In the southern hemisphere, Australia and New Zealand have five cities that play host to both professional rugby league and union teams.
The game has a wide reach throughout the region; Australasia, the Pacific, and across the Southern Hemisphere. Fan loyalty can be engrained, although, at times, it might be whichever game has the most excitement, that earns the cities entertainment dollar.
New Zealand, with its famous ‘All Blacks’ rugby union team is considered the most successful and famous rugby union side globally. Similarly, in rugby league, the famous ‘Kangaroos’ in Australia are the more popular and the most successful team across the globe. Rugby League is also a sport that Australia has dominated for decades.
The Australian ‘Wallabies’ union side won two Rugby World Cups, in 1999 and 2003. That is one less than the New Zealand side (or South Africa) yet, Australia has had years where they led the game. However, this is currently not the case.
Furthermore, New Zealand has one pro sports team in the NRL, to compete against the majority of Aussies. Notably, the ‘Kiwis’ are the only other nation besides Australia to win the Men’s Rugby League World Cup since 1975. That stat alone showing how league is predominantly strongest in the southern hemisphere.
The shared interest is one of the reason there are five cities in total from Super Rugby and the National Rugby League (NRL) that share cities. That proves how a history of shared success allows both to co-exist.
Cities with Rugby League and Union in the Southern Hemisphere
Firstly, we examine the prominence of cities on the eastern seaboard of Australia. The more populated states are where four metropolitan areas house both union and league.
Brisbane Broncos/Queensland Reds
Every Australian Super Rugby city also has an NRL team. Brisbane is no exception to this. They currently house a pro rugby union team, the Queensland Reds and pro rugby league team, the Brisbane Broncos.
The Brisbane Broncos are by far the most attended rugby league team in the world. They won six Premierships and two World Club Challenges. The most decorated team in Australia over the last three decades. Founded in 1988, the Broncos drew an average attendance 29,521 fans per game in 2019 according to all about rugby league.
This is not just the highest attendance in the NRL, but of any rugby league club in the world. Their pro rugby union team, the Queensland Reds averaged 11,352 fans per game according to Georgina Robinson and Chris Dutton of The Sydney Morning Herald.
The rugby union team is older than its rugby league counterpart. However, Brisbane represents a trend seen in most of Australia where rugby union is becoming less popular.
The first Australian rugby union team to win Super Rugby was the Queensland Reds. The team from Brisbane won the Super Rugby title in 2011.
Whether rugby union can regain the wide margin of fan interest is in the hands of the Reds current coach Brad Thorn; one player who had tremendous success in both codes of the game.
Canberra Raiders/ ACT Brumbies
Canberra is the capital city of Australia. It is one of two state capital cities to have both a professional rugby league and union team. It is also currently the only capital city in the world to have a first-tier rugby league and union team.
Their rugby league team the Canberra Raiders have won three Premierships in the NRL and has won one minor premiership. They play at Canberra Stadium, where they averaged 14,864 fans per game last year, good enough for fifth in NRL attendance. They made the finals in 2019.
However, their rugby union team the Brumbies are struggling with attendance. In the 2019 Super Rugby season, the Brumbies averaged over 10,000 fans only twice according to Austadiums.com.
According to Robinson and Dutton of The Sydney Morning Herald, this is what he said:
“The low crowds aren’t sustainable from a business side of things. The people of Canberra need to show their support for the Brumbies and their appreciation for how they’ve performed,” Brumbies boss Phil Thomson said.
The popularity of the rugby league is much greater than rugby union is right now in Australia. Canberra is just one example of that.
Melbourne Storm/Melbourne Rebels
Melbourne, the capital city of Victoria, unlike the previous cities on this list is not a traditional rugby hotbed. However, similar to the previous cities on this list rugby league seems to be the preferred code. The capital city of Victoria is a genuine sporting hub. Some of the sports played in the city include basketball, Australian rules football, cricket, and soccer.
Melbourne Storm was formed in 1998 to grow the game of rugby league in a sports-crazed city. In 2019, they had an attendance average of 16,239 fans per game. The Storm has won three Premierships, four Minor Premierships, and three World Club Challenges. The financial success of the Storm since its inception has shown that rugby league can thrive in non-traditional rugby cities.
They are also the older of the two pro rugby teams. The other code of rugby, the Melbourne Rebels, has been in existence since 2010. However, unlike the Storm, the Rebels have not been successful in Super Rugby. In all their seasons in Super Rugby, the Rebels have failed to register a winning record.
The only exception currently is the 2020 Super Rugby season. They currently have a record of three wins and three losses before the coronavirus pandemic forced the league to be delayed. As a result, the Rebels almost lost their Super Rugby license in 2017. Furthermore, according to shrugbyblog.com, the 2018 rugby union average attendance for the Rebels was only 9,821 fans per game.
