Where is Average Joe?
Thoughts About The Game
Where have all the flowers gone?
Long time passing
Where have all the flowers gone
Long time ago
Where have all the flowers gone
Girls have picked them every one
When will they every learn?
When will they every learn?
Pete Seeger wrote that song back in 1955.
He was not thinking about rugby when he wrote that little ditty. In fact, I doubt whether Pete ever witnessed a rugby match in his 94 years on this earth before he left us in 2014. Pete was not really a rugby kinda guy. He was an American folk singer and social andpolitical activist, which was about as far removed from the world of rugby as one can get.
However, this very tune was playing in my little office as I sat thinking about rugby. As I sat pondering the problems of rugby, the tune started to change in my head.
Where have all the rugby fans gone?
Long time passing
Where have all the rugby fans gone?
Long time ago
Where have all the rugby fans gone?
Games have bored them every one
When will they ever learn?
When will they ever learn?
The initial thought, and the change in the lyrics of that little song were triggered as I was reviewing seven Super Rugby matches played over one weekend.
Sitting down to watch all 7 matches live on television requires a certain stoutness of constitution. Each game requires around two hours of one’s time. 80 minutes of scheduled rugby, 15 minutes for the half time break, then add another 20 minutes or so to each game for the time when the referee stops the clock for whatever reason, be it an injury, a TMO review, or to lecture players.
Now consider how much of that time is spent with the rugby ball actually in play!
The statistics are quite disturbing. So far in the 2018 Super Rugby competition, the ball has been in play for around 32 minutes in each game. (The Six Nations Tests are no better, averaging 31 minutes in play.)
If fans are spending 120 minutes of their time watching a sport of any sort, and the action is restricted to just 25% of the actual game time, you would imagine that boredom will become something of an issue.
There is an awful lot of time wasted in just one game of rugby.
Multiply that by 7 for all the Super Rugby games scheduled on an average weekend and you get 840 minutes (14 hours) and just 224 minutes of action. 3,7 hours of action in those 14 hours of game time.
Ever wondered why the stadiums are empty and the TV viewership numbers are dropping?
Which brings me to the real question:
What do the spectators and the fans, really want from a game of rugby?
Let me start by defining “spectators”:
They are the people who watch rugby, or any other sport or activity.
Various dictionaries will define the meaning in slightly varying terms, but the essence remains the same. They are the people who look on, the watchers, the observers. They are the people who are present at, and watch, a spectacle or display. Simply: A member of the audience or crowd.
Spectators are vastly different from the diehard fans of a specific team. Spectators are there to be entertained by the spectacle of two teams clashing on the field of sporting endeavour. They may have a preference for one or another of the teams participating in that clash, and they will no doubt want “their” team to win, but that is not the sole objective of their attendance at a game. Whatever the outcome, the spectator wants to enjoy the game, to be entertained, and will appreciate the efforts of the players in both teams. He is the guy I call Average Joe.
A diehard fan is a lot different. They arrive in the colours of their team, they wear them with pride, a certain obnoxious attitude, and expectation. They expect, nay, they demand that their team wins! They brook no excuses if the team loses, and will search for a scapegoat or two if their team has lost. The most usual scapegoat will be the Referee, with the Assistant Referees, the TMO, and the cheating opposition just a short head behind. Their team is never wrong, although the coach might be expendable.
When I ask these diehard fans, the ones who will wear the colours on weekends and sometimes in between too, the ones with the bumper sticker on their car and the hat with the funny horns, the guy who buys a season ticket to the stadium, if I ask them what they want from a game of rugby, their answer is invariably “To see their team win.”
Those diehard fans could not care less if their team wins ugly. Theydo not care one hoot about the style of rugby played or whether the win is achieved off the back of boring, grinding forward oriented pick-and-go dodgem-car rugby with plenty of penalties and no tries. They are orgasmic over a couple of drop goals and resolute defence. They want nothing less than a winning team.
Those are the die-hards.
