While Rugby League is without a doubt an incredibly popular sport here in the UK, the sport still struggles to get a mention in mainstream media. It would seem that regardless of the massive crowds and the genuine public interest in League, Rugby Union is the sport that the press would prefer to have on our screens and the back pages of our papers.
But in Australia, things are decidedly different.
Yes, they may have won the Web Ellis Cup on two occasions, but as far as the general public in Australia is concerned, they might as well have done it on the moon. Down under it’s Rugby League and of course Australian Rules Football that pulls in the punters.
Australia is pretty much a Rugby League paradise for both fans and players. They screen many of the matches live, and every pub shows the round’s big matches week in week out. The average attendance at a game is around 15,000, and the press is full of interviews, previews, and match reports. In terms of media coverage, you could compare it to the Premiership here.
But to get a real sense of the popularity of the game down under as opposed to here in the UK, you need only look as far as the NRL Grand Final. It’s a momentous occasion when the entire nation comes to a complete standstill for a game of rugby. The public interest in the match is phenomenal, and you can only compare it to something like the Super Bowl in the States. This year Melbourne Storm are the favourites with BetStars offering odds of 6/5 to see last year’s runners up take the crown. And even though the two finalists have yet to be decided, ticket sales for the October showcase are going pretty well.
Then we have the salaries. With player contracts and endorsements dwarfing those of players here in the UK, it’s little wonder that Brits offered the opportunity will jump at the chance to play down under.
Rugby Union, on the other hand, is a different story. Although players get paid reasonably well, there’s always the chance (and it’s happening more and more) that a French club will come calling chequebook in hand. So while the NRL retains their best talent, Australian Super Rugby routinely lose the top players and even the benchwarmers to European clubs.
But perhaps the most interesting reason for Rugby Union’s failure to become a national sport is the fact that people simply don’t like it. Now, it’s not quite what you might think. Australians aren’t so fascinated by the rules of League that they would abandon Union. It’s a bit more complex than that.
Rugby Union’s support base is mainly centred around Queensland and New South Wales. Union is by no stretch of the imagination a national sport. In fact, locals throughout the country support soccer more than Super Rugby; a very sad state of affairs indeed. And the reason why? Rugby Union is still considered a game that pays particular attention to both class and race.
Both Rugby League and the AFL have made significant efforts to ensure that the sports are de-ethnicized by encouraging both indigenous and foreign players to take up the sport. Rugby Union, on the other hand, is still stuck in the private school era where teams draft players from middle-class backgrounds. Add to that the public perception that League is safer than Union and you have parents that are unwilling to let their kids join the school union team.
If only the British media would follow in the footsteps of their Australian counterparts and offer the public what they truly desire. More Rugby League on TV and in the papers. We’re not suggesting for a moment that they ditch Union but can you remember the last time you read a piece on Rugby League on the BACK page of your daily national newspaper? It’s time to follow the Aussies and give League the recognition it deserves.