However, looking at the positives, Melbourne is an extremely hard city to gain traction. It is a sporting hotbed and according to Xinhua of ChinaDaily.com, was voted as the sports city of the decade beating cities like London, New York City, and fellow Australian city Sydney in 2016.
Sydney Roosters/New South Wales Waratahs
The last Australian city from the southern hemisphere is Sydney. The most populous and financial centre of Australia, Sydney – like Melbourne – is a sports haven. Their rugby union team, the New South Wales Waratahs (NSW) entered the professional era in 1996. Since 2011, they have been in Super Rugby, a competition with almost all the professional sports teams in the southern hemisphere.
The NSW Waratahs drew an average attendance of 11,569 fans per game in the 2019 Super Rugby season. The Waratahs won the 2014 Super Rugby championship defeating the Crusaders from Christchurch, New Zealand.
Pumped for our victory celebration with fans and NSW Premier @mikebairdMP from 12pm in Martin Place today. Join us! pic.twitter.com/kL2LWPRi8n
— NSW Waratahs (@NSWWaratahs) August 5, 2014
Sydney has nine professional rugby league teams. One of them, the Sydney Roosters is situated in the Eastern Suburbs of Sydney. The other one in Redfern, a suburb of inner-southern Sydney is called the South Sydney Rabbitohs.
The Roosters are one of Sydney’s most decorated teams, winning the Premiership 15 times, the Minor Premiership 20 times, and won the World Club Challenges five times.
Back to back Premiers 🐓 #ShoutTheCry #EastsToWin #NRLGF pic.twitter.com/ycBr0BuN5L
— Sydney Roosters 🏆🏆 (@sydneyroosters) October 6, 2019
The average attendance was 15,677 fans per game last year according to all about rugby league. The Rabbitohs also have higher attendance than the Waratahs. Their average attendance in 2019 was 13,877 fans per game according to all about rugby league.
According to Giancarlo Ferrari-King of Bleacher Report, Sydney was voted as one of the top 10 international sports destinations outside of the U.S. It would make sense that the financial centre of Australia would have a prominent role in the sporting landscape of the world. The same can be said of Auckland, which also has a thriving sports scene.
New Zealand – proud history of two codes
The fact that both codes can co-exist in any country is common. In the United Kingdom, and Samoa, Fiji, and Tonga, each have players that naturally follow the pathway. But in New Zealand, the biggest city has naturally become the home for both professional sides to share the stage.
Auckland, the financial centre and most populous city of New Zealand is the last city on this list from the southern hemisphere.
(Auckland) Blues/ New Zealand Warriors
Their rugby league team, the New Zealand Warriors averaged 13,831 fans per game in the 2019 NRL season according to all about rugby league. They were officially formed as the Auckland Warriors, but for sponsorship reasons are now called the Vodafone Warriors.
The Warriors have never won a Premiership, but they have been two-time runners-up in the Premiership. In addition, they have won a Minor Premiership and have won three Holden Cups. The rugby league in New Zealand is centred mostly in Auckland. This was the case ever since the New Zealand Rugby League was founded in 1909.
Auckland has a thriving rugby union base. According to Ben Strang of stuff.co.nz, Auckland was one of only four cities in Super Rugby to have an attendance increase. They had an increase of 18.27 percent from 2015-17. The attendance of the Blues was 13,128 fans per game according to stuff.co.nz. This is almost identical to the attendance of the Warriors.
However, one must take into effect that the Blues have not had a winning record in Super Rugby since 2011. Taking this into account, the popularity of both the Blues and the Warriors in Auckland are probably equal in Auckland.
Overview of Rugby League and Union in the Southern Hemisphere
According to Nic Savage of news.com.au, the attendance of Super Rugby games in Australia is going down. In the 2015 season, Australian teams drew an average of 16,898 fans per game. Four years later in 2019, the Australian rugby union teams drew only an average of 11,300 fans per game. According to Ruck, rugby union is the 26th most popular sport in Australia. The sport of rugby union in Australia is below sports like soccer, baseball, and netball.
In terms of the number of players in Australia playing rugby league is 17th. The professional sports teams’ popularity in Australia reflects that. The sport of rugby union is losing popularity in Australia, while rugby league is still a popular spectator sport in Australia.
It was surprising to find a higher attendance in rugby league than the union in Auckland. However, in some ways, it is to be expected. Auckland is New Zealand’s team in rugby league, which is not the case in rugby union.
There may not be too much growth in the number of cities having both rugby league and union in the southern hemisphere – Perth at one time was involved in Super Rugby but, not at the same time as when it once had a league team in the Super League era.
However, when or if it happens, there will probably be a second New Zealand team in the NRL. If that is based in Wellington [home of the Hurricanes] or Christchurch [home of the Crusaders], then it will build on the popularity of both codes; and prove that each has a place in Southern Hemisphere sport.
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