They make up the 6 000 spectators jammed into the 52 000-seat stadium we call Loftus Versveld. Or the 5 000 spread thinly across the 25 000 seats of Waikato Stadium. The 10 900 that fill some space in the lower tiers of the 55 000 seats at Kings Park. 11 000 that cram into Suncorp’s 52 500 seats.The problem is that the few diehards do not fill a stadium. Sometimes there are very few diehards! Sometimes less than 1000 watched the Kings, or just 2 or 3 000 watching the Bulls, or Cheetahs. Not enough to hide the empty seats!
Do you begin to get the picture?
What about the rest of rugby’s fandom? Those Average Joe spectators with a love for thegame.
Those Average Joes that it takes to fill those empty seats.Where are they?
Why are there so many empty seats at really big rugby matches?
Why are the ordinary spectators staying away?
Where is our game going when it cannot attract spectators anymore?
I guess there are many contributing factors to all those empty seats.
Let’s examine some of the usual suspects.
The Cost of a Ticket?This used to be the favoured stick brandished by many as an excuse for not attending a game. “I cannot afford it…..”
I am not sure that ticket prices are solely to blame for the paucity of spectators at Super Rugby matches. It is not cheap, but then neither is a ticket to the movies!
In South Africa, The Stormers are about to host the Blues at Newlands. A ticket for a seat in the Grand Stand or on the opposite side, the Railway Stand, between the two 22m line will cost you R160. From the 22m line to the goal line the price drops to R130, and if you want to stand in front of the Danie Craven stand (the old South Stand) you pay R50,00 for the privilege.
On the same day that the Stormers host the Blues, the Lions will host the Crusaders at Ellis Park. Prices at Ellis Park range from R85.00 on the Grand Stand, to R30.00 Behind the posts. Those are pretty good prices for a big game of rugby!
Super Rugby tickets at Loftus Versveld range between R116.00 and R373.00. On the high side in local terms!
Down Durban way, at Kings Park, ticket prices are advertised at between R50.00 and R130.00
These prices all seem very reasonable. Average Joe should be able to afford a ticket.
I am guessing that it is not just the price of a ticket that is keeping the fans away?
Let’s worry this bone just a little more: Perhaps the ticket prices are still too high? Loftus Versveld can seat 52 000 people. If they were to sell the tickets at just R40 each, a full stadium would produce over R2 Million in ticket sales. Selling 10 000 tickets at their current cheapest seat rate of R116.00 produces about R1,2 Million. Trying to fill the stadium when your cheapest ticket is priced at R116.00 is perhaps a little crazy?
I am all for the tickets being sold at the cheapest possible price. Even go so far as to give them away to schools and clubs, sell them for R20 or R40, or even R50 for a grand stand ticket, but fill the stadium!
Doesn’t 30, 40, or 50 000 spectators sound so much better?Drop the prices and fill the stadium. The buzz of the crowd makes for a special occasion, and a full stadium generates all sorts of additional revenues, from the sale of meals, snacks and cool drinks and beer to team merchandise, flags, caps and the like.
Advertising revenues in a full stadium will be a gold mine compared to what sponsors will pay for signs in a cavernously empty space.
Critically, and perhaps the most important benefit to full stadia is the increased awareness of the home team and the competition amongst the wider TV viewing audience. If you watch a game played at a full stadium, the psychological need to attend such an event grows. It is human to want to be part of the excitement, part of the success.
There are those that argue for smaller stadiums rather than the huge venues that are currently in use, but this argument is self-defeating as it makes no provision for the really big games such as test matches, which are automatically a sell-out, nor does it allow for growth in spectator numbers as, hopefully, the team and support grows.
There would be the added problem, what to do with those big stadiums that already exist?
Test TicketsTest Match tickets are a totally different kettle of fish. Prices are exorbitant, and it is likely that we will see empty seats at some of the venues. (Newlands is likely to be the only venue that is filled to capacity, but those Cape Town types are amongst the most loyal supporters in the world.
