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Rugby Union: Ellis Park Is a Ghost Town

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Emirates Lions at Ellis Park - Rugby Union South Africa

Ellis Park is a massive stadium that can fit up to 62,500 screaming rugby fans and is home to the Emirates Lions. However, these days, the stadium’s largely empty, and no matter what they do, the Lions are struggling to get anyone through the gate.

In mid-December 2023, when the Lions took on the Newcastle Falcons at Ellis Park, just 2,500 fans showed up. The massive stadium looked comically empty, with rugby fans across the world wondering what was going on. 

However, the poor attendance at Ellis Park has been plaguing the Lions for years. For example, during the 2022-2023 season, just over 58,000 fans turned up to see nine matches at Ellis Park, resulting in an average attendance of 6,500. This is in stark contrast to other South African teams like Sharks, Stormers, and Bulls, who routinely pull in crowds of 30,000+. 

Despite struggling to draw a crowd, the Lions’ and Ellis Park’s management team is confident they can significantly increase attendance throughout 2024. Optimistically, they believe that the average attendance for a Lions’ game will be 15,000 by the end of next season, but at the moment, that just looks like a pipe dream.

Johannesburg Safety Issues Hurting Attendance at Ellis Park

A major reason why attendance at Lions’ games has fallen off a cliff is the significant increase in crime in Johannesburg and the precinct around Ellis Park. 

The managing director of Ellis Park has said that despite the situation in the city and around the stadium inside the stadium, everything is safe, going on to say it’s as safe as any stadium in the whole of South Africa. The team will deploy additional security guards and is working closely with the police to ensure that fans can safely get to and leave Ellis Park.

It doesn’t matter what plans the management team has, if the crime situation continues to spiral out of control in Joburg, then fans won’t risk traveling to games. However, the government should eventually swing into action and start getting more police on the streets to prevent the city from descending into lawlessness.

Post-COVID Slump Also Affecting Ticket Sales

South Africa endured some of the longest and harshest Covid-19 lockdowns. This left any already cash-strapped population with even less disposable income to splash on rugby games, which are considered a luxury. 

It also didn’t help that many people forgot what it’s like to attend rugby matches. Driving to Ellis Park on the weekends no longer became a tradition for Joburg residents. Instead, many Lions fans got used to watching the game on TV or popping down to their favorite bar.

The management team believes that there’ll be a post-Covid rebound. For example, they’re already seeing an uptick in the number of suite holders, which has bounced from 2,000. However, it may take years before the Lions get back to the original pre-Covid 5,000 figure.

The Lions Won’t Abandon Ellis Park

Even though the Lions can only fill, on average, 10% of the stadium, they can’t simply just pack up and move to a smaller stadium in a safer area. This is because the Lions compete in major international club competitions, including the URC, Challenge Cup, and European Cup. For these major club competitions, the facilities, broadcast, and wi-fi all need to be a world-class standard, and currently, Ellis Park is the only rugby stadium in Joburg that can deliver.

However, the Lions do have plans to upgrade the Ellis Park training facilities. Management wants to transform the training ground into a world-class stadium that can host high-level club matches. The team wants to rip up the turf and create a modern stadium with all of the latest facilities. The capacity would be between 20,000 and 30,000, which would prevent the stadium from looking so empty and ensuring that Lions’ fans can create an atmosphere, but the project is years away from happening.

If you want to see Ellis Park in all of its glory, then tune in on August 31 when the national side, the Springboks, take on the All Blacks in a rematch of the World Cup Final. This contest’s sure to be a sell-out, and there’ll be 60,000+ local fans decked out in green and gold and even a few brave Kiwis.

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Rugby Union

Melbourne Rebels Axed From Super Rugby Competition Due to Financial Woes

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Melbourne Rebels playing Rugby

While the Melbourne Rebels are performing well on the pitch, making it to their first playoff in 14 seasons, things in the accounting department have spiralled out of control. The club has been in voluntary administration for the whole season. The Rebels are drowning in debts to the tune of $15.2 million.

The Melbourne club supposedly found a group of private investors who agreed to fund it for the next five years. However, Rugby Australia, who ultimately has the final say, rejected the proposal, and the club won’t be able to compete in the 2025 Super Rugby Pacific.

The entire Rebels’ team and staff were informed of the decision in person by Rugby Australia’s boss and former Wallaby Phil Waugh. The players didn’t take the news well. There was complete silence when Waugh told them that the club would no longer play in the Super Rugby competition.

Rugby Australia Steps In But Refuses to Save Rebels

Rugby Australia paid coaches’ and players’ salaries for the 2024 Super Rugby season, ensuring the club could compete. The Melbourne Rebels’ management team was hoping that Rugby Australia would cover a good chunk of the debt and allow the club to continue to operate.

