Following a seven-try rout of Les Bleus in the Brisbane opener, a disappointing crowd of 27,000 turned up to the 55,000-capacity Docklands stadium on Saturday and may have expected more than the error-strewn spectacle served up from both sides.
Neither could blame the elements. The stadium’s roof was closed, shielding the pitch from drizzle over the city and offering sublime conditions for rugby.
Still scoreless after 52 minutes, jeers rang out from the depleted crowd as new captain Michael Hooper indicated Australia would shun the chance of setting up a try and instead take a kick at the posts after France were penalised in their own half.
The Wallabies deserved credit for holding off the visitors in a tense final few minutes to secure the win but the final siren merely heralded a storm of criticism on social media.
“Grind is the operative word, it was boring rubbish and if the Administration of Rugby Union want to put some bums on seats then they need to do something about the terrible spectacle that took place in Melbourne last night,” fumed one critic on a Fairfax Media website.
While the game enjoys captive audiences in southern hemisphere rivals New Zealand and South Africa, it remains down the pecking order in Australia where the indigenous football code and rugby league carve up a lion’s share of the market.
Fifteen years after the second of the Wallabies’ two World Cup triumphs and more than a decade of domination by neighbour New Zealand, rugby has lost ground and the Australian Rugby Union (ARU) is battling to staunch the red ink.
The ARU have spent millions in a bid to establish a rugby foothold in Melbourne, the country’s second largest city where nine Australian Football League (AFL) teams are based and compete the top-flight Australian Rules football competition.
The AFL has also invested a fortune in building a presence in Sydney.
Though traditional rugby league country, a crowd of more than 41,000 flocked to the Sydney Cricket Ground to watch a regular AFL championship match between the local Sydney Swans and competition leaders Port Adelaide.
That significantly outstripped the 33,000 that turned out for the Wallabies’ series-opener against France at Lang Park, underscoring the ARU’s challenge.
CHARACTER AND GRIT
After former coach Robbie Deans was jettisoned in the wake of the British and Irish Lions series loss last year, new coach Ewen McKenzie was installed on a ticket promising on-field success and a style of game to bring back the crowds that once crammed the country’s major stadiums a decade ago.
The dour, territorial game executed by the Wallabies at Docklands is unlikely to have been on the brochure.
Fans witnessed the curious sight of explosive fullback Israel Folau, a player whose entire modus operandi is to run with ball in hand wherever and whenever, punch the air with a string of tame kicks that reaped little tactical advantage.
However ugly, the Wallabies won their sixth match in succession, and McKenzie rightly pointed out that previous incarnations of the team would have folded under pressure when the French threatened to steal the points with a late try.
“Everyone would like to see us maybe throw the ball around our own quarter but when you’re on 0-0 it’s not the smartest way to play the test match,” McKenzie said.
“The idea is always to go out there and score tries.
“Regardless of what gets written we showed great character and grit and in the end we toughed out a game that was complicated tactically and we won it.
“Maybe in the past we wouldn’t have won it. I was pleased at least we’re showing from week to week we’re finding ways to win.”
Fending off a France side that effectively fielded a ‘B’ team in the series-opener may be one thing, but finding a way to beat the world champion All Blacks will be the true test of the Wallabies’ development under McKenzie.
The grinding Melbourne win underlined the former test prop’s intent to build a team “for all seasons”, and ultimately one that can win next year’s World Cup.
But while the team remains a work-in-progress, winning over the fans may take a back seat, meaning more headaches for the ARU.
(Reporting by Ian Ransom in Melbourne; Editing by John O’Brien)