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PR masterclass means Rugby Australia are fighting the code war on their terms

Rugby Australia chair Hamish McLennan celebrated the recent awarding of both the future men’s and women’s World Cups by firing a precise and targeted warning shot at the other rugby code.

If you were to take McLennan’s words at face value, it seemed almost inevitable that some high-profile NRL players who ‘grew up with rugby’ would be wearing Wallabies and Wallaroos gold long before the 2027 and 2029 World Cups kicked off.

While names like Cameron Murray, Angus Chrichton and Joseph Suaalii were heavily speculated on to make the switch, when pressed McLennan refused to expand because he had already started the conversation, and the headline-hungry media lapped it up.

RA expertly changed the conversation from ‘in five years’ time there will be a massive event in this country’, to ‘RA are hosting such a massive event that the rival code’s players want to be a part of it’.

It was a public relations masterclass that made such noise it drew out Andrew Abdo for comment, declaring that the NRL players in question were – at least for the moment – going nowhere.

McLennan knows that RA needs to get as much mileage as they can from big events like the World Cup and upcoming Lions tour. Rugby in Australia will always have trouble growing when two minutes up the road exists the world’s most-watched club rugby competition.

When two codes play a similar game in the same stadiums and both their domestic seasons and major events happen at almost identical times, comparisons are going to be made. The impressive thing RA have done is ensure that the comparisons are framed on their terms.

Take this month, where both codes are having their flagship events: league’s annual State of Origin and rugby’s three-game series with England.

Both events have had games contested at Optus Stadium in Perth played mere days apart. If you look at both games by the traditional metrics, Origin comes out the clear winner with crowds of 59,538 compared to Rugby’s 47,668 and viewing figures of over 3.5 million compared to rugby’s 450k.

Jordan Petaia of the Wallabies attempts to break the tackle from Danny Care of England during game one of the international test match series between the Australian Wallabies and England at Optus Stadium on July 02, 2022 in Perth, Australia. (Photo by James Worsfold/Getty Images)

Jordan Petaia of the Wallabies (Photo by James Worsfold/Getty Images)

Yet it isn’t these figures that people are talking about. Through their PR masterclass, rugby are ensuring that metrics are not a front that this inevitable code war will be fought on.

The awarding of the two World Cups to Australia is a big deal, and some bold predictions have stated that the country hosting the world’s third-largest sporting event will secure a $100 million future fund for rugby in Australia, which could go a long way to arresting some of the sport’s immediate problems.

Implementing a plan to secure better for payment female players, arresting the sport’s decline in the key markets of western Sydney and Brisbane’s northwest growth corridor, as well as increasing Indigenous representation all require attention and money, but they do not generate headlines. So the first order of business after the announcement involved sabre rattling at the NRL.

And with the skill that McLennan is navigating the sports media cycles, the NRL could be drawn into a code war that they possibly cannot win. He has proven that at public relations, he is a master tactician.

Take Indigenous participation, for example. Even though no current Wallabies identify as Indigenous, compared to 24 per cent of the last Kangaroos squad (2019) and 12 per cent of the whole NRL, RA proudly announced their wonderfully designed Indigenous national team shirt and trumpeted their’s being the first code to sing the national anthem in a First Nations language.

Meanwhile there was all but silence from the NRL during NAIDOC Week, even though they have more players impacting more communities. Once again the PR points go to RA.

Rugby union is desperate to re-emerge as Australia’s premier rugby code and is only too aware that there is a finite number of resources and fans in the already-crowded marketplace.

So it seems that no matter how much it will cost, the code is determined to skirmish with the NRL and with a crafty PR strategy and World Rugby’s influence and resources behind them, there could be troubling times ahead for rugby league.

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