When the new Super Rugby franchise was awarded to Melbourne, there was a healthy bout of scepticism doing the rounds in South Africa as to whether Australia’s second most populous city — with four million inhabitants — would take to rugby union.
Melbourne was passed over in 2005, when a new franchise for the then Super 14 was awarded to Perth. Victoria’s capital was left to the Australian Football League once more, a familiar tale with “footie” already established in the hearts and minds of Victorians as Australia’s best and most popular sport.
Fast forward to 2011 and the Melbourne Rebels are now a living part of the Super Rugby landscape. So have the Melbourne Rebels proved worthy of the Super 15?
While the performances on the field by Rod McQueen’s side have been nothing but unpredictable, with their mauling of the Hurricanes this week following a capitulation at the hands of the Reds the week before in Brisbane, Aami Park is seeing some of the better crowds in Australia this Super Rugby season. With a capacity of 30 000 and an excellent view provided anywhere within the stadium (it was only finished in 2010, which might be why it is so spectator friendly) Melbourne has posted crowds that cross the 15 000 barrier every week thus far. Even after their humiliating loss to the Waratahs in week one, where more than 24 000 people turned up for the inaugural game, the expected collapse in spectator confidence did not take place. Melbourne has a team and those who live in the city are already showing the same sort of fanaticism that can be found in places such as Cape Town and Christchurch.
Their membership system, slightly different from the supporters’ clubs back in South Africa, is already nearly on par with the more established packages offered by the traditional heavyweights of Australian rugby, the Reds and the Waratahs. A high membership subscription represents a core base of support which the franchise can draw revenue from and sell to advertisers as an indicator of the team’s popularity in Melbourne. While it should be admitted that when visiting teams come to Aami Park, expatriates do boost attendance numbers (at the recent Sharks game I spotted a healthy smattering of Sharks jerseys). Without local support the stadium wouldn’t offer a riveting and friendly atmosphere, which is already becoming a staple of the Rebels brand.
What’s even more impressive is how the Rebels have tapped into the hidden rugby union market in the city and bringing it to the sports pages in a city that is obsessed with the Australian Football League (AFL). Yes, the AFL is still far and away the biggest bread winner among Melbourne’s sporting franchises but rugby union here has been given a shot in the arm, which will serve the grassroots of the game in the city. Each player within the Melbourne Rebels squad has been allocated to a local club, where they will offer their assistance and expertise to help improve rugby’s quality and visibility in Victoria’s capital. It’s a small start but an important one if rugby wishes to offer itself as a viable alternative to that of Australian Rules, soccer and rugby league.
After I got off the train on the way to the Rebels-Hurricanes clash, I walked down a tunnel that hits a T-junction. At that divide, if you turn right, is the direction of the MCG, the cathedral and spiritual home of Australian Rules. To the left lays the path towards Aami Park and rugby union. Before I turned left, I paused for a moment and watched the crowds descend into the tunnel and raise their flag of sporting affiliation. Right or left? While the majority of patrons turned right, a significant number of people turned left, almost parting in a fashion reminiscent of the Red Sea as the respective faithful went to their dominions to once again pay heed to the sporting gods.
Last year, there wasn’t anyone going left to go watch rugby union. This year, rugby union came alive in Melbourne and for a city that is adamant in its reputation of being Australia’s sporting capital, that just about sounds right.