Rugby Struggling to Convert in the West

It’s less than a week since the Wallabies defeated Ireland in a closely contested fixture in Brisbane, but while Rugby Union fans nationwide celebrate, one major Australian precinct remains disconnected from the action.

Over the past few decades, Western Sydney has been home to vast demographic and socioeconomic change and though many agree that change has helped to grow and diversify the area, others argue its had a detrimental effect on the participation and interest surrounding Rugby Union.

21 year old Rugby player, Daniel Calavassy, currently plays in the Shute Shield competition for Sydney University, but has previously represented Western Sydney at junior level and for the Greater Sydney Rams.

He says that there isn’t adequate support in the west from the wider Rugby community.

“Essentially no I don’t think they’re getting enough support.

“They’re not getting the quality coaches, the quality facilities and it’s just being neglected.

“Everything in the city is based east; the Waratahs play out east.

“A couple years ago they were asked to bring a game out to Concord Oval, they said no.”

Many believe the demise of the sport in Western Sydney was typified by Sydney Rugby Union’s recent decision to remove the Penrith Emus from the Shute Shield.

“For Sydney Uni we played Penrith at the start of the year in round two, I know in second grade we won 138-0.

“There were guys that didn’t even have the right jerseys on, we started the game against Penrith and they had 12 players.”

Dr Keith Parry is an academic focused in sport at Western Sydney University and believes that the decline in interest can be attributed to a number of social and cultural factors.

“Western Sydney we’re drawing people from almost 200 different nations, so it really is a big melting pot and many of these have no background in Rugby Union; they don’t know it.

“It’s difficult to breakthrough and educate them about that and to make them want to play it, they’ve got no cultural reference point, no heroes to look up to in the sport itself.

“Often when migrants are coming they want to retain some sense of their home and sport is one way that they’ll do that, they’ll play the sports that they played back home.”

In the 2016 census 38% of people in Western Sydney were not born in Australia, a 5% increase from 2001.

But players from the Penrith Emus club believe that it is this cultural diversity that needs to be tapped into in order for the game to flourish.

“One of the best things about Penrith is its rich cultural ties and its those cultural ties that bring generations upon generations of Emus to the club.

“It’s naive to think that this will just be forgotten; when a new club is eventually set up that this will all blow over.

“This one will hurt people and it has.”

Parry suggests that the loss of interest in the sport out West is not purely due to a changing racial landscape.

“We know that sports are associated with certain socio-economic classes, Rugby union has traditionally been associated with higher social classes.

“Something like Rugby League is more associated with working class ideals.”

Regardless of socioeconomic status, Calavassy believes that pride of place is of enduring importance to Rugby Union players.

“One thing you do realise is they’re very proud of where they come from and that needs to be tapped into, that’s a huge thing in rugby.

“If they have something to play for, in this case Western Sydney, which they do, they usually play really well.”

As Western Sydney’s population grows, its sporting potential will likely grow with it.

But while the NRL, AFL, A-League and Cricket Australia have all invested heavily in the west, it’s unclear at this stage whether Australian Rugby Union will follow suit.

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