Thursday 14 December 2017 / 06:00 AM

Championship overkill leaves seats empty

On the eve of the 2014 Rugby Championship’s final act, it remains, all but statistically, impossible for the table to change. With the All Blacks on top and Argentina cradling only a smattering of points, South Africa and Australia strong at home but vulnerable on the road, the league makes for all-too familiar reading. Since the positive introduction of Argentina in 2012, outcomes have looked no different. 

There have been highlights along the way, with Los Pumas holding The Springboks to a draw in Mendoza in 2012, and then taking Australia to the wire in Perth in 2013. Largely due to the huge physicality of this code, however, upsets are rare – especially if starting XVs know each other inside-out. On too many occasions, Argentina has come close to glory, before being outmuscled when whichever of the triumvirate they face discover another gear.

The Qantas Wallabies did cause a minor upset at the beginning of the 2014 tournament when they ended New Zealand’s charge at a record 18 successive victories. Kurtley Beale kicked four penalties to match the 12 points from Aaron Cruden’s boot that day, earning a draw in Sydney.

Presumably, the pair is reliving the try-less affair together on the naughty step this weekend, as their respective nations prepare to draw the curtain on another tournament. But it is another statistic – not just Beale’s off-the-field antics – that is damaging the image of Australian rugby union at present.

In 2012, the average attendance at the Rugby Championship’s 12 matches was 45,627, with a high of 88,739 and a low of 22,278. This year (albeit with two matches to go) the average is 32,671, with a high of just 68,627 and a low of 14,281. This last figure was the measly turnout for Australia’s game against Argentina at Cbus Super Stadium on the Gold Coast. It was the lowest attendance at an Australian home rugby union Test match this century. 

It’s well-known that the Gold Coast is not a hotbed for union, but the Queensland Reds rarely draw less than 27,000 to their Suncorp Stadium base for Super Rugby. The decision to move matches around the country for the Rugby Championship (as all four nations do) is both an enterprising move for the Australian Rugby Union (ARU), and a deserved reward for fans who cannot travel to Sydney. But barely filling half of a 27,400 capacity stadium is embarrassing, and the impact upon the Wallabies was evident that day, as they narrowly escaped to victory with a poor display against the Pumas.

To this date in the 2014 Rugby Championship, attendances (as a percentage of capacity) have approximately averaged 97 per cent in New Zealand, 85 per cent in Argentina, and 72 per cent in South Africa, compared to just 63 per cent in Australia.

SANZAR and the ARU have to stem plunging attendances in Australia, and focus on avoiding overkill in an already jam-packed season.

In the World Cup year 2015, the Rugby Championship will only consist of six matches, with each nation playing each other once over four weekends (the third is a rest weekend). With player welfare of increasing concern, this provides participants, and fans alike, with a fresh mentality ahead of each Test. The All Blacks, who have won all but six of the 18 Tri Nations and Rugby Championships, will only play at home once (against The Wallabies), giving South Africa their best chance of winning the title for the first time since 2009. 

The last time Australia topped the table was the World Cup year of 2011, when the three nations played each other twice, rather than on three occasions which, at the time, was the standard format.

The romance of Europe’s Six Nations is contained in the challenge of only playing each other once in a season (with the exception of World Cup years). It is the cauldron of atmosphere that the home support conjures at the arrival of old foes with new malice; the novelty that visiting fans thrive on; and the extra home fixture enjoyed by three of the six nations on alternate years. 

Incidentally, the Six Nations tournament leads the way for attendances in all international competitions worldwide, with an average of 69,531 spectators in 2013, despite matches only producing a mean of 2.47 tries in comparison with 5.5 tries per match in The Rugby Championship.

SANZAR still has to finalise the new, convoluted 18-team format of Super Rugby (from 2016) that will include an Argentine domestic team, and a side from either Japan or Singapore. Despite claims it won’t, this will no doubt impact The Rugby Championship. While they consider sponsorship, gate takings, broadcasting deals, domestic favour, international timezones and player welfare, SANZAR should bear in mind that less is often more. 

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Tom Pountney

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