Why 2023 must start with a bang for Australian rugby


G’day Australian rugby, how was your summer break? Much happen?

Yeah, same. Pretty quiet one for me as well.

If only all of that was true. For both of us, in fact.

The 2023 rugby year is almost upon us and the game in Australia finds itself in somewhat unfamiliar territory: Rugby’s been in the news in January.

And yeah, sure, rugby’s been in the news in these parts all this year because of the surprise move around the Wallabies coaching role. Rugby Australia chairman Hamish McLennan might even argue removing Dave Rennie and installing Eddie Jones has already earned the game 12 months’ worth of coverage and exposure.

But RA must surely also know that the hard work starts now.

There aren’t many coaches in the international game in the same ‘box office’ sphere as Jones and his return to Australia has brought with it an exciting level of pre-season coverage in a Rugby World Cup year.

Heck, the first episode of his new weekly podcast debuted at No.1 on not just the Australian rugby charts, but on the wider Australian sport charts too. As I write this, ‘Eddie’ is top ten on more than 25 international rugby charts.

It’s quite impressive actually, unless you happen to have a weekly rugby podcast yourself.

A member of a global rugby chat group I’m a part of offered a surprisingly articulate summary of the situation when Jones was first announced last month:

“I was only thinking today that RA may have got a classic ‘two for one’ with Eddie’s appointment.

“A rugby coach… and a marketing department all in one.”

My sympathies immediately turned to the pigeon. Another hard-working member of the RA office in Sydney gone, it would seem.

Eddie Jones

Eddie Jones (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

So Rugby Australia suddenly finds itself less than a fortnight out from the first game of Super Rugby Pacific for the year – that’s the competition they were really, truly prepared to walk away from like a busted old hatchback last year, but are now completely committed to for the next decade with no hard feelings at all – with a genuine goodwill surrounding the game.

The new Wallabies coach landed just in time for the Sydney Sevens, and despite the quarter-finals exit of both Australian sides, the event drew something like double the crowd they were expecting.

It wasn’t all because Jones signed footies for kids on the sideline, but it can’t have hurt.

The coaching structure around the Wallaroos has been clarified – Jones will oversee and observe, not actively run as was first implied – and the long-overdue announcement on Saturday around the $2 million investment into the women’s game, including part-time contracts for the best players in Australia and minimum payments for all women in Super W squads, was received overwhelmingly positively.

Things are far from all rosy, but it certainly feels like rugby in this country is in a much-improved place right now.

The biggest challenge?

Turning all this goodwill and increased awareness into the tangible, meaningful measurements that mean the most: bums on seats, eyes on screens.

Eddie Jones’ return alone won’t ensure more people actually go to games, and it similarly won’t ensure more people watch games on TV. It might help for the first few weeks, but after that, people are going to need proper reasons.

Which brings us back to what feels like an annual conversation: we’ve got to market the hell out of Super Rugby.

Harry Hoopert of the Reds is tackled during the round one Super Rugby AU match between the Queensland Reds and the New South Wales Waratahs at Suncorp Stadium, on February 19, 2021, in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

(Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

Who are the players we should be watching, what are their stories, why are they going to be stars of the game?

Why are all the Australian teams going to be better than last year? And what’s Eddie doing to raise those standards?

It can’t be Jones doing all the talking from now on. The game needs to start speaking for itself, and the best way it can do that is to start well on the field.

Super Rugby Pacific needs to be the best competition it can be, and it especially needs the Australian sides to start well. New Zealand needs this too, and this would be the perfect time to see the supposed coordinated marketing and production efforts around the game coming to life, to see a consistency of product wherever it’s being played – and especially wherever it’s being watched.

But the challenge for Rugby Australia is much more immediate this next fortnight, and then continuing throughout the season.

They need as many people in Sydney next Friday night as possible, and then the same in Brisbane and Perth on Saturday night. The following week – even though it’s not technically their event – they need to give rugby fans Australia-wide a reason to head to Melbourne for the Super Round weekend. It can’t just be allowed to limp along for a second season.

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Australian rugby needs to start with a bang this year, and for so many reasons.

The new Wallabies coach has been talking a big game, but in order for him to be anywhere even close to delivering on his sales pitch, he’s going to need the five sides playing really well, and the players within them playing with confidence, all so that he can have some semblance of momentum heading into the shortened international season.

We are currently in the Eddie Jones honeymoon, but it will end abruptly if the Australian sides take time to get going this season.

Rugby Australia – and quite specifically the chairman, it would seem – have gone all in on Eddie Jones to deliver, but it will all count for nothing if the Super Rugby teams don’t start well.

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