If you want a ticket for the Test Match at Ellis Park, when England visit, the cheapest seat available, in the very corner of the stadium, behind the posts, next to the exit to the stadium, will set you back R365.00. A ticket on the lower tier of the East stand, between the halfway line and the 22m line will set you back R3 599.00! Lower tier, between the 22m and the goal line? R3 500.00.
The Free State stadium, for the 2nd Test is a little more reasonable, at R2 924 for the uppertier in the Main stand, and but exorbitant at R891.00 in the corner behind the posts.
Newlands, for the 3rd Test is already sold out, but had the cheapest tickets of the three, ranging from Standing, behind the posts for R868, through to seating in the Railway stand for R2 385.00.
Over in Australia they are expecting the Irish to tour in the midyear. If you want a lower tier ticket for a Test match at Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane, somewhere between the 10m line and the goal line, you are forced to buy a Platinum grade ticket for A$149.00 (Around R1500 in SA Rand.) If you are happy to sit in the corners, or behind the posts, you can get a seat for A$49.00 (R500)
Test matches are something different, those who stay away from the regular provincial or Super Rugby games suddenly feel the need to become rugby fans. They will go to a Test match, as long as they can afford the ticket.
I believe that the Test ticket prices are exorbitant. R891 to sit in a corner, behind the posts, with almost zero view of the game is just ludicrous. A family of four would need to shell out R3 564.00 just for seats. Add in the cost of travel to and from the venue, parking fees and the like and the afternoon is goi9ng to set you back over R4 000.00 – That is what aweekend away in a cottage at the seaside is going to cost you!
And if my friend Pete insists on buying those damned hotdogs, he has to add another R400 to his bill.
Lack of Success
The lack of success of the local team does lead to many fans, other than the real diehards, staying away.
The Sharks used to pride themselves on their loyal corps of supporters. The tailgate after-match braais, the camaraderie, the fun, and a winning team made for a good day out. Then they had a dismal 2015, a bad 2016, and a mediocre 2017, on the playing field, andtheir Average Joe numbers started dwindling week by disastrous week.
During the last couple of days, we have heard about the financial woes of the Bulls professional rugby company. They are reportedly close to bankruptcy.
The prime reason has to be the lack of Bulls’ successes on the field of play. Loftus Versveld used to be the Bulls’ fortress. A stamping ground where a sea of blue clad supportersbellowed their support for their team.
And then they started losing, on the field of play, and spectator numbers drained from the stands. A team that used to easily draw a crowd of over 30 000 was suddenly playing in front of 5 000 or even less. The Average Joes were voting with their feet. And those feet were pointing away from Loftus.
Building spectator numbers has to be one of the primary motivating factors for producing a competitive, and hopefully, a winning team.
However, we must not be blind to the fact that a winning team also does not guarantee a full stadium! Even successful teams such as the Crusaders, the Lions, Hurricanes, and the Australian Brumbies are struggling to fill stadiums. There has to be more to the problem.
Over-Supply: Too Much Rugby.
Way back in the mists of time, I must have been 10 or 11 years old, there was a sweet shop in old Cape Town that went by the name of Millar’s. I am cursed with a sweet tooth, so I remember them fondly, pink and white striped décor, glass jars and showcases with trays of all kinds of old fashioned sweets. The liquorice wheels, the packets of sherbet with a liquorice straw, the handfuls of boiled sweets with real fruit flavours. Fruit pastilles, and drops, sugary things one and all. My only saving was that they were all unaffordable on my very limited pocket money budget.
Except at Christmas, when our parents gave us a seasonal pocket money booster-shot in order that we may go off and buy gifts for the extended family.
Millar’s was a goldmine for presents. Those soft melty mints for one Granny, mini-chocolate slabs wrapped in their own foil, then tissue paper, and finally that glossy read paper cover – good for diverse brother, sisters, and even one or another grandparent. The very expensive dark chocolate covered ginger nuggets for one Grandfather.
