Melbourne Rebels coach Tony McGahan knows rugby has a fight on its hands.
McGahan’s twin 10-year-old boys are mad AFL fans - one a happy Hawthorn barracker, the other a Richmond fan, who spends a lot of his footy life ‘underneath the curtains crying’.
Until late last year, the Rebels shared facilities with one of the AFL’s biggest clubs, Carlton, and in their new AAMI Park headquarters, the Melbourne Demons are their neighbours.
These clubs, more than a century old, have storied histories, albeit turbulent ones, and rusted-on supporters.
It’s a legacy that is still a pipe dream for the six-year-old Rebels, but with a permanent home, the franchise is hoping to begin writing what could be some significant chapters.
“We understand the dynamics of how hard it is and we really rely on each other - both staff-player, player-staff to really create that family atmosphere.
“Most people walk into their own business or their own workplace and there's historical perspective, like this is how it's done and this is what we're about and you can see it. - Tony McGahan
“We're still creating that part of it and we hope to get some great memories this year to be able to do that.
“The identity of actually feeling the club and becoming a club (is getting easier) with the ownership, the training facilities, players now that have been there for four or five years now, they've got that stability.
“Now, we've actually got some tangible things to move forward with.”
The Rebels are a microcosm of the larger battle rugby faces, to retain talent, a challenge McGahan feels is ever more acute.
“We're losing 8-10 players a year at the top end to overseas...t and I reckon we're probably losing possibly another 8-10 underneath that in the transition from GPS rugby or schoolboy rugby getting picked up by league or AFL,” he said.
“If we're losing a side every year top and bottom, NRL and AFL would struggle with that too, I'd imagine, if they were losing a side every year.”
If anyone was up for the fight as Australia faces its domestic rugby crossroads, you might imagine it would be a man nicknamed ‘Dumper’, a moniker that has was handed to a six-year-old McGahan laid tackles on much older children in primary school games of ‘Bull rush’.
“I don't know (why), I just started tackling blokes.”
McGahan believes ensuring his fringe players have a Melbourne club to play for rather than jetting back to Premier Rugby and the Shute Shield is vital to solve retention and pathway concerns.
“We made a conscious decision that the Rebels Super Rugby program had to be visible inside the community and we found an easy solution - to make sure our players are playing in that,” he said.
“The Dewar Shield is getting better each week and these younger players that are coming through now are getting exposed to the Super program and how that works and then they go back and play their underage rugby.”
McGahan is open to innovation in rugby, as long as it forges a stronger bond between fans and their sport.
“We really need to make people stay connected to the game's the big thing isn't it?,” he said.
“What sports are going really well? BBL's been in for five years and it's one of the best-attended sports in the world, not just Australia; it's quick, it's dynamic.
“They don't even have their top players playing. None of the Test players or one-day players play.
“So, I think we really need to get back to what's important and stick to the qualities that make rugby and make people identify with rugby.”