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Greg Growden
Greg Growden | Columnist Index
After more than 30 years with The Sydney Morning Herald and Fairfax Media in Australia, Greg Growden now writes exclusively online for ESPNscrum. Never afraid to step on toes, you can expect plenty of compelling insight from one of Australia's most renowned rugby writers.
Super Rugby comment
Waratahs have lost their audience
Greg Growden
March 6, 2013
Greg Growden and Russell Barwick with the latest from the rugby rumour mill, plus Super Rugby and Six Nations preview.
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People, gather around. I will tell you a story that you may put in the fairytale category. But I can vouch for the fact that it is either true or my memory is completely shot.

Not that long ago, I can recall heading to New South Wales Waratahs' home ground in Moore Park, getting caught up in a hideous traffic snarl, using a machete to secure a parking spot, before entangling myself in a crazy swirl of people trying to push their way into the ground, and then fighting for a seat- even in the press box.

You could hear this noise. Buzz. Buzz. Buzz. There was a real fizz. That happens when you lure 30,000 people - yes, 30,000-plus fans - to the first home match of the season. There was high expectation, even nervousness, among the crowd asking if Australia's "biggest" provincial side will actually prove it is Australia's biggest provincial side by winning something important at last. It all meant something; the team had players the fans wanted to see, and the people came.

On to last Friday night.

Getting into the car park for the Waratahs' first home game was a breeze. The traffic flow was a bit like the main straight at Daytona. Walking into the ground resembled a midnight stroll through a cemetery. And even though we arrived just 10 minutes before kick-off, we could have been completely blind and would still have found five, six, seven, eight seats, or even several rows, on which to lie down.

We opted to perch ourselves among the true believers. Surely they would be expressive, even revive our spirits with good old-fashioned rah-rah-rah barracking. Unfortunately, not. There was zilch atmosphere, the only real excitement coming when a punter several rows below us accidentally split sauce down his shirt front when he missed his container of hot chips. That even caused several punters to get out of their seats. Was there a try? Had Israel Folau at last positioned himself in the right spot? No, they had stood to attention to avoid any sauce splattering.

Surely something at half-time would revive us. Hardly. Instead we watched four blokes push a scrum machine around. Wow. Watching grass die would have been more compelling. By that time, the-long suffering Waratahs supporters were wandering what they could use to clean their nails. Cutthroat razors were called for.

Then the crowd figure was announced: 11,206. Sorry. 11,206: just the lowest home attendance for a Waratahs match in their Super Rugby history. Even that figure looked somewhat optimistic. I checked my toes. Yes, they were all there. So clearly heads and toes were being counted, and I was really pleased I was able to do my bit to convince the crowd that it could actually be defined as a crowd.

The Waratahs' David Dennis talks to team-mates during the match against Melbourne Rebels, New South Wales Waratahs v Melbourne Rebels, Allianz Stadium, Stadium, March 1, 2013
Dave Dennis and the Waratahs must launch a PR campaign, Greg Growden says © Getty Images
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All in all, this uneventful night, which at least had the plus (for Waratahs fans) of a New South Wales victory, was a real indicator of where the team sits in the Sydney sporting pecking order. Way, way down. The mojo, the vibe, is no longer there, despite the promise of the new regime that they will play brighter football in 2013.

Sure the bean counters at Waratahs Rugby will make up the usual excuses that the threat of rain kept the crowd figure down. But hang on; it's their first game at home, and it was played on the night that Waratahs administrators prefer - Friday evening - because it sucks in the white-collar workers from the Sydney CBD after they had downed their laptops and skinny soy mochas.

There was also the allure of the opposition.

They were playing the Rebels, who included two of Australian rugby's alleged prime attractions, Kurtley Beale and James O'Connor, not some backwater hillbillies no-one knows. But even "The Amigos" couldn't get the turnstiles spinning.

Oh, how we can laugh.

But there is a really serious side.

The Waratahs' revenue stream relies heavily on what they make at their home games. So if the people stay away, the Waratahs will find themselves in a dire financial position at a crucial time when they need any spare change available either to keep players, or attract real-deal performers.

Only six of the Waratahs' 30-man squad are contracted beyond this year, so the kitty will be crucial in determining the make-up of the 2014 line-up. If there's not money much around, coach Michael Cheika will be able only to keep the lowly and lure the dregs.

Then the crowds will get even smaller. In the end, maybe the only folk left will be those four blokes pushing the scrum machine.

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