And if you happened to have anything left after your gift list had been ticked off, maybe you can afford a sherbet pocket….
One year, as I said above, when I was about 10 or 11, I discovered a Millar’s product thatwas really special. My grandmother (actually a step-granny but they all counted..) had a jar of these little coffee beans in the lounge, special treats for guests…
They looked like chocolate, but they were not. They were different! They had a hard coffee flavoured candy casing, so sugary, and inside each little bean was a tiny little spurt of coffee flavoured liquor of some sort. They were delicious, and strictly forbidden to the young ones, amongst whom I, despite vociferous objection, was counted. I heard my mother mutter about the alcohol content, but at that innocent age had no idea what alcohol was…….
The forbidden sweets became a fixation. I wanted them, all the time. I would sneak into the lounge, pinch one or two, and sneak out again, highly pleased by the success of my raid on the forbidden fruits!
And then Christmas rolled around, and the annual bonus was added to the pocket money. We set off for our annual gift-shopping safari in the big city.
Of course, as soon as I had shrugged off the attentions of my parents and siblings I was inside Millar’s. I wandered the shelves, drooling ever so slightly, and picking the gifts for each on my list.
Until I saw the jar of those coffee beans!
Rapid mental arithmetic quickly followed as I cut back on the budget for gifts for diverse grandparents, parents, siblings and a couple of aunts. If I cut back here, and there….
I could afford a small brown paper packet of those coffee beans, all for myself!
Transactions completed we returned to the farm, my ultra-secret brown bag hidden amongst other secrets. I was not inclined to share these little magic beans with anyone! (Especially as they might be confiscated as being wholly unsuitable for a 10-year-old!)
At the first opportunity, I secreted myself under my bed, my usual hiding place, with a book and my bag of magic… And gorged myself.
I was hugely and very unhappily sick after my private party. The family were hugely concerned, and I was promptly put to bed with a glass of Lemon-Barley Water, an elixirreserved for the very sick or very old. My senior Granny drank the stuff when she visited. (I had lots of Grannies, but that is a different story.)
Everyone wondered what bug had infiltrated my system, where did I get it? Was it in the stables, the lucerne shed, the silage pit, or the dairy, the wine cellar, perhaps in the water in the unfiltered pond we called a swimming pool?
Only I knew the answer! It was those Millar’s Coffee Beans.
More than half a century has passed since that Christmas, Millar’s is long gone, and I have never, ever eaten another coffee bean shaped sweet or liquor filled confectionery again. Ever!
(I am hooked on coffee, though….)
Which, in a very roundabout way, brings me to the next of my points about Super Rugby.
I would suggest that a contributory factor to the disappearance of Average Joe at rugby matches and the dwindling numbers of TV watchers has to be the Over-exposure factor; far too much rugby on offer in a jam-packed and much too long season.
There is just too much rugby on offer, both live and especially on TV.
Super 15 Rugby has 120 regular season games before we hit the 4 playoffs and then 2 semi-finals and the final. 127 games of Super Rugby, squeezed into 21 weekends.
On a regular weekend, you have the choice of 7 Super Rugby matches to select from for your viewing pleasure on TV, perhaps in a local stadium if you wanted live action.
That is one helluva lot of rugby.
In a regular year we also have the midyear Incoming Test match tours, then the four nation Rugby Championships, with each country playing each other twice; them there is the somewhat watered down Currie Cup in South Africa; the ITM or NPC, whichever it is called this year, in New Zealand; and the new National Rugby Championships over in Australia; Varsity Cup; and some schools rugby too. All grinding their weary way towards the end of a 10-month long domestic rugby season.
Add in the end-the-year-silly-season tours to the Northern Hemisphere and the southern teams have a rugby season that stretches for fully eleven months of the year.
(Somewhere I hear a ghostly whisper: “But it is meant to be a winter sport…..”)
Our TV Broadcasters have still more to throw at us.
