Wallabies given sharp wake-up call
Many Australians remain apathetic to team despite reaching final, discovers Jonathan Pearlman
When his Australian countrymen emerge at Twickenham to try to defeat the All Blacks and win rugby’s greatest prize, Sydney resident Chase Williams plans to be fast asleep.
Like most Australians, Williams, 31, a project manager, has not watched any of the Wallabies’ games during this championship – and he says he is not about to start.
“The only thing I’ll be getting up for is if my [eight-month-old] son is screaming,” he said. Williams’s response was a fairly standard one on the streets of Sydney in the lead-up to today’s final, which will be broadcast live at the somewhat unappealing local time of 3am tomorrow.
During a work break at Sydney’s Bondi beach, Steven Griffith, 28, a construction foreman, said he had watched no games during the championship and the only people he knew who planned to watch the final were New Zealanders. Asked which sports – if not rugby – he would consider waking up for, Griffith said: “Pretty much every other sport.”
In Australia, rugby union ranks far behind Australian rules football and rugby league in popularity and the World Cup has struggled to seize the nation’s attention. The biggest drawback has been the time zone but the championship has also been sandwiched between the domestic football finals seasons and the running of the annual Melbourne Cup horse race.
Gerard Whateley, an ABC television sports commentator, said the Wallabies used to be the team who the nation rallied behind on the international stage but this role has increasingly been usurped by the Socceroos, the Australian football team.
“Rugby is not the heartland sport of many people here,” he said. “You are born into AFL [Australian rules football] or rugby league, and a sizeable part of the population has a natural affiliation for the world game [football].”
However, interest in the championship has begun to grow in Australia in the past two weeks, particularly after the Wallabies’ tightly-fought 35-34 quarter-final win against Scotland. “The campaign has benefited from a thrilling quarter-final – not a lot of people saw it, but everybody heard about it in the aftermath,” Whateley said.
“It has helped that the final is against the All Blacks – there is that sense of dread because we don’t usually beat New Zealand.”
Attempts to promote the championship in Australia may also have been hampered by the lack of media accreditation for the event for reporters from News Corporation and Fairfax Media, Australia’s main print news organisations. The outlets refused to apply for accreditation because of the strict publication rules imposed by World Rugby, the governing body, citing limits on use of video footage.
“We have reporters there who have not been going to stadiums – they have been staking out hotels and going to trainings,” Richard Hinds, a sports columnist for Sydney’s Daily Telegraph, said.
“The Wallabies have a good public relations team who have made sure the reporters are well fed with access to the players, so I don’t think it [the accreditation dispute] has affected the coverage. Michael Cheika [the Wallabies coach] has quite a following here. He’s a charismatic fellow and has sold the team and the tournament pretty well.”
Rugby was traditionally played and followed in Australia mainly by graduates of private schools in the eastern states of New South Wales and Queensland, while state school students tended to play rugby league. But the code has sought to broaden its appeal and the current team, who include a diverse mix of backgrounds and several players from Pacific islands, has been labelled “the working-class Wallabies”.
Clutching his surfboard on Sydney’s Bondi beach, Bill Norman, a 70-year-old retiree who played rugby at school, was one of the few avid watchers surveyed in
The Daily Telegraph’s straw poll. “I think people are starting to take interest. Mainly because Australians tend to like watching winning teams,” he said.
Hard sell: Sydney’s Opera House did its bit for the Wallabies but the game Down Under is battling for popularity