Can Rugby be Beautiful?
This World Cup is without a doubt the biggest that there has ever been. No other has matched it in terms of television audience or attendance.
People often talk about football as the beautiful game, and indeed this well repeated phrase is often quoted as the comparison: ‘football is a game for gentleman, played by hooligans; rugby is a game for hooligans, played by gentlemen’. Personally, I don't like this comparison. To suggest that everyone involved in football is a hooligan, is as absurd as suggesting that everyone in rugby is a gentleman. It has however, always been apparent to me that rugby instils strong values in all those involved: sportsmanship, discipline, respect, teamwork, determination - and indeed to me, this is one of the first reasons why rugby should take the mantle of the beautiful game.
Sport has always been a great leveller, one in which people from hugely contrasting backgrounds can participate as part of a team. One's ability to play a sport far overshadows one’s education, one’s social or financial standing. Rugby takes this further by allowing people of all shapes and sizes to get involved, and be included. There are no physical prerequisites for playing rugby, there is a job on the field for everyone. At the top level of the sport players are fitter, stronger and more skilful than ever before, though therein are the benefits of professionalism. Lower levels of the sport are of course filled with the amateur player, who’s physicality and skill level are based purely on genetics - but in being amateur their primary focus is enjoyment of the game. During my formative years before I was forced to retire, I was something of a journeyman, and the one thing that stood out for me at each of the clubs I played at was how included I always felt. That sense of support and belief around you can help you become a much better, and mentally stronger person. It's wrong to suggest that this is isolated to rugby, but it is certainly another compelling reason for the beauty of the game.
When people do indeed talk on football as the beautiful game, it is the ease on the eye and the entertainment value to which they point. One might think it hard to argue the case for a game where controlled brutality is a defining factor, but to suggest as such would be similar to suggesting that all footballers are hooligans. If you can look beyond the intense battles that take place when players come together, you can begin to understand the technique and skill these players possess.
A case in point to this are the many scrums in the opening matches of the World Cup. After the scrum-half has put the ball in the players seem suspended in time, almost as if they are simply leaning on each other. The truth is, that each team is matching the sheer exertion of the other. Their technique so perfect that they can channel that enormous power right through to the shoulders of the props. Neither side wants to be the one who capitulates. In the props mind, he is fighting the fatigue, determined not to be the one who drops his bind. And so, they hang there. Is this beautiful? To those who don't understand the essence of this area of the sport, of course it might not be. However those who have participated, and understand the immense willpower and determination it takes to win this small battle in the greater war will stand and salute what is a beautiful moment in our sport.
Like football, and indeed most other team sports, the objective in rugby is to create space. The goal in bulldozing your opposition is not to front up to the physical challenge, but to drag defenders in and create space for your support runners. This is something that Sonny Bill Williams has shown he is a master at. This was also a key point in the winning Japanese game plan against South Africa. The Japanese ran the ball up the 15 meter channel, pulling the South African defenders in tight, before spreading the play and capitalising on the space out wide.
That said, just as Barcelona had been famed in the football world for short, quick, mesmerising passes, so to have I seen New Zealand play with the same flair. Their lines of run and quick hands continue to draw defences out of shape, creating space for their backs to exploit, which they do with punishing regularity, and here again rugby takes on an almost ethereal allure. This incarnation of the World Cup has seen the introduction of bonus points in the group stage, with the sole purpose of opening games up and providing flowing, running and entertaining rugby.
Yes, sometimes rugby can be slow, especially if there are no tries, but how often do teams draw, and indeed can anyone remember a 0-0 score line? To suggest a game with no tries is boring is to undermine the beauty of the diverse areas in the game. Forwards grinding out results in the rain, or a team winning through on penalties after a protracted battle in the middle of the field are still beautiful parts of the sport.
Ultimately, this is where rugby takes on its unparalleled beauty; the sheer variation in the game and how it can be played calls for hugely different skill sets. One cannot but stand and applaud when someone puts a perfect kick into the corner, opens a gap with a dummy, puts in a great sidestep, wins a scrum, or you see a game plan come to fruition.
This World Cup is undoubtedly a celebration of the greatness and beauty of the sport of rugby. It will accentuate its growth across the world, and with great unifying values, the world will be a better place for it.