What is rugby doing wrong?

Rugby has never been so popular. We’re on the verge of what will be the most financially successful World Cup; the BBC, Sky and BT Sport are committing considerable time and resources on coverage of the domestic game as well as internationals and European competitions; crowds are at record levels, and yet...


By Neil Wright
27th July 2015
By Neil Wright
27th July 2015

Rugby has never been so popular. We’re on the verge of what will be the most financially successful World Cup; the BBC, Sky and BT Sport are committing considerable time and resources on coverage of the domestic game as well as internationals and European competitions; crowds are at record levels, and yet...

Are we kidding ourselves that everything in the garden is rosy? Is the rugby being served up today as good as the rugby of old? There is no doubt that players are much fitter and, in some cases, more skilful. Stadia are modern and TV coverage first rate, and yet...

Professionalism has brought about a revolution in fitness and strength. One has only to witness some of the collisions to know that to be the case. Neanderthal forwards of old have been replaced by players with skill sets that were previously the province of the backs. And backs are often the size of the forwards of days gone by, and yet...

In olden days players had jobs, proper jobs. They trained two or three times a week. It would be fair to say that the difference in fitness levels from the best players to the worst was immense. That discrepancy invariably meant that good, fit players would thrive. Forwards were forwards and backs were backs. Balls were heavier as were the playing surfaces.

The problem today is that the players are now full time and their fitness levels are incredible. But that is surely a good thing I hear you ask. In my opinion it isn’t. A rugby pitch is still the size it was a hundred years ago. Until maybe twenty years ago this wasn’t a problem. Forwards were slow and rarely made an appearance in the game save for the set pieces. Today the forwards are often as quick as the backs and that means less room in which to exercise true skill.

Another factor is the use of brute force rather than sheer skill. Today a player will often simply try to run through another player and will often succeed. It’s no coincidence that instances of concussion are increasing.

And then there is the thorny issue of the scrums. Watch a re-run of a match from twenty years ago and then compare and contrast with the nonsense that we are subjected to these days. Scrums were actually contests for the ball rather than mere attempts to win a penalty. I’m sure I’m not alone in wanting the scrums to return to their former glory - as a means to a far different end. Scrums are also hindered by the quality of pitches. These days clubs seem to replace a pitch at the drop of a hat. But whilst they look pretty they soon become a nightmare when the scrums start. 

And have you ever stopped to think about how frequently kickers land long range penalties with what appears to be relative ease? Please don’t get me wrong. Jonny Wilkinson and others created an art out of their skill. They have real talent but the penalty from fifty meters is almost taken as a given these days. In the past it was almost newsworthy.

So what are the solutions? It would be naive to expect a return to amateurism or for players to be less fit. Unlike golf where they just build longer and harder courses to accommodate the effects of better technology it is impossible to make pitches larger to accommodate fitter, quicker players. So do we lose players? The obvious suggestion would be to lose the flankers. Whilst that would be a shame it may, ultimately, be the only way to enable the flair to return. And there’s no need to feel sorry for them. They could always play in the three quarters as has happened with occasional rugby league converts.

Scrums ought to be an easy fix. Simply introduce rules that work. In an age when concussion injuries are being taken seriously, what possible purpose (other than sheer machismo) can a collision to start a scrum serve? Let the front rows bind and push when the ball is introduced. And whilst I’m on the subject, would it be possible to ask that the ball is fed into the middle of the scrum. It’s taken a while but union has finally caught up with league for blind eyed refereeing at scrums.

As for pitches the answer is not a return to days of old but to embrace the future. Either hybrid pitches or plastic pitches. The players deserve better as do spectators. I’m sure those who regularly watch Saracens, Newcastle Falcons or Cardiff Blues would testify to that.

And a thought on one way of making things just a little more interesting. Make the ball heavier. It will place a premium on handling as opposed to kicking and will go some way to eliminating the kick-fests that sometimes break out. The game may be called rugby football but I think we’re all agreed that it is, was and forever should be a handling game first and foremost. 

On the subject of kicking, do kickers really need ninety seconds to take a conversion? In a five try game almost ten percent of the game is lost. And with penalties, make it a minute from the penalty being given. Not a minute after the captain and kicker have had a think about what to do and then the kicker has had a drink! 

Another bone of contention is the lineout. Do teams really have to take so long getting to them? And why is lifting allowed? It seems to me that it adds little to the game and makes the lineout a bit of a pantomime with all of the moving around. 

I know that I’m starting to sound like my father and that there’s still a lot wrong with rugby, and yet I’d far sooner watch it than football!

The Rugby Magazine

Filed under: Spirit Of The Game
Written by: Neil Wright
Follow: @ · @therugbymag

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