Rugby union fighting for its share of competitive Australian sports market

Rugby league, Aussie Rules, cricket and soccer all vying for the attention of the sports-mad public ‘Down Under’


The thought has occurred over the last three weeks while following the Lions around Australia, that rugby union is possibly a little too sanitised as well as middle class for Aussie sporting tastes. Aussies like a bit of biff, which rugby league allows a good deal more of than its rugby union counterpart.

State of Origin is the main game in town, and this annual three-match series between Queensland and New South Wales is generally compelling viewing and by some distance the highest quality league head-to-head the game has to offer; World Cups included.

The skill levels are extraordinary, all the more so when placed in the context of the games’ ferocity and intensity.

Ahead of next Wednesday’s Origin 2, the fallout from the opener in Sydney a fortnight ago was dominated by the NSW captain cum hero/antihero/hate figure, Paul Gallen, unloading a volley of crisp left and right punches into the face of Queensland’s Nappy Miles.

For this he was penalised, stayed on the pitch, and was banned for one week, making him comfortably eligible for next Wednesday’s Origin 2 in Brisbane, when Queensland must win to level the series and keep alive their hopes of an eighth success in a row.

Debate raged
The debate raged as to the right or wrongs of this decidedly lenient punishment, and usually depended on which side of the fence the pundit was coming from.

One commentator not unreasonably suggested that if it happened in the streets, it would lead to an arrest. Yet neither coach, Queensland’s Mal Meninga or NSW’s Laurie Daly, considered Cullen’s punches out of step with the nature of Origin which, they both maintained, was different in essence from the rest of rugby league.

Even Miles, when followed by cameras to Sydney airport the next day, maintained it was all part of the game, and tetchily blamed the media for making an issue of it.

However, the chance for retribution next Wednesday has apparently been curtailed by the decision of the game’s governing body, NRL (National Rugby League) to punish any punching with a ten-minute sin-binning. ‘NRL BANS BIFF’ ran the Sunday Telegraph heading four days ago. This has seemingly outraged all parties involved.

Gallen himself was part of a four-man panel on a radio chat show later that day which unanimously agreed that the ruling was a timid move from which Origin would suffer, and that the NRL had caved in to a loud minority who had been given too much airspace in the fallout from the opening game. Curiously, as one commentator noted, in the same programme Gallen revealed that he was not proud of his actions, and felt compelled to admit as much to school kids last week.

Hand in hand
A bit of Biffo and Origin have gone hand in hand, so to speak, since the first Origin match in 1980 when rugby league legend Mick Cronin was punched by his Parramatta team-mate Arthur Beetson, thereby engendering the “mate versus mate” concept which has underlined the State of Origin.

Of the automatic sin-binning decision, Cronin said: “It’s like banning the shoulder charge; it’s another overreaction. Political correctness gone wrong.”

To further put all this in context, the former NSW captain and coach, Tommy Raudonikis, is a champion of its working class image; he launched the “cattle dog” clarion call which, ala Willie John McBride’s ‘99’, was the cue for him and his blues’ team-mates to wade in together in the 1997 series.

He declared: “I have had a gutful of it. I love league. The game has given me everything but this game was made for working-class people and we love a little biff.”

League’s heroes can be flawed. One of Daley’s two changes for Origin 2 , when the NSW team was announced,, was the selection of Josh Dugan at full-back, completing a redemptive tale after he had been sacked by his club Canberra at the start of the season for a rooftop drinking session with teammate Blake Ferguson.

That was last Monday. The next day Ferguson, who had made his debut in Origin 1, had his registration suspended and was dropped from Origin 2 following an indecent assault charge for allegedly groping a woman while out drinking with Dugan on Sunday night. The previous week’s media storm concerned another NSW player, James Tamou, who had been ruled out of the series after being charged with drink driving when four times over the limit.

While the Ashes series is also looming into view, amid increasing concern of splits within the Ausse camp, the only time cricket muscled its way into the back or front pages over the last three weeks was when opener David Warner hogged the headlines and the TV sports bulletins after punching English batsman Joe Root in a Birmingham bar.

There has been condemnation aplenty for all these actions, and perhaps it’s been an unusual perfect storm of misbehaving sportsmen – on Tuesday the Aussie Rules player Stephen Milne was charged by Victoria Police with four counts of rape following an alleged sexual assault on a woman in 2004.

The goodwill
And amidst it all, the Socceroos have been revitalising the goodwill toward them by qualifying for a third World Cup finals in a row next year in Brazil with a nervy 1-0 win at home to Iraq in front of 80,523 at the ANZ Stadium in Sydney on Wednesday night.

That’s Australia, and that’s Australian sport. A decade ago, within days of losing the World Cup final in Sydney in extra-time to Jonny Wilkinson’s drop goal, the sports media simply switched its attention to Australia’s role in the Davis Cup final.

This weekend, rugby union will finally have its day with the first Test against the Lions – but it seems to be struggling more than ever in the face of such stiff competition, on and off the pitch.