We get the Six-Nations, we get Aviva and RFU, and Pro 14, we get Top 14 too, and some European Champions Cup, and some Challenge Cup too.
A never-ending blizzard of rugby. A tsunami of mostly bland, inconsequential, or irrelevant.
With a healthy dose of Sevens squeezed in somewhere.
Somewhere in that overly-long, overly-cluttered, massively over-hyped rugby season we find the roots of a disease that I will call “Spectator Fatigueitis.” – The overwhelming fatigue that sets in when you turn on the TV and find yet another meaningless rugby match flickering from your screen.
When that Fatigueitis sets in, the immense boredom of the same old dreariness week after week, then the game is in very serious trouble. Spectators, fans, Average Joes, even the diehards amongst us, start to look for something else. Heaven forbid, I caught my ten-year-old nephew watching the round-ball game when there was a Test Match on another channel! He said he was “Tired of rugby!”
This is the classic example of Overkill….. Too many of those Millar’s coffee beans……………
I have mentioned the Over-Priced, the Losing Team, and the Over-Exposure factors, as being contributors to the growing problem of a lack of support for the game. The missing spectators and the distracted TV viewers.
Let’s move on to Over-Complicated.
(This goes hand in hand with the concept of Over-Officiated.)
In a number of previous articles, I have banged on about the complexity of the Laws coupled to the hugely inconsistent interpretations of those same Laws; add intheincomprehensible application of some unwritten laws, Paul Dobson calls it “home-made” laws, that the referees have introduced off their own bat, and you have a game that Average Joe no longer understands.
Never mind Average Joe, most rugby aficionados no longer understand what is happening on the field anymore!
Let me illustrate my point by referring to a couple of the Laws of the Game:
Please tell me you understand how the referees are interpreting Law 15 that governs the ruck. I do not!
The introductory sentence to this Law says:
“The purpose of a ruck is to allow players to compete for the ball which is on the ground.”
How many times have you heard the referee yell “No! Leave it! The Ruck has formed…..” In other words: “Do not compete for the ball, the ruck has formed…..”
Law 15.3 says:Players involved in all stages of the ruck must have their heads and shoulders no lower than their hips. Sanction: Free-kick.
This section is simply ignored by referees. Ruck after ruck we see players with their heads down low and their rear end in the air.
Law 15 continues:
15.5: An arriving player must be on their feet and join from behind their offside line.
15.6: A player may join alongside but not in front of the hindmost player.
15.7: A player must bind onto a team-mate or an opposition player. The bind must precede or be simultaneous with contact with any other part of the body.
15.8: Players must join the ruck or retire behind their offside line immediately.
15.9: Players who have previously been part of the ruck may rejoin the ruck, provided they do so from an onside position.
Now, when you watch your next rugby match on TV or at the stadium, I want you to count how many times the referee actually applies any of the above. 15.5. Arriving player on his feet and joining from behind is probably the only one they pay any attention to, it is applied 90% of the time.
The rest are simply ignored. 15.7 is the most frequently ignored. Players simply rush up to the ruck and take out (clear out) fringe players who are not attached to the ruck. There is no Law anywhere in the book that allows anyone to play someone without the ball. Players then crouch ahead of the ball on the ground, with a hand perhaps touching someone who is in the ruck, and so prevent the opposition from joining the ruck. Obstruction, surely?
15.8 is a frequent bone of contention. Players arrive at a ruck, drive over or through the ruck, and then loiter beyond the ball, holding onto the odd jersey or simply blocking the arrival of opposition players at the ruck. This is both obstruction and offsides, yet the referees simply ignore it.
Law 15.12 says:
Players must endeavour to remain on their feet throughout the ruck.
Another section of the law that is simply ignored by most referees.
I have just watched most of the games played in the initial rounds of the 2018 Super Rugby competition. In each and every game I have seen player after player go to ground in the ruck. I watched them bypass the man with the ball and fall to the ground beyond him, a deliberate sealing off of the ball. I watched players falling on each side of the man with the ball, again sealing him off from the competition. I watched players jump onto the man with the ball or on the man attempting to gain a turn-over of the ball, surely a direct contravention of almost all of Law 15.
