Spectacle with too few spectators ... the stands at Concord Oval yesterday. Photo: Mick Tsikas
At one end of Concord Oval yesterday were the might, tradition and privilege of the University of Sydney. The Students were in their eighth straight Shute Shield grand final and aiming to take their 47th Sydney club rugby title. University trace their origins to 1863 and boast they are the world's oldest rugby club outside Britain. They enjoy recruiting the cream of the GPS system by offering university scholarships, plus networking and mentoring courtesy of their affluent old boys.
The club's president, David Mortimer, AO, has just stepped down as chairman of Australia Post.
At the other end were the suburban battlers Southern Districts. The Sylvania Waters-based Rebels, formed out of crisis 23 years ago through an amalgamation of St George and Port Hacking - and no strangers to the wooden spoon - were in their very first grand final.
Uni claim Shute Shield
Sydney University players celebrate after scoring a try against Souths. Photo: Mick Tsikas
The club mostly relies on locals, organises players apprenticeships and sells beers to help pay salaries. Its president, Nev Shooter, admits University are simply the best club in Australia and if they had offered him a scholarship when he was younger ''you wouldn't have seen me for dust''.
There is great rivalry between the clubs and the Rebels' local MP, Scott Morrison, told federal Parliament on Thursday: ''It was only five years ago that their opponents … sought to have the Rebels ejected from the Sydney rugby competition. So we will have the opportunity to settle that score this weekend.''
However, the clubs' two presidents agree on a few things: this year's Shute Shield competition produced some sensational rugby, but even some traditionally strong clubs are struggling financially and changes are needed to improve the health of Sydney's venerable competition.
For the record, Uni won 15-14.
In recent weeks, fears about the future of club rugby have been fuelled by speculation that the Sydney competition would lose its bible, the Rugby News match program, as well as its television coverage on the ABC.
While Rugby News is set to continue next year to celebrate its 90th birthday following a deluge of support, talks continue between NSW Rugby and the ABC over television coverage.
Mr Mortimer said he was particularly frustrated that club rugby did not get the publicity it deserved.
''Dare I say it, it's often much more entertaining and enjoyable than the Super stuff and, indeed, some of the Wallabies stuff,'' he said. ''I think [better promotion] will bring crowds back, which will bring revenue to the clubs. The story needs to be told.''
He believes the publicity would come if another competition pitted the top Shute Shield clubs against the top clubs from elsewhere in Australia.
Mr Shooter said the Wallabies and Australia's Super Rugby franchises did not give back enough. ''It's expected that the clubs develop the players, but there's just nothing given back to the clubs. It seems like there's a hell of a lot of money spent at the top and the bottom of the pyramid gets very, very little.''
At the grand final yesterday, Matt Brown, 45, of Ashfield, said: ''The standard of play is good but I don't think there is enough support of the competition. The crowds are really low.''
Just as Southern Districts was born through an amalgamation of survival, Mr Shooter added that other club amalgamations might be needed to make club rugby more viable and attractive.''We think we did the right thing [by amalgamating]. This year has vindicated it.''