Dual international Lote Tuqiri knows better than most what winning the right to host the Rugby World Cup would mean for Australian rugby.
Having been enticed over to the 15-player game in the lead-up to the tournament, the former Wallabies winger was blown away by the scale of rugby’s showpiece in 2003 and the atmosphere that stretched from one side of the country to the other.
With Australia at this stage one of only two bidders for 2027 — the USA Rugby announced its candidature on Thursday [ET] — Tuqiri is hopeful the tournament will return Down Under once more and rugby can get itself “back on the map” across Australia, but also double-down in areas where the game is showing signs of growth at grassroots level.
“It was awesome, it was awesome. I remember travelling down to Sydney for the opening game against Argentina, because we were based in Coffs Harbour, I wasn’t even in the squad, I was sitting in the stands with the boys which was a little bit disappointing. But to be a part of that first game, even in that way, gave me an idea of the support behind not only us but the World Cup in general,” Tuqiri told ESPN.
“Then to go to Adelaide when we played Namibia, I know it was a bit of a lopsided scoreline, but just nationally and how much the country embraced the Rugby World Cup; I remember even sitting back in the hotel room just watching other games and how much buzz and the atmosphere, the travelling fans and our ex-pat fans here, it created within the stadiums.
“I think it was the quarterfinal between Wales and England, it was amazing, I was riding every moment that was going on with Wales hopefully beating England, but they ended up going within a whisker of beating them.
“The Fijians, you saw a player in Rupeni Caucaunibuca come of age and show his wares to the world. It was a time that was great for Australian rugby and I’m hoping that with this bid that can be created [again].
“If we can get this 2027 World Cup to Australia hopefully we can get rugby back on the map; it’s a tough market in Australia and this would get people talking about rugby again. And that lead-up time to 2027 Rugby World Cup, hopefully in Australia, the interest will just keep building and building. And hopefully this one can be better than that 2003 edition.”
While Rugby Australia wants to take games all over the country, it’s likely that if the bid is successful, some of the bigger games would be taken to rugby heartland, specifically Brisbane and Sydney.
Perth is expected to come into consideration to potentially host the final, given its friendlier global timezone, so too the presence of Western Force financier Andrew Forrest and the growing rugby community across Western Australia.
It may be that Optus Stadium and Stadium Australia end up vying with each other to host the tournament finale, if the bid is successful, while the MCG could also be an option despite it not providing the best viewing experience for rectangular-field sports.
But a successful bid could be invaluable exposure for one of the fastest growing regions in Australia in western Sydney, which is currently involved in a civil war, of sorts, within the wider Sydney rugby community.
A group of Shute Shield clubs want to mandate participation guidelines on the number of teams each club must field, so too demands on financial turnover, in what could see the likes of West Harbour, Western Sydney Two Blues and Penrith being forced into a merger or, at the very worst, fold altogether.
Having played for West Harbour during his time in Sydney with NSW Waratahs, Tuqiri recognises the value those clubs bring to the game and the level of talent that exists across the region. He says winning the right to host the 2027 tournament could help encourage some of those kids to persist with the game into their senior years, a home World Cup perhaps enough to steer some away from the clutches of rugby league.
“I don’t know if rugby overlooks it, but we definitely need to embrace that Western Sydney corridor or whatever you call it, there’s certainly a lot of talent in and around there,” Tuqiri told ESPN. “I know from a playing point of view, and playing for West Harbour, and out even further towards Penrith and Parramatta, there is a lot of talent that play both codes and there is a big islander community out there, and I think that can be embraced a little bit better leading into the 2027 World Cup in Australia, if we get it.
“Given the fact Bankwest Stadium is out there, and Stadium Australia, there’ll be games out there, so leading up to it, hopefully, if we do get it again, I think that is an area that we can concentrate a helluva lot more on.
“The Two Blues, Penrith and other places, hopefully people can go out there and appreciate the good rugby that is played out there rather than just going out there for the [famous] Emu burgers! People know that it is one of the fastest growing areas in the country; I think we can’t let sleeping dogs lie there, so to speak.”
A Fijian-Australian, Tuqiri loved what he saw out of the Wallabies camp last year as new coach Dave Rennie made team culture a focus of his first season in charge.
The Wallabies now boast a strong Polynesian contingent across the squad and Rennie is keen to embrace the various cultural backgrounds of his playing group; though some players proved better singers than others.
Rugby Australia is keen to have a strong Pacific flavour as part of its World Cup bid, too.
“I think what Dave Rennie is doing is great, but in saying that you can’t knock the rusted on element [of the Wallabies] as well,” Tuqiri said. “But seeing the boys singing Fijian hymns was pretty cool, the boys getting around and doing the Samoan hand-clapping [Fa’ataupati dance], getting pumped up for the game and doing some chants around that.
“And I love the fact they sung the national anthem in one of the First Nations languages. They’re probably leading the way on that [in Australian sport], so they’ve got to be patted on the back for that and that can keep going. To attract that element and people from different cultural backgrounds you’ve got to embrace them and that’s what rugby is definitely doing. And it’s certainly a way forward for rugby in Australia, and I think it’s working.”