Unfortunately for Victorian rugby fans, Rugby Australia has decided to let the club fall on its sword. There’s now no Super Rugby club in the whole of Victoria, and professional rugby union is looking on thin ice in a state that’s obsessed with Australian Rules.

Despite Victorians not being particularly interested in rugby union, Waugh is convinced that the sport can still thrive in the state. He said that Rugby Australia has a plan to develop the infrastructure and the systems of the sport in Victoria. He added that Rugby Australia is actively looking for investment opportunities in the state.

Currently, there’s no word on the Melbourne Rebels women’s team. We also don’t know if the club will shut down completely or compete in another competition. Super Rugby is the only professional league in Australia, so the club would have to become an amateur team.

The Melbourne Rebels were scheduled to play the British Lions in 2025. However, that has been cancelled, and it remains to be seen if the club will play another game after the 2024 Super Rugby season finishes.

Why Was The Investment Consortium’s Bid Rejected?

Rugby Australia said that the group of investors didn’t provide enough evidence for their plan. Waugh said that the revenue projections were way too generous, and he didn’t believe the club would be able to effectively cut costs.

Ultimately, if the Melbourne Rebels were going to continue competing in the Super Rugby competition, they’d need a large injection of funds from Rugby Australia. The governing body was unwilling to continue pouring money into professional rugby in Victoria.

You can hardly blame them, under 5,000 people were showing up to watch the Rebels this season. The club’s meagre sponsorship revenue wasn’t enough to pay for the use of AAMI Park, and the Rebels were unable to cover players’ and coaches’ salaries. 

Even if Rugby Australia and investors managed to cover the $15.2 million debt, it was only going to build up again. Rugby union is struggling as a professional sport in Queensland and New South Wales, which are traditionally rugby heartlands. If the sport can barely scrape by in those states, then it’s got no chance of being viable in Victoria.

The Rebels Are Going Down Fighting

Despite the financial woes and the uncertain future at the club, the Rebels are having one of their best seasons ever. The team ended up finishing in 8th place, racking up five wins and eight losses. Despite the losing record, they managed to sneak into the playoffs. The Rebels finished above the NSW Waratahs and the Christchurch Crusaders.

On Saturday, June 8, the Rebels will take on the Wellington Hurricanes in a do-or-die quarterfinal match. The Hurricanes are the strong favorite, finishing at the top of the table and losing just two games throughout the entire season.

However, don’t count out the Rebels just yet. The team will be fired up to keep their final campaign going. This is the last time many of the players will ever taste Super Rugby!

Read more: Rugby World Cup 2023 Was a Massive Success

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Eddie Jones Is Betting on Youth As Japan Prepares For England

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Japan vs England Rugby

Japan is taking on England on June 22 at Tokyo’s National Stadium. The Cherry Blossoms are currently in training camp in southwestern Japan’s Miyazaki Prefecture. Japan’s head coach, Eddie Jones, has selected a 35-man squad, which includes 12 uncapped players and two who are still studying at university.

The Australian will be looking to make a statement in his first game as head coach since retaking the job following the Rugby World Cup. Jones was previously the head coach of the Cherry Blossoms from 2012 to 2015. During his tenure, Japan beat South Africa at the Rugby World Cup in one of the biggest upsets in the history of the sport.

Jones is well-suited for the job as, despite being born in Australia, he has a Japanese mother and a wife. He is fluent in Japanese and first worked in the country in 1995 as an assistant coach for Tokai University. 

Jones is highly respected by the players, and his old-school coaching methods go over much better with the Japanese, who are used to a hierarchical structure. The Australian rugby legend is famous for getting into conflict with players during his tenure as head coach of Australia and England. 

Jones is famous for his very harsh criticism of players and for not mincing his words. Many modern players aren’t used to this kind of treatment, and it led to conflicts.

Jones Looking Revenge Against His Former Team

Jones coached England from 2015 to 2022. During his time as head coach, he had a 73% win rate. He led England to their first Grand Slam in 13 years. Jones also took England to the 2019 Rugby World Cup final where they went down to South Africa.

However, England and Jones parted on unhappy terms. The Australian was fired in 2022 after England struggled, winning just five out of their last 12 games. Despite ending his tenure on a sour note, Jones still has the highest winning percentage of any England coach.

Japan and Jones will be fired up for this big match against England. The Australian coach would love nothing more than to prove England wrong. Japan will be big underdogs against the reigning 2023 Rugby World Cup third-place finishers. However, the home crowd advantage may play a big role in the match.

The two teams were actually in the same group at the last Rugby World Cup. England ultimately triumphed over the Cherry Blossoms, 34-12. The game is expected to be a lot closer this time around. England won’t have the luxury of playing on a European pitch. 

Jones Also Picked Young Players When He Was in Charge of Australia

After being booted from England, Jones took over as the head coach of Australia in the lead-up to the Rugby World Cup. However, things didn’t go according to plan. He made the controversial decision to dump highly experienced players like Michael Hooper and instead select a very young side.

