For one night only, the combined interest of the World Cup co-hosts Australia and New Zealand coalesced on Australia’s most hallowed sporting arena, the Melbourne Cricket Ground. But the game on Saturday night was not soccer. It was a much-celebrated rugby classic played at the same time.
In front of a crowd of more than almost 84,000 fans, the men’s rugby teams of Australia and New Zealand renewed their rivalry by competing in the latest installment of two-game, home-and-home series that dates back more than 90 years.
That the game took place during the Women’s World Cup, simultaneously with matches in other cities — including a showdown between two of the top teams, Brazil and France — and two days before Australia’s must-win match against Canada, highlighted the competition that women’s soccer faces to attract interest and audience in the two sports-mad countries hosting soccer’s biggest showcase.
There were attempts to entice the rugby crowd, the biggest to watch the game in Australia in two decades, to attend local World Cup games, which were being held in an arena just yards away from where they were sitting on Saturday night. Digital advertising boards periodically flagged the dates of the World Cup and a link to where tickets could be purchased. But it was the Melbourne Cricket Ground that staked its claim for the most eyeballs.
Stadium operators predicted that more than 220,000 people would pass through its doors across three days as part of a run of games that started with its hosting what is considered to be the biggest rivalry in Australian domestic sports, a meeting between the Australian rules football teams Carlton and Collingwood on Friday night, and that will end on Sunday with a third spectacle, another Australian Football League game.
The rugby crowd, made up of not only Australians but also thousands of New Zealanders, a mix of expatriates and tour groups, skewed older than the fans that have been attending World Cup games.
Soccer, though popular as a participatory sport, languishes well behind sports played with an oval ball, a legacy of the past and migration patterns, according to one expert on Australian sports.
“Given that it was colonized by the British you’d have thought soccer would be the dominant code, but it’s not,” David Rowe, a professor for culture and society at Western Sydney University.
On Saturday, Melbourne’s airport was bustling with fans arriving from other parts of Australia and overseas visitors to witness the first installment of the yearly rivalry in which New Zealand’s team, known as the All Blacks, arrived as the overwhelming favorite to retain the title it has held for two decades.
New Zealand left with the trophy for a 21st time following a comprehensive dismantling of an Australian team that its new coach, Eddie Jones, is attempting to rebuild. The gulf in experience and class was evident once the All Blacks pegged back an early Australian score and eventually ran away with the win, 38-7.
They even got to hold aloft the Bledisloe Cup before the second game of the series takes place next week across the Tasman Sea in Dunedin, on New Zealand’s South Island. The stadium is likely to be packed, while some World Cup matches there have struggled to fill the stands. New Zealand’s women’s soccer team, at risk of being eliminated from the World Cup, was scheduled to play its critical third game on Sunday against Switzerland in Dunedin.
Decisions over the World Cup’s television coverage in Australia have been questioned already, and they are likely to face scrutiny again on Saturday night as one of the tournament’s most anticipated group games, an encounter between France and Brazil, kicked off 15 minutes after the start of the clash between the All Blacks and the Wallabies.
Only one of those games was being broadcast on a free-to-air network in Australia. The answer will not have pleased soccer fans.
But such is the interest in the fate of the Australian women’s team that even its rugby coach, Jones, talked about the injury to its star striker, Sam Kerr, after the rugby game.
Kerr, who is dealing with a calf injury, has missed two games. On Saturday she declared herself ready but said the status of participation would go “to the wire.”
Jones, recalling a similar injury to one of his players, described calf injuries as difficult to predict. But he was clear about what he would do if he was in the position of Tony Gustavsson, the coach of the Australian women’s soccer team.
“They’ve got to win,” Jones said, adding that Kerr’s talent meant there was no option but to play her. “Strap her up,” he said.