Rugger’s buggered

The 10th Rugby World Cup is over and South Africa have won for the fourth time, beating New Zealand 12-11 in a grim, graceless, grinding, grunting grapple in Paris. The match kicked off at 8pm and didn’t finish until 10.05 which, allowing for the half-time break, means it went on for 110 minutes – a full half hour beyond the 80 minutes rugby union games are supposed to last. There were so many hiatuses and interruptions that I had time to shave, pop out to the corner shop for more alcohol, make a round of sandwiches, delete abusive emails and cut my toe-nails without missing a kick! Do the rugby authorities not understand that interminable video conferences, the referee delivering seminars about the laws of the game, committee meetings between the phalanxes of officials, injuries being treated, countless substitutions, reprimands, admonishments, yellow cards, red cards, collapsed scrums, free kicks and penalties ad infinitum do not make for good viewing?

You know there’s something wrong with a sport when the most high-profile, noticeable and important person on the field of play is the referee. Over and over again, in the various games I watched throughout the tournament, the ref was the dominant figure and, particularly in close matches, the single most decisive factor determining who won and who lost. It’s an old adage in soccer that the referee has had a good game if you didn’t even notice he was there. That was once also true of rugby, when the referee was nothing more than a knobbly-kneed, out of breath, middle-aged bloke with a whistle; now he’s more like the conductor of an orchestra, barking orders, directing play, getting in everybody’s way and even coaching, instructing and suggesting tactical moves. The refs are now so central to the game that they’ve developed the giant egos of a top-of-the-bill star turn; gym-honed, moisturised and coiffured hunks preening to camera. It’s farcical, and a clear sign that rugby union is a sport in crisis.

I have written before about some of rugby union’s fundamental flaws (see this blog), so I won’t repeat those issues here. Eight years have elapsed, and the sport’s problems have only got more serious. The key issue now is how rugby has become more and more dangerous since the introduction of professionalism in 1995. In the first Rugby World Cup back in 1987 the average weight of international players was just over 14 stone (90 kilos), while today it is 17 stone (108 kilos). Being tackled by one of these unnatural giants is the equivalent of having a full-size refrigerator dropped on you. This is the root cause of the pending legal case against World Rugby, the RFU (England) and the WRU, involving more than 300 ex-players whose lives have been wrecked by concussions, brain damage and multiple other injuries. The financial imperatives of professionalism brought a need to broaden rugby’s appeal in pursuit of sponsorship, advertising and TV money and that meant a rewriting and relaxing of rules and regulations in an attempt to create a violent spectacle for a blood-thirsty, lowest-common-denominator mass audience. Amateur players used to be taught to tackle defensively but in the professional era tackling became a weaponised, aggressive ‘hit’ intended to reverse the flow of play. Everyone knew it was far more dangerous but the rugby authorities were only concerned with the commercial gains as car-crash collisions replaced the old blocking contacts. That disastrous contempt for players’ safety is at last deservedly coming back to haunt rugby and the long-term financial and sporting consequences are going to be serious.

On top of this the traditional heartlands of rugby union are deserting the game. In Australia, twice world champions, the sport is rapidly shrivelling away, coming far behind Australian rules, rugby league and soccer in popularity among winter sports. In Wales it lurches from crisis to crisis due to the ineptitude and greed that has wrecked club rugby. In Scotland it is a borders-based minor sideshow for aficionados only. In England financial over-reach and hubris is wreaking havoc. In Ireland recent successes can’t disguise its position as a minority, middle-class affair. In South Africa the national team’s triumphs are papering over the cracks of a toxic history of racist politics yet to be resolved. And even in New Zealand public interest and player numbers are diminishing alarmingly. As for Italy, Japan, the Pacific Islands and so on – oh, do be serious. The sport, despite gargantuan efforts, has never really managed to expand beyond its British colonial origins, which means that rugby is only growing and thriving in France (and then only in the south) and Argentina (and then only in the Buenos Aires area). Fast forward 50 years and it is not beyond the bounds of possibility for rugby union to have been reduced to an annual memorial match between Biarritz and, well, Rugby? Perhaps William Webb Ellis (1806-1872) should never have picked up that football after all…