Former Wallabies skipper Nathan Sharpe has just one word for the Optus Stadium mood any finals match can expect in Perth at the 2027 Rugby World Cup. “Spine-tingling” is all he wants to say.
It’s hard to believe that the lofty lock forward, who stood as straight and shiny on top as a light pylon, is almost a decade removed from playing the last of his 116 Tests.
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He soaked in all the great Rugby cathedrals from Twickenham to Eden Park, Millennium Stadium to Murrayfield, a packed Olympic Stadium to Ellis Park, Suncorp Stadium to Stade de France.
You become a hard marker on atmosphere, stadium surrounds and the electricity from fans when you’ve seen it all.
Sharpe was at Optus Stadium as an expert comments person for a Rugby broadcaster in 2019 when the Wallabies v All Blacks Test unfolded in front of him.
“It was the most spine-tingling of Rugby occasions I’ve been at since I retired,” Sharpe said.
“I was sideline. The crowd hung back and sang songs. The atmosphere and the stadium were great.”
It helped that the 61,241 fans in the stadium were at full volume for a spectacular 47-26 upset from Michael Hooper’s Wallabies.
More than that, it was a reminder to Sharpe of how passionate Western Australians are for top Rugby.
How fully Western Australian fans embraced the 2003 Rugby World Cup, after the first-ever Test played in Perth in 1998, was all momentum for the game in the west.
Sharpe became an integral part of it when he committed to be the foundation skipper when the Western Force was born for the 2006 Super 14 season.
He’d played three Tests in Perth before he made that bold call to head to the wild west.
“Part of the reason I did get involved was knowing there was support for the game over there with strong grassroots Rugby types who could make sure the Force had a viable footprint,” Sharpe said.
“The thing about events of significance in WA, the fans get amongst it.
“Some Sydney crowds aren’t that vocal. Fans from the west have a culture of getting involved.
“There were some cracking games at Subiaco Oval in the 2003 World Cup. People still speak fondly of that time. The fans were passionate about it and the Wallabies didn’t even play there.”
It’s true. Across nine days, Perth hosted a Rugby World Cup hub of their own with five Tests involving eventual champions England, South Africa, Samoa, Uruguay and Georgia.
Attracting more than 38,000 fans to an England-South Africa Test in a city with Rugby-mad expats from both countries was impressive. Luring 21,507 fans to a Georgia v Samoa clash was even more so.
Across that period, more than 124,000 supporters turned Subiaco Oval into a colourful tapestry of supporters’ jerseys, fervour and fun.
Optus Stadium is a 60,000-seat stadium for AFL but the designers cleverly started the permanent seating from approximately 1.5m above ground level.
That means an additional 5000 drop-in seats can be added on all four sides of the boundary without compromising viewing for rectangular ground sports like Rugby.
“While they play AFL there, the stadium has been built with stands steep enough so the fans feel right on top of you like Twickenham or Millennium Stadium,” Sharpe said with a nod.
Sharpe is happy to spruik the state-of-the-art quality to the stadium experience. He loves it.
“I’ve seen the teams run down the tunnel to the field with fans watching while they are eating and drinking beers behind the glass. It’s a great way to get supporters more involved,” Sharpe said.
“I’ve got kids. My 13-year-old Franky is enjoying his Rugby. I’m keen for them to experience a home World Cup.”
Force skipper Ian Prior has felt the support of fans through a career of more than 100 games for the club.
“Obviously, we have a world-class stadium and the flow-on to the pub and big screen outside means the area caters for over 70,000 overall,” Prior said.
“I think Perth has a strong case for at least a World Cup semi-final in 2027, based on support and facilities. We’ll see.
“Perth is a multi-cultural and sports-centric city. There are people from all walks of the world living there … Kiwis, South Africans, your Irish, your English, Pacific islanders, Aussie locals and so on. Perth will certainly heavily support a World Cup.
“I remember being a 13-year-old around Brisbane when the 2003 World Cup was on. It was a unique and special time. I definitely remember going to the pool game where (South African) Derick Hougaard got folded by (Samoan hitman) Brian Lima, a Wallabies match and the All Blacks-Tonga game. I remember when the Wallabies ran out, I said to dad, ‘That’s what I want to do for a living … play professional rugby’.
“I’m sure there will be plenty of young players, both male and female, who will watch the 2027 World Cup and 2029 World Cup (for women) and think the same thing.
“That international flavour to a World Cup is a really big point of difference at a critical time for our sport.”
There’s the power of a home World Cup right there. It’s the power to inspire and reach an audience of eager young sports-loving Australians who are still in the throes of deciding what to pursue or how fervently.
Prior has made it his career for more than a decade as a well-respected halfback for the title-winning Queensland Reds of 2011, the Brumbies and the Force.
“There’s a real heartfelt connection to the Force from fans because of what the club has been through and coming out the other end. We have really rusted-on, passionate fans in our ‘Sea Of Blue’,” Prior added.
“The re-engagement of our Academy and the pathways investment going on to get rugby into public schools, as well as private schools, with the Western Force Cup will have the code in a good position by the time 2027 rolls around.”
Prior insists the same applies to momentum for the women’s World Cup in 2029 and rugby sevens at the 2032 Brisbane Olympics.
The best and fairest award for the Force Super W team was introduced only last month as the Rebecca Clough Medal to honour the west’s most decorated Wallaroo.
“There’s a real pathway for women in football. If we can get some women who are playing NRLW and AFLW to think about a 2029 Rugby World Cup and a home Olympics in sevens, it’s going to be pretty enticing for them,” Prior said.