It was extra time at Sydney’s Stadium Australia in the 2003 Rugby World Cup Final when, with only seconds left on the clock, English fly-half Jonny Wilkinson scored the field goal that would break Australian hearts and deliver the English their only World Cup title to date.
Since that moment, Australian rugby has been on the decline, with a dwindling following, reports of mismanagement and poor governance, and an almost $10 million deficit being racked up in 2019.
But it wasn’t always this way. After the 2003 Rugby World Cup, the sport was flush with cash – Rugby Australia had banked a whopping $40 million profit after hosting the tournament.
Throughout the 1980s and 90s, the Wallabies had set the international standard with their fast running rugby, and when the game turned professional in the mid-90s, players like David Campese, John Eales and George Gregan were household names.
The Wallabies had won the Rugby World Cup twice – 1991 and 1999 – and in the early 2000s, Rugby Australia had poached a number of high profile rugby league players with Mat Rogers, Wendell Sailor and Lote Tuquiri all making the switch to the 15-man game.
The Bledisloe Cup match between Australia and New Zealand in July of 2000 still holds the world record for the highest attendance at a game of rugby, when only weeks before the Sydney Olympics were due to start: 109,874 fans crammed into Stadium Australia to witness what rugby critics have since dubbed the greatest Test ever.
So how did the code with all the money go broke?
Jessica Halloran is the chief sports writer with The Australian and the new podcast The Breakdown investigates this and how the game has fallen to its lowest standing in the Australian psyche.
Part of the problem may be that administrators have lacked the vision to grow the game beyond the traditional private school base, despite such opportunities as the on-field success in the early 2000s, and the Queensland Reds Super Rugby title in 2011. The year the Reds took out the top spot, they were attracting more people to home games than league counterparts, the Broncos, and were playing the most scintillating brand of rugby that any Australian team has produced in the modern era.
It’s a brilliant insight into all levels of the game in Australia, with just about everyone who’s been involved at the elite level, both on and off the field, having been interviewed for the podcast.
Specifically, Jessica looks at the culture wars that have led to the loss of sponsorship and broadcast deals, with one entire episode being devoted to the Israel Folou saga of 2019.
You can listen to The Breakdown wherever you get your podcasts.