Rugby can learn from soccer's Wanderers
Sam Bruce
November 5, 2014
Rugby can learn from the way soccer's Wanderers have engaged with fans in western Sydney © Getty Images

Take a bow, Western Sydney Wanderers. To go from fledgling A-League club to Asian champions in two seasons is an amazing effort.

The Wanderers' triumph in Saudi Arabia at the weekend is Australian football's biggest achievement since the Socceroos qualified for the World Cup, for the first time in 32 years, back in 2006; it is an achievement that deserves its recognition by the broader sporting public. But the Wanderers' success isn't confined to their on-field exploits. The way in which the club has conducted its off-field business is something to behold, and it highlights the glaring deficiencies in rugby union's treatment of western Sydney.

General Manager of Parramatta Rugby Club, Michael Bell, is one man taking up the fight on rugby's behalf after his beloved Two Blues almost faded into rugby oblivion several years ago.

"What is needed is a full review of the ARU structure and role so that it becomes the administrator of the entire game, not just the elite level." Bell told ESPN. "There are too many governing bodies. In NSW alone we have ARU, NSWRU, Waratahs Inc, Sydney Rugby Union, Country Rugby Union, NSW Suburban, NSW Juniors, Country Juniors and Sydney juniors. And that does not include any of the school unions and structures.

Rugby's Western Sydney Woes

  • Junior numbers in the Parramatta district made a small increase in 2014 after six years of decline.
  • The AFL has 24 development officers in western Sydney, rugby has one.

"Whether I read about rugby in the daily papers or online, whenever someone from the ARU refers to the importance of western Sydney I just laugh. It is nothing more than a rehearsed line. They quite simply are not delivering on what they are saying which draws me to the conclusion that it is nothing more than lip service."

Rugby is fighting for its identity in an area where rugby league dominates, where the Wanderers' success rolls on, and where AFL is on the rise. But rather than begrudge his soccer rivals their recent success, Bell believes rugby can use the Wanderers' blueprint to achieve fan engagement of its own.

Over 2000 fans welcomed the Wanderers home at Sydney airport © Getty Images

"It has to begin with fan engagement," Bell said. "The Wanderers started, as we know with nothing, they actually employed people who were familiar with the broad ethnicity of the area and said 'righto, let's get fan engagement right'. They ran competitions to write the club song, they ran competitions to design the club jersey, and straight away they got buy-in from the public as a result of it. And when it was announced they were coming into the A-League, they spent their first year building a supporter base without even kicking a ball.

"More importantly they listened to the people, they said 'how do you want your club to be'? Then they delivered. In rugby they talk about the importance of the west, but deliver nothing."

New South Wales Waratahs' Super Rugby success is easily the standout story in an otherwise dire 2014 for Australian rugby. A record Super Rugby crowd was on hand at ANZ Stadium to see Michael Cheika's side lift the trophy after 19 years of waiting, presenting the NSW Rugby Union with the perfect launching pad for growth in western Sydney. Bell said the Super Rugby final proved people in western Sydney were prepared to support rugby; they just need a little more encouragement to do so.

"In rugby they talk about the importance of the west, but deliver nothing." Parramatta GM Michael Bell talks about the lack of support for rugby in Sydney's west.

"ANZ [Stadium] had 62,000 for the Super Rugby final and that was a competition record; that shows that they'll get there," he said. "The thing about ANZ is that the people from the east complain about how hard it is to get there, so they stay at home and watch it or they go to the pub and watch it. But that 62,000, I'd love to know what the percentage was of people that came from west of Homebush to watch that final because I reckon it would be more than 50%.

"The ARU must take responsibility for the state of the game. But the problem is they are stuck in their Mosman bunkers and think everything is fine."

Bell even suggested the Waratahs could work directly with the Wanderers, and offer members of the A-League club discounted tickets to a Super Rugby match in Parramatta.

"The marketing of the game needs dramatic improvement," he said. "The Waratahs won the title this year, now is the time to take advantage of that. Think outside the square. Take the game to the people for a change. Take a game (or two) to Parramatta Stadium. Do a deal with the Wanderers, and or the Eels, on a two-for-one offer and get the crowds in the gate.

"Promote the sport for a change. You've only got to look at the way the Wanderers crowds meet at a designated spot and march to the ground singing their songs together. I'm not going to say that's going to happen for rugby but it shows that the people are there and willing to support main stream western Sydney based sport. Why not say 'hey listen, we want to take a Super Rugby game to Parramatta Stadium so we'll offer your Wanderers members and supporters 50% off tickets'. All of a sudden it fills the ground, it looks great on TV and people say 'rugby's got a crowd, they must be doing something right'."

The Waratahs could host lower-profile opponents such as the Lions in Parramatta © Getty Images

A Waratahs match in Parramatta may seem like an obscure exercise; but with Allianz Stadium crowds hovering around the 20,000 mark, a shift to the western venue would likely generate a positive response and create a wonderful atmosphere at the smaller ground.

Bell said he'd raised the prospect with the NSW Rugby Union.

"I spoke with Jason Allen [outgoing Waratahs chief executive] a few years ago and said 'why don't you take two games a year out to Parramatta Stadium'? And he looked at me with this quizzed look on his face and I said 'mate, you'll fill it'.

"He said, 'no we won't and we won't get paid a million bucks to take the game there'. It was all about the dollars."

Bell said a taskforce was needed to right the rugby ship at all levels of the game.

"What the game needs is a 'Rugby Rescue Task Force'," he said. "My guess is that we'd just get lots of platitudes but little practical support from the ARU. They aren't financial enough or set up to do anything meaningful for grass roots rugby and are leaving it up to a small local club with the smallest budget in the Shute Shield competition. We don't have the resources to make anything other than a slow improvement."

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Sam Bruce is the Associate Editor of ESPNscrum in Australia and New Zealand

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