They have been warring codes since the beginning of time. Rugby League and Rugby Union, the breakway game that is League has been long remember as the little brother. Union boasting widespread international support and an enviable Super 14 Tournament that throws up the best from several continents against each other regularly.
Had it not been for the Super League / ARL war in the mid 1990’s – it’s quite possible that will its growing strength and nationwide expansion that League couldn’t have really buried Rugby Union for the most part.
Up until now, Union has enjoyed good widespread growth and even the poaching of big name players from League as they build their arsenal. However it seems the tide is well and truly swinging back the other way. Recently reappointed head of Rugby Union, John O’Neill only last week flagged trouble with the ARU coffers in dire need of topping up – as previously lucrative corporate sponsorships continue to dry up.
While Union has good high level support for their international tournament, the same can’t be said for their club Rugby offering in Australia. Crowds that number less than a few hundred and non-existent corporate sponsorships make for dire viewing. They like to think Rugby Union is a running game, but whenever I have watched it – I tend to find any excuse to get away from the stop start, penalty fest I usually see before my eyes. It’s impossible for this local competition to even compete against the professionalism of NRL on a weekly basis.
The Union crowd however have been able to dodge the shambles that is club Rugby in recent years on the back of Super 14 success. However, even this charade is starting to cave in – at least in Australia. Poor results for several of the State teams and consistently poor Wallabies results are seeing the crowds and the big backers in the corporate world pull away – leaving massive holes.
While the chips are down in Union town, Rugby League needs to strike while the iron is hot. The NRL must work overtime in what is their Centenary year to really jump ahead in the on-going code war. Strong promotions and smart partnerships where possible to ensure larger and consistent crowds are a must and most importantly individual club memberships must be increased in a similar vain to what South Sydney are trying to do.
Relationships with strategic corporate partners need to be established now as the game becomes more attractive and profitable through growing TV and screening rights deals.
The NRL fan day today at ANZ Stadium is another step in the right direction, ensuring grass roots production of League talent and the early establishment of a connection between young fans and future supported clubs.
So as those Super League / ARL war wounds are finally starting to heal, the game of Rugby League has the chance to really get ahead of it’s no. 1 rival Rugby Union. The NRL needs to grab this opportunity with both hands, because while they might play Union in heaven – there will never be any doubt that Rugby League is “The Greatest Game of All”