I watched players pass the ruck without making any sort of contact with the ruck and then stand on the wrong side in the face of the opposition. Firstly, this is in direct contravention of Law 15.8 that says a player joining the ruck must bind with another player in the ruck, and secondly (as I said above) it does seem to be obstruction too! Third, at the very least he is offside at the ruck, as he is not part of the ruck, and he is not behind the last man’s feet.
Do the referees do anything at all about players going to ground in the ruck?
Well, we do hear them talking about “supporting your own bodyweight” a phrase that is not found anywhere in the written Law, but most of the time they simply ignore the players who charge in and go to ground next to or beyond the ball.
They do even less about the players that charge in with scant use of their arms and no attempt to bind on entering the ruck. The no-arms, dangerously reckless dive into contact at ruck time is one of rugby’s law contraventions that every referee simply ignores, most of the time. They like to call it “cleaning out” the ruck.
Absolutely zero is done about players who take out opponents on the fringes of the ruck, even where such players are not part of the ruck at all.
The bottom line is that Law 15 looks nice on paper, just a pity it is mostly not being applied.
And now try and explain the ruck and Law 15 to a casual spectator, or to Average Joe, who is attending the game for some entertainment and excitement.
Look at the Interpretations of the Forward Pass, or “Throw Forward” as Law 11 calls it.
2018 has seen a rewrite of Law 11, with the section on the forward pass, or “throw forward” being wholly restated. The definition of a “throw forward” has been removed from the Law itself and placed in the Definitions that apply to the entire set of Laws.
The Throw Forward is now defined as:
Throw forward: When a player throws or passes the ball forward i.e. if the arms of the player passing the ball move forward.
Some may suggest that this clarifies the Law, yet I believe that it muddies the waters completely.
In the past a throw forward was any ball that travelled towards the opponent’s dead ball line.
Now ask referees to determine which way the passing player’s arms were moving. And it is very easy to throw a ball forward while your arms are facing the other way, it all depends on body position as you pass the ball.
A forward pass can also easily happen from a flick-on or a touch of the hand, it does not have to be directly as a result of arms moving forward. A hand-off of the ball, now termed an “offload,” can be forward simply because of the body positions of the two players, without any use of the arms.
Where do you draw the line, and how do explain this one to someone who is new to watching the game?
Okay then, let’s move on to some unwritten, yet inexplicable interpretations of the Law.
Law 19 governs the Scrum, an essential and unique ingredient to our game.
The scrum has become the single most complicated area of the entire game as officialdom has stepped in and fixed something that was never broken.
First and foremost, they introduced a strange ritualistic “crouch, bind, set” routine for getting a scrum ready for action. This routine, along with referees’ personal interpretations of “space” and other technical bits has resulted in 2 out of 3 scrums collapsing on the “set” command and having to be reset.
Back in 1995, before the introduction of these ludicrous routines, the scrum hardly every collapsed. At the Rugby World Cup of that year there is no record of a single collapsed scrum!
And then the officials stepped in and created chaos.
Binding before setting the scrum is sequentially wrong. The two used to be one action, now they are two separate steps, with a pause and contrived space between the front rows that invariably results in players “over-extending” and “hinging” on the set. Officialdom has got this very wrong.
They have also neutered the scrum as a platform for launching attacks by somehow making a scrum wheel a penalisable offence. (No, you won’t find that written in Law 19, it is a referees’ homemade special.)
Law 19.34.c does say that if a scrum wheels more than 90º the referee must order the scrum reset.
There is NOTHING about penalising a team for deliberately wheeling the scrum.
There is NOTHING about having to go forward before you can wheel. Despite some of the TV commentators talking about “earning the right to wheel” there is no such thing in the Law!
There is NOTHING about a prop retreating.
