have been for more than 140 years. It is where the sponsors are. It is where the biggest crowd support has been generated.
The turnaround in the fortunes of rugby in Sydney, however, must start with the Waratahs becoming winning entertainers. Last weekend, the Waratahs did this splendidly with a six-try demolition of the Western Force. The TV ratings for the Waratahs-Force match, around 122,000 viewers, suggest the love is coming back. The Brumbies-Reds match had 14,000 fewer viewers.
Waratahs coach Michael Cheika is keeping the side that trounced the Force, with the exception of bringing in South African hardman, Jacques Potgieter, to replace the giant Will Skelton in the second row. Potgieter will or should bring the sort of mongrel to his play the Waratahs have lacked for years. The back line remains intact, as it should. Israel Folau was given the space to top all the statistics in the round for line breaks, offloads, tackles broken, tries scored and metres gained, 138. The Reds have foreshadowed that they will kick to him to ensure they know, at least for several plays, where Folau actually is on the field. This was the tactic the All Blacks used against David Campese. In my view, there is no greater compliment to pay an attacking player such as Folau than to compare him (correctly) to the great “Campo".
On the evidence of the last week's round, the Reds and the Waratahs are going to be contenders for the vital top place in the Australian Conference. The proviso with this is that the Melbourne Rebels are yet to take the field this season. Their trial form, under new coach Tony McGahan, was impressive. But they play the Cheetahs, who have already played two matches, for a win and a loss.
To their credit, the Reds have played splendid attacking and winning rugby in recent years. This positive regime has brought out the best in their players. Lachie Turner, for instance, stagnated at the Waratahs but was outstanding in his debut for the Reds against the Brumbies. And with Cooper, the Reds have an X-factor player and match-winner to match Folau. The Reds, too, are confident after five straight victories against the Waratahs, a sign of the new Reds ascendency.
All this leads to the conclusion that a Waratahs revival, on and off the field, must start with a victory over the Reds at ANZ Stadium.