Many pundits were confused by the decision. Hooper may not be in his prime anymore, but his experience would’ve been invaluable at the Rugby World Cup. Australia ended up with its worst performance of all time. For the first time in history, Australia didn’t progress to the knockout stage. The Wallabies lost to Fiji and Wales and were sent back home with their tails between their legs.

It looks like Jones is following the same strategy by selecting a very young team featuring 12 uncapped players. However, this time around, the Australian can focus on the long game. Jones will coach the Cherry Blossoms until 2028, including during the 2027 Rugby World Cup. He can take his time developing young players who’ll be in their prime in 2027.

Jones is obviously an incredibly talented rugby coach and has tasted success on the highest level. However, this is his last chance at coaching a top national side. His last year as England coach was poor, and he has to take responsibility for Australia’s incredibly poor performance at the 2023 Rugby World Cup.

The writing is on the wall for Jones. Tune in on June 22 to see how Japan looks against England and get a glimpse of some fresh faces in the Cherry Blossoms’ lineup!

Read more: Ireland Will Take on the All Blacks & Wallabies in Autumn Series

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Ireland Will Take on the All Blacks & Wallabies in Autumn Series

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All Blacks & Wallabies playing rugby

Ireland dominated this year’s Six Nations competition, claiming their 16th title. They won four out of five games, with their sole loss coming against England by the slimmest of margins, 22-23. 

While Ireland proved they’re the best team in the Northern Hemisphere, we’re yet to find out how they stack up against the Southern Hemisphere sides. That’s all about to change in autumn when New Zealand, Australia, Argentina, and Fiji all gear up for a shot against the Six Nations champions.

All of the games will be played in Dublin at the Aviva Stadium. The first clash will be against the All Blacks on November 8, followed by a showdown against Argentina on November 15. Then, the Flying Fijians will attempt to storm Dublin on November 23. In the final match of the series, the Wallabies will be looking to make up for their poor World Cup showing and will play Ireland on November 30.

This a grueling schedule as Ireland will take on four world-class teams in one month. The notable exception from the Southern Hemisphere teams is the Springboks. Ireland is traveling to South Africa in July for a two-test series.

Pundits Tip Ireland to Beat the All Blacks

New Zealand broke Ireland’s World Cup dreams in the quarterfinals, defeating them 28-24. The Men in Green are keen to get revenge, and this time, they’ll have home-field advantage. History is not on Ireland’s side, having beaten New Zealand just five times while the All Blacks have racked up 31 victories.

Dublin hasn’t been much of a fortress for the Shamrocks. 18 matches have been played in the Emerald Isle, Ireland has won two games, New Zealand has won 15, and one match ended in a draw. However, trends are meant to be broken, and the All Blacks have looked human in recent years, losing a lot more frequently than usual.

If Ireland is going to beat the All Blacks, they need to take their attacking opportunities with both hands. While New Zealand are unbelievable in attack, at times, they get lazy in defense. Unlike other teams, they give teams a lot of time on the ball and the space to run.

Ireland will need to take advantage of this space to consistently gain ground. Then, when the moment is right, spin the ball wide and look to make a line break. Ireland will no doubt find chinks in the All Black’s armor, but the question remains if they then turn these opportunities into points.

Ireland Should Be Too Strong for Argentina and Fiji

Argentina are no pushovers, but the South American team doesn’t travel well. In fact, they’ve never beaten Ireland in Ireland despite having 10 cracks at the Shamrocks. It’d be a major upset if the Pumas can down Ireland in Dublin. 

However, you can’t completely write off Argentina. The Pumas have defeated Ireland six times, three times in Argentina and three times at a neutral venue. The secret to Ireland’s victory will be punishing Argentina during set pieces, controlling the ball, and well-placed kicks for touch.

Fiji hasn’t fared well against Ireland in the past, losing all seven encounters. The Fijians will struggle to compete with Ireland for the full 80 minutes, but don’t be surprised if they score a few exciting tries. Ireland needs to take advantage of lazy defenders and Fiji’s weak scrum. This game has the potential to be a blowout and be over before half-time.

The Wallabies Are an Interesting Challenge

The Wallabies were dreadful at the 2023 Rugby Union World Cup, being eliminated prior to the knockout stage. Australia is still in the rebuilding phase, and they have a lot of young and untested players. 

Ireland will be the clear favorite, but Australia is catching Ireland at the end of the series. The fresh Aussies have a solid chance to cause an upset. The Wallabies have a winning record against Ireland, winning 22 of 37 matches. Of the games played in Ireland, Australia has won 11, while Ireland has only tasted victory on eight occasions.

Despite Australia’s impressive record against Ireland, the Men in Green should still get the job done. In fact, we’re backing Ireland to complete a clean sweep of the autumn series and send all of the Southern Hemisphere teams back home nursing losses!

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