It’s with some heaviness of heart, and not a small tinge of confusion, that I provide a first-hand account of watching the NSW Waratahs at the SFS last Saturday night.
I’d travelled from Melbourne to Sydney over Easter and found out a few school mates were heading to the game. I had time to burn, but something was holding me back from immediately saying yes.
Was I going to give my ‘entertainment dollar’ to the Waratahs? Was I subconsciously craving to be in 2001 again? I actually felt a bit repulsed at myself for considering it, but then I realised: I wanted to go because I wanted to try and understand why Rugby was so shit now.
You see, as a high schooler I was into the Waratahs. I wasn’t the embodiment of Waratahs culture, but I was close enough. I wore Ralph Lauren polo’s, played rugby union during my (private) schooling, I respected male adults who wore white Waratahs caps, tucked their shirts into their pants, and who also wore boat shoes.
I went up to the park and kicked torpedos relentlessly. A drop-punt seemed so functional, so up and down. Before we scrutinised the shit out of absolutely everything I was sure torpedos were more aerodynamic. They were so damned symmetrical; much like Rod McQueen’s famed Wallabies of 1999-2001.
And so I went. There I was in Moore Park – the balmy night, the Swans crowd leaving the ground looking weird and incongruous amongst the backdrop of the SFS and SCG as usual, the Waratahs crowd looking Presidential in the main – caps, boatshoes, collars, corporate, talking about some backrower or other using late 90s private school parlance like “he’s a beast”. Same people, same chat. I was in a time warp.
We get into the ground, and we’ve missed a try. ‘This is good’, my optimistic self thinks. ‘Open game. Running Rugby’. They say cynics are just idealists with defensive personalities and awkwardly high standards. As I walk up the steps of Bay 22 I’ve privately released the shackles of my cynicism and am prepared to dream.
I get my first sight of the playing field. Shit, the SFS, or Allianz or whatever, is pretty much a barren wasteland. Whereas once 35,000 fans packed in to see Scott Staniforth use his ‘pace’ to return a Percy Montgomery-from-the-Western-Stormers-torpedo, on Saturday night there can’t have been more than 8,346 people there – a 1993 Parramatta v Easts Rugby League crowd featuring Michael Erikson and Rod Silva if there ever was one.
The Waratahs were playing the Bulls of course – a team that probably has 15 internationals and a smattering of World Cup winners – but one without much profile here nonetheless.
We bought GA tickets and walked straight to the reserve seating section, happily ushered in by a ground steward likely under instruction to fill up the TV areas. It was feet-on-seats stuff. The space we had was inversely proportionate to the tightness of the Sydney sporting market. It was sad and weird.
After we’d taken our seats, I was actually pretty transfixed. The rugby was unexpectedly good so now my mind was swimming. The passing was slick, the ball was recycled quickly, there was a beautiful flow – the sort of flow that Rugby League will never have. The sort of flow that AFL sometimes has, though I think you need to have grown up in Melbourne to understand what AFL flow is.
The kicking was precise, options were taken decisively, Israel looked dangerous. Folau really was better than everyone on the field – he looked bigger and faster, though Waratahs fans will be quick to point out that he unfairly steals attention from Dave Dennis etc.
I work at a large corporate whose current mantra centres on building advocates. Much as I don’t want to admit it, the symbiosis of me working at a corporate, going to the Waratahs and contemplating customer advocacy was pure. I grew up in leafy suburbs. I am who I am. And I was becoming an advocate.
But then the game kind of stopped. All sorts of shit was happening at breakdowns – I had no idea what, though. The Waratahs started throwing repeated forward passes, which was strange more than anything. They couldn’t get through two phases without earning a penalty for some Bulls misdemeanour or another.
They’d launch an efficient, functional drop punt for touch. Scrums were set and reset. The game really had just jolted hard, like a car stalling repeatedly. Then it was halftime and it was 13-6.
It occurred to me that the initial holy flow of the game must have been too much to bear for the opposition. And doesn’t this shit always happen in Rugby? Rhythm must be stifled. The only way to cope with rhythm is to kill it. Do weird shit in rucks, slow shit up, slow the game down, and have a better kicker.
It was incredible to see that even the Waratahs marketing team – or whatever they call their match-day experience department – recognise this. During breaks in play (and there were numerous) fans were treated to musical interludes of Will Smith’s ‘Gettin Jiggy Wit It’. Jesus. Maybe it was 2001.
Things lightened up at half time though. The ultra-patchy crowd was treated to a U15s girls Sevens thriller between a Pacific Islands representative team and the (relatively speaking) local Canterbury team.
Both teams defended valiantly, spun it wide and promoted the ball. It may as well have been the background footage for the 1991 Running Rugby commercial (Run-and-a-dive-and-a-push-and-a-jive-and-a-it’s-a-gonna-get-a-you-you-gotta-keep-a-one-step-a-two-step-a-three-step-a-goose-step). The Islanders ran out winners, though Canterbury only had 6 players so this was to be expected. Rugby was the real winner, however.
And didn’t the second half peter out (much like this piece)? I really can’t remember much, and there’s little to say. The Waratahs won 19-12 courtesy of further goal kicking.
Ultimately I’m scared. I don’t know if Rugby’s changed or if I’ve changed. I’d venture that a hard- fought 19-12 victory over strong South African opposition was credible in 2001. This was a victory that cemented NSW in the top 6 or whatever, and has them on course for a finals berth. The Holy Grail – the Super Rugby title – is alive. In 2001, my 16 year old self may have left Moore Park buoyed by the display.
Then again, in any way you look at it the game was a lacklustre, humdrum spectacle save for the opening ten minutes. This goes beyond simply needing to be entertained. This is about Rugby’s potential versus Rugby’s reality.
What is the solution to Rugby’s ills? Realistically it’s probably just winning the Bledisloe Cup.
By Sam Perry