The wave of schadenfreude spread far and wide, uniting English with Welsh, Kiwis with South Africans. Not since England were knocked out of their own World Cup in the pool stages has a single team’s demise caused so much merriment.
And objectively Eddie Jones’ Australia being all but eliminated from the World Cup is very funny. The hubris of appointing Jones, fresh from a dismal run of results with England, promising a “smash and grab” raid on the tournament in an Akubra hat only to smash head long into defeats to Fiji and Wales is delicious in the extreme.
Nowhere will the sadistic delight be felt more acutely than inside Twickenham where so many were once in thrall to Jones’ bluster and bulls---. Chief executive Bill Sweeney’s decision not to include a gardening leave clause in Jones’ pay-off after sacking him last year now looks like an inspired stroke of genius rather than an act of gross incompetence.
But once the laughter dies down, everyone should be extremely concerned for the state of the game Down Under because no country is more central to rugby’s overall economy in the next six years than Australia. In 2025, they host the Lions series. In 2027, they host the men’s World Cup. In 2029, they host the women’s World Cup.
Rugby union in Australia has been in some form of crisis for much of the past decade. Even reaching the 2015 World Cup final was seen as an aberration in an otherwise long – some would say terminal – decline. The canaries had long ceased to chirp before Jac Morgan was driven over for Wales’ final try in Lyon on Saturday night.
The sporting landscape in Australia is ferociously competitive. Aussie Rules and NRL dominate and rugby has found itself squeezed out by football, men’s and women’s, and even basketball. Even before the defeats by Fiji and Wales, it has been announced that Rugby Australia had pulled out of talks with private equity groups because of disappointing valuations.
Australian rugby union stock is at rock bottom. While Aussie Rules’ broadcasting deal brings in $643 million (£340 million) in annual revenue, union’s deal with Channel Nine and Stan Sport is worth $27 million (£14.2 million) – and indications are that the broadcasters are not in a hurry to renew. That lack of investment has pernicious knock-on effects for the funding of both the professional and grass-roots game.
This creates a vicious circle of declining interest and reduced investment. Respected journalist Jamie Pandaram writes in the Australian Daily Telegraph that “Australian rugby faces becoming an amateur sport, such is the disastrous decline of the game”.
Both the Lions tour and the World Cup are seen by Rugby Australia chairman Hamish McLennan as a panacea for so many of their problems.
However, a Lions tour is predicated on a ferociously competitive series between two well-matched teams. Australia are traditionally seen as the weakest of the three hosts but the last three series have all gone to a third Test decider. Given that Wales just beat Australia by a record margin of 34 points, what incentive do supporters have to shell out a potential five-figure sum to watch the Wallabies get walloped, even if Jones were still in charge?
Not only does this matter for the coffers of Rugby Australia but for the Lions too after the sad, soulless experience of a fan-free tour to South Africa in 2021. Even aside from the limitations created by the Covid pandemic, the series was remarkable only for the awful quality of rugby and the rancour between the sides. An uncompetitive 3-0 whitewash would do the brand no good at a time when many stakeholders are secretly desperate to squeeze what they see as an anachronism out of the global calendar.
There will be further nervous onlookers in World Rugby, whose model of rotating the World Cup between Europe and other markets every four years will be ended when they take the tournament from Australia to the United States in 2031. Given the vast uncertainty of how rugby can tap into the commercial market in North America, especially as the Eagles did not qualify for this year’s World Cup, there is an extra onus on Australia being able to sell out its stadiums.
Then across the Tasman Sea are New Zealand, whose own finances are coming under serious strain. Big losses are projected for this year having already lost $47 million (£23 million) for 2022. Already weakened by the loss of South African franchises from Super Rugby, New Zealand would be left even more isolated if the Australian teams pulled out as has been suggested in some places.
So laugh it up at Eddie. He deserves next to no sympathy for his madcap selections and fanciful predictions. Whether they stick or twist with Jones, rugby as a sport urgently needs the Wallabies to rediscover their swagger as heavyweights.