Peter Bills: Dwindling interest a concern for southern hemisphere rugby

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The Independent Online

It’s a sign of the times in southern hemisphere rugby.

In Sydney, Australia this week tickets go on sale for the Wallabies’ two home Test matches in the city in July this year. Some of the prices asked are a reflection of rugby union’s on-going struggle in Australia. In any of the northern hemisphere nations, they would be cause for great alarm.

The adult ticket price for the Tri-Nations Test match against South Africa at Stadium ANZ on July 23 has been cut from Aus$59 to $20 (around £14). The child’s ticket price is down from Aus$30 to $20.

For the game against Samoa a week earlier at the same venue, prices are even cheaper. A family of five, with either two adults and three children or one adult and four kids, can see that match for just Aus$50 (about £36). Admittedly, these would not be the best seats in the house. But you take the point.

It is a comment on the realities of trying to get spectators out to rugby union Test matches in Australia, where rival sports such as rugby league and AFL continue to take a huge chunk of the sporting market. This is a problem of long standing in Australia and it has got worse for the union authorities in recent times.

Admittedly, the venue, Stadium ANZ way out in Sydney’s western suburbs and the site of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, does not help. It is not popular, is a long way from the city and has no local identity or character even when you get there.

Even so, rugby union bosses in northern hemisphere countries like England, Ireland, Wales etc. would be horrified at the idea of offering so heavily discounted tickets for any international matches. The authorities at places like Twickenham rarely do it for any major game, yet the crowds continue to pour in.

Last Saturday, for example, an England side comprising almost entirely second string or young players for the future met the Barbarians. It was a weak Barbarians team by their standards, a decidedly low key affair with the top notch players very few and far between.

South Africa’s Ruan Pienaar, who played the whole match at scrum half inside Frenchman Freddie Michalak, was one of the few real class acts on show.

Likewise, Joe van Niekerk who helped set up the Barbarians winning try in their 38-32 win. But despite this low key affair, 38,680 tuned up at Twickenham. In Sydney, I doubt there would have been half that number paying at the gates.

In the south of France at the weekend, they played the semi-finals of the French Championship, both in Marseille at the 60,000 capacity Stade Velodrome. The two matches, Stade Toulouse v ASM Clermont Auvergne and Racing Metro Paris v Montpellier, attracted a combined audience of 113,531.

Alas, on the other side of the world, unions such as Australia and New Zealand can only dream of such support and financial riches.

Others, like Fiji, claim they cannot even afford to send their team to New Zealand for the World Cup later this year. But you do wonder about Fiji. Contacts tell me there is now virtually no interest in the XV a side game in the Fijian islands – people only want to see Sevens.

And what has happened to all the many millions of euros the IRB say they have poured into Fijian rugby over many years? It was supposed to go to developing the game and strengthening the Fijian union. How they claim not to have any money left remains a mystery.

But the wider point is one worthy of much consideration. It cannot be healthy for the sport world-wide that money flows like a mountain stream in one hemisphere, while in the other, a lack of support even in a country like Australia continues to be a problem.

In New Zealand, recently, for example, RWC officials admitted they had sold less than half the tickets available for the World Cup games. Sure, all the New Zealand games are sell-outs but there are plenty of tickets available for most of the others.

Selling tickets to a sceptical rugby public in both New Zealand and Australia is proving a real headache.