MELBOURNE, Australia — The walk from Flinders Street Station to AAMI Park — the city’s boutique, rectangular stadium — isn’t the most popular route for Melburnians on a wintery Saturday afternoon.
Local sporting fans don’t often venture to these parts in great numbers as it’s pretty clear which football code reigns supreme in this city — the one played with 50m arcs and an odd-shaped ball over the road at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.
But when the AFL fixture revealed a shortened bye round and just one mediocre Saturday afternoon match in Melbourne, there was hope yet that an injection of international rugby may cause a stir in the self-proclaimed sporting capital of the world and maybe, just maybe, the ARU’s decision would be repaid in kind.
After all, the Wallabies had only played four Tests in Melbourne in the last six years and their clash with Fiji loomed as a great opportunity for those down south to catch a glimpse of their national team in action.
“It’s probably the nicest day we’ve had in Melbourne for months,” said Chris Harrison, 24, a local rugby union fanatic. “We only really get the chance to see the Wallabies once a year, so it’s very exciting.”
But an hour before kick-off you’d have been forgiven for thinking this Test was about to be played under the blue skies of Suva. The Fijians had turned out in force sporting crazy blue wigs, hoisting flags and breaking out in song some 500 metres away from the ground. They had easily, yet sadly, outnumbered their Australian rivals.
Of course there were a few Wallabies jerseys dotted around, but their support seemed far more subdued – something which continued into the match despite Australia running out convincing 37-14 winners.
So what was the attendance? 13,583. The smallest crowd for a Wallabies Test in Melbourne this millennium.
The dismal turnout for the home side mirrored the awful campaigns of the five Australian franchises in this season’s Super Rugby competition, all of whom have a negative win-loss record after 13 matches.
As a result, crowds and television ratings have diminished which ultimately resulted in SANZAAR’s decision to swing the axe and cut one Australian side from next year’s competition.
The ARU is fortunate they can stage Tests at the smaller AAMI Park as it somewhat masks the lack of attendance. Had this match been played at Etihad Stadium, where far more vacant seats would have been visible, calls for Tests to be taken away from Melbourne would surely have come.
Harrison says the only way Melburnians will embrace union, even if for a day, is if they are offered the opportunity to watch the world’s best.
“Only the All Blacks or maybe the [British & Irish] Lions will [attract in excess of 50,000 fans],” he said. “There’s so much sport going on here that it needs to really stand out for there to be interest, otherwise it’s just eyes on the next thing.”
This idea of showcase the best and the fans will flock proved true just 20 hours earlier over the road at the Melbourne Cricket Ground when powerhouse football nations Brazil and Argentina collided in a friendly that attracted a mammoth crowd of 95,569.
Granted, this was a one-off, but even rugby’s recent history suggests this is accurate.
When the Lions toured in 2013, 56,771 Melburnians flocked to Etihad Stadium while the Melbourne Test against the All Blacks in 2010 had a crowd of 51,409.
Melbourne is known as the sporting capital of the world for good reason. The city is spoiled for choice when it comes to sport and without the best, fans will opt for sofa over stadium.