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Marquee my words: Losing the big bucks will save rugby

For of course, back then – when the Wallabies won two World Cups in the space of eight years – the game really did resemble a huge marquee which people paid huge money to enter and place their logos upon. (The issue was how that money was spent to change the very fabric of what was bringing them into the marquee in the first place, but don’t get me started.)

When people talk about the game’s true glory days in this country, it is really the 80s and 90s – pre-professionalism – that comes up most often.

These days, we all know it, the game is going through its toughest times in the modern era. Wallaby wins against powerful sides are all but non-existent, crowds at big games are the lowest they have been since the game turned professional, new sponsors are hard to come by while old sponsors are eyeing the exits, and the only rugby player commanding regular headlines is Israel Folau, and for all the wrong reasons.

Is it a surprise, thus, that the game may have to take a very big haircut in the next round of negotiations for broadcast rights? Not at all. The money follows the mob, and in Australia the mob has simply been too small of late for Foxtel to shell out the big money for.

So yes, the sober reality is that the income for the game is likely to diminish markedly further because of it.

The upside of that? Hang on, I’m thinking . . .

I have it!


The upside is with less money flowing into the elite level of the game, the grass-roots game will be more important than ever – the keepers of the flame of the game, as the game was meant to be played. After all, when people talk about the game’s true glory days in this country, it is really the 80s and 90s – pre-professionalism – that comes up most often. Back then, Wallabies were given an allowance of $50 a day and held down other careers and serious studies while they did so. The glory of the game was to bring together players who brought with them whole communities: the regular clubs they played with, the people they worked with, the people they were in the local cycle club with. People felt connected to them in a way that just doesn’t happen today.

And no, I don’t say – pass my pipe and slippers – that modern rugby is going to go back to those days. For one thing, despite the major travails of the game in Australia, the true saving grace is that game is becoming ever more popular in the rest of the world and Wallaby matches really do draw a mob in places like England, France, Japan and Ireland. The ongoing popularity of the game globally will help to sustain it locally.

But I do say that rugby in this country is going to have to learn to live a lot leaner. Million-dollar contracts like those given to Folau will soon be out of the question. For that matter, the days of bringing superb athletes like Folau in from outside the game, who don’t necessarily have the spirit of the game in their very bones, will also be over. In the old days, you were paid for wearing the Wallaby jersey simply by the honour and glory of wearing it. When those contracts inevitably decrease in a couple of years, the result will be that a lot of the best players will simply take the money on offer in other parts of the rugby globe.

And there is the upside. Those left behind will be a mix of the absolute hard-core Wallabies, the True Believers, for whom the very idea of wearing the jersey is more important than anything else . . . and yes, those who just didn’t get the big offers from overseas.

So be it. There will be slimmer times ahead, and the national side will likely be missing some of its major stars. But the starting pointing for rebuilding the professional game has to be rebuilding that sense of connection with the big-time professionals that is currently missing. And if the game needs lessons in how to live off the land, look to the blokes over 50. We remember how it used to be done.

Pass my pipe and slippers, I said!

Peter FitzSimons is a journalist and columnist with The Sydney Morning Herald.

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