Published by Christy Doran, 3 September 2018 on foxsports.com.au
YOU’D be forgiven for thinking rugby was alive and well.
There it was, 15,500 people crammed into North Sydney Oval on Saturday for the Shute Shield final between Sydney University and the Warringah Rats.
Not a spare seat in the ground, nor a patch of grass free by the 3.10pm kickoff as the neighbouring pubs along Miller Street were suddenly empty.
Men and women, boys and girls, packed like sardines on the eastern hill beneath the Rats’ ‘Hillbilly Hut.’
A snake line of punters waiting patiently waiting for their beverage of choice.
Or not so patiently, in the case of one thirsty character asked to leave the queue after being sprung for attempting to jump the steel fencing.
Hundreds of kids having a ball on the hallowed turf, pre-game and halftime, as their parents faithfully retrieved their miscued kicks.
Respect for tradition, with clever chants and banter ringing out and club members making tunnels for their club heroes to run through before the big match.
Members from both clubs making a tunnel for their respective first XVs to run through onto the ground.
All of this for a club match.
So yes, rugby in Australia is alive and kicking.
Well, kind of.
Incredibly, Saturday’s turnout was much healthier than the 12,067 who attended the Waratahs’ remarkable Super Rugby quarterfinal win over the Highlanders at Allianz Stadium in July.
Rugby Australia chief executive Raelene Castle was at the club final and the Industry Super Funds ads sprung to mind.
“Compare the pair — you’ve still got time.”
“I hope Raelene Castle’s out here watching this,” said Rob, a Rats fan of 30 years with the retro jersey to prove it.
There is a stark disconnect between the amateur and professional arms of the game in Australia.
Bill Pulver is now longer in charge of Rugby Australia but his infamous “piss it up against the wall” quote has not been forgotten in club land.
Castle would have to be deaf and blind to not pick up on the vibe.
“This crowd will tell you the Shute Shield is alive and well,” said Jack, who will turn 80 this week and was looking resplendent in his 1970s Orange Emus jersey.
“But it’s got nothing to do with the ARU.
“And Super Rugby’s bloody hopeless.
“If they could get 20,000 at any of their games they’d be laughing.
“Shute Shield’s getting no support from the ARU.
“(Nick) Fordham and (John) Murray, the two blokes who have got Shute Shield on 7TWO and done all the marketing and promotion, the ARU haven’t tipped any money in at all to them.
“I’d just like to the ARU and NSWRU to get back and support the Shute Shield.”
Jack, a Lane Cove resident who played for Drummoyne as a youngster, didn’t go to a Super Rugby or Wallabies game this year.
He said cost, poor skills and the fact you could watch rugby on Fox Sports were factors in his decision.
But he was more than happy to spend $25 supporting the grassroots of the game — although he wasn’t impressed by the long wait for a beer.
“Most of the first half I was in the queue trying to get a drink — but that’s how it is.
“I’ve come just to support the code.
“It’s a great family day out.”
Back to Rats fan Rob, who we met earlier.
He opted not to attend this year’s Bledisloe Cup Test in Sydney.
“I’m a member of ANZ Stadium and I gave my tickets away,” he said.
“I didn’t think it was that important and I thought we’d get flogged, and I love rugby.
“But I wouldn’t give my tickets away to this match.
“The funding should be bottom up because it’s the grassroots of rugby which is the answer.
“Because everybody sees the grassroots — they see their kids playing or someone that you know and you support it.
“Whereas there seems to be a disconnect with the pointy end of Australian rugby.
“They train, they work the professional life, but they’re not within the community.
“Here, it’s all community based.”
Pat from Brookvale described the Shute final spectacle as “damn special, mate.”
“The fans, the community, the people, being with your mates.”
His friend Mitch — a 27-year-old Rats fan — said the Waratahs and Rugby Australia must continue taking games to suburban grounds like NSW did for the clash with the Blues at Brookvale Oval.
“They need to start giving back to the fans,” Mitch said.
“Start taking the game to the people, don’t expect the people to go to the game.”
Alex, a 32-year-old who runs a coffee cart at Rat Park home games, agreed.
“I’d love a Tahs game here,” he said.
“It’s a good ground for watching footy.
“If they sort the bars out, it’d be fantastic.
“Nice and easy to get to, public transport’s pretty good and it’s a nice field.
“Going to an old school ground is pretty special.
“The atmosphere on the hill here — Hillbilly Tent behind us — it’s absolutely incredible.”
Anna, who plays for Eastern Suburbs and was watching her club mates play in the second and third grade finals, added she was more likely to watch club footy than Super Rugby because of the atmosphere.
“It’s the first year that Easts have had a XVs women’s team, so we’ve been here supporting the two teams,” she said.
“The thirds had a really hard game, they lost 20-17 and then second grade won.
“But we’ve stuck around to watch the final.
“I’d say that club rugby is much more enjoyable.
“The club rugby atmosphere, everyone’s getting behind one another.
“The friendly rivalry.
“The thing about rugby is that you can spend 80 minutes beating the sh** out of one another and then have a friendly beer.”
In Rugby Australia’s latest annual report, $3.7 million was afforded to “community rugby.”
Judging by the mood on Saturday, that simply isn’t enough.