In rugby union’s battle to encourage more participation, the Wallabies’ unlikely series victory over France comes as a welcome shot in the arm.
In New South Wales, the star players once synonymous with attracting junior talent have all but dried up. And in a winless Super Rugby season where New Zealand-born coach Rob Penney was axed, the Waratahs surpassed the longest losing streak by an Australian side.
For John Muggleton, a former Wallabies defensive coach and now coach of the Penrith Emus in Sydney’s top rugby competition, the Shute Shield, he believes the game’s governing authorities need to have a greater presence at the grassroots level.
“We can’t afford to employ a general manager or club secretary, so it’s a two-edged sword, because they are the people you send out to generate income through sponsorship,” he told Central News.
“If NSW Rugby were equipped to offer a person to assist with GM duties and liaise with schools, that would address two very important elements in one go.”
We’ve had zero success in getting Kiwi coaches over here, because we’re a different breed and like to play a different brand of football.
A three-time premiership winner for the Parramatta Eels, Muggleton’s guidance of rugby’s elite here and abroad spans four decades. At the top, he acknowledges Penney’s replacement with the NSW born Darren Coleman as a step in the right direction.
“We’ve had zero success in getting Kiwi coaches over here, because we’re a different breed and like to play a different brand of football,” he said. “We’ve got to start developing homegrown coaches.
“Darren spent a lot of time in the Shute Shield, and he’s also coached overseas,” he said. “He’s the best recruiter in the business and he’s good at putting teams together, which makes him ideal for NSW, who have lost good players and kept average players for far too long.”
But it’s his fears closer to home that burn brightest. Induced funding cuts that include a 27 per cent reduction to the NSW Rugby workforce has only fast-tracked concerns.
For the established clubs in Sydney’s east, the fading Emus and last placed Two Blues from Parramatta are a growing burden.
Earlier this month The Sunday Telegraph reported six Sydney teams are aligned to tightening the eligibility conditions for the Shute Shield. Approval could mean the death knell for top-grade rugby in Sydney’s west.
Given recent efforts in the junior space, for Muggleton it’s a bitter pill to swallow.
“There’s plenty of kids playing out west. Blacktown has done a great job in building teams, so has the Blue Mountains. And Adam Fletcher has done a great job in establishing the Penrith juniors,” he said.
Fletcher, the founding President of the Penrith RSL Junior Rugby Union Club, is heartened by the largely volunteer driven success, but doesn’t shy from the pitfalls faced in rugby league’s biggest nursery.
“Junior rugby union and league are hosted on separate days, and many kids play both,” Fletcher said. “Our biggest challenge is retention at the Colts level when both codes are played on the same day – and many choose league.”
The trend aligns with the 7.5 per cent drop in juniors aged 12-18 years as reported by Rugby Australia in 2017. And despite a widely known drop in junior numbers among several Sydney clubs and private schools in the years since, the official data is obscure.
Registration management in other codes is so much better, but with limited assistance from the top and a Wallabies focus, we’re losing our reach.
Now with the amount of ‘rugby participation experiences’ combined with club registrations, the number of players legitimately lacing on boots is shrouded in controversy.
For Fletcher, the double standards are a source of frustration.
“It has been a bugbear of mine since I started. Registration management in other codes is so much better, but with limited assistance from the top and a Wallabies focus, we’re losing our reach,” he said.
Muggleton said it’s a reach that needs to be extended.
“When Covid came through and the rugby liaison offices were put off we lost the Indigenous connection. We don’t have one senior player at the Emus of Aboriginal descent,” he said.
The statistic is telling. People of Indigenous descent account for nearly five per cent of the Penrith City Council population, the highest share among Greater Sydney’s local governments.
“Rugby needs to get back into the Indigenous community because they can’t all play rugby league,” Muggleton said. “They are wonderful players and the best thing about them is their skill level raises the standard of the people around them.”
According to Sport Australia, Indigenous Australians account for 0.9 per cent of rugby participants compared to 3.1 per cent in rugby league.
Muggleton outlined the magnitude of the opportunity. “Indigenous footballers probably don’t realise what they can do in rugby,” he added.
“If you look at Kurtley Beale’s story, we should have been able to build on that, the kid from Mount Druitt – it should have been the tip of the pyramid to produce more talent.”
As the scramble for funding in a flooded Australian sports market intensifies, rugby’s share of the pie could only benefit with more entertainers like Beale.
But for a sport treading water, commitment and desire won’t be enough, as Muggleton explained, the monumental shift in women’s sport should serve to inspire rugby officials.
“We’ve seen the advent of NRLW and AFLW. When you work hard at something you can get it done,” he said. “All the resources going into those leagues, rugby needs those resources too – more into junior development to attract the next generation.”
Main picture of Concord Oval by Simon_Sees/Flickr