Anther inexplicable interpretation is where props are penalised for being shoved up out of the scrum. This is in direct contravention of the written Law 19.37.c that says the player doing the lifting must be penalised. That is akin to penalising a flyhalf for missing a tackle!
Law 19.25 & 26 specifically say that if a player is lifted or forced upwards out of the scrum the referee must stop and reset the scrum. The referees ignore this and automatically launch an arm skywards to award a penalty against the prop or hooker that has been lifted or forced out of the scrum, often saying it is for “not competing” – something you will also not find anywhere in the written Law.
Law 19 has plenty to say about Dangerous Play and Restricted Practices in The Scrum.
Law 19.37 & 38 go into some detail, including the bit I referred to above about intentionally lifting an opponent in the scrum. There is also much said about INTENTIONALLY kneeling, falling or collapsing the scrum.
However, one of the most regular penalties served up by the referees is when a player collapses because he simply cannot hold the pressure put on him by the opposition and he is forced to the ground. He does not deliberately go to ground, he is scrummed into the ground, and then penalised for…………. I am not sure what for……. Being physically weaker than his opponent perhaps????
Law 19.11.d) tells us that the players must maintain their binding for the duration of the scrum. But it says nothing about a player’s elbow or arm touching the ground during the scrum, yet it is a favourite penalty for so many referees.
The bottom line is that the scrum is governed by Law 19, yet we regularly have referees dishing out penalties for infringements that are not contained anywhere in the written Laws or the Law Clarifications issued by World Rugby.
Enough, we can pick holes in each of the 21 Laws and their multitudes of clauses and subclauses. The point is that the game of rugby is hugely over-complicated, and then the officiating referees and their cohorts complicate it even further by introducing their own personal interpretations and some unwritten laws that they invent during their little referees’ meetings.
The Laws of Rugby and the level of referee intervention need a very serious and drastic rethink.
In fact, to quote from Wynne Gray, a rugby journalist of impeccable reputation and decades of involvement with the game, who has personally attended more than 230 All Black test matches: “Tell us you understand the rules SANZAR – we don’t!”
And Average Joe is bored to tears by a game that has become hugely over complicated by the pedantic application of a plethora of incomprehensible laws by incompetent referees.
Average Joe does not give a hoot whether the tighthead prop has slipped his bind from the back to the arm, or whether the props used their hands on the ground to keep the scrum up! All Joe wants to see is the scrum completed and the ball coming out quickly, and back into open play.
Joe does not want to see the referee resetting scrum after scrum, after scrum because of some incomprehensible aspect of the laws that are known only to a select few referees, often because they are making up their own interpretations of Law 19.
Joe does not want to hear the referee lecturing the two front rows about a clear space, or leaning in, or hinging or any of the other stuff that does not actually exist in the Law. We are tired of hearing about “Crouch, Bind, and Set” followed by a penalty for “Early Engage!”
The scrum was never a problem, until they chose to “fix” it after 1995.
Average Joe is tired of hearing the referees yell out instructions during a game. “Stop Seven!” “Leave him!” “Roll Blue!” “No Hands!” “Wait!” “Release 12!” “No!” – It is a constant jabber that makes a nonsense of players needing to know or understand the rules and seems to give infringing players carte blanche to do whatever they like until the ref says something.
The referees and their constant jabbering on the field have had a reprehensible side effect too – players now feel that they can and must engage the referee in conversation all of the time. Scrumhalves constantly flap their arms and appeal to the referee and his assistants for penalties, forwards query every decision the referee makes, fullbacks and flyhalves query the assistant referee’s decision about kicks to touch. We have even seen momentsreminiscent of the mob tactics often adopted by players in the round-ball game, getting right up close and personal in the referee’s space. Whatever happened to the unwritten rule that only the captain talks to the referee?
Let’s take a brief look at another aspect of the game that is serving to slowly strangle the game to death.
Prior to 1995 rugby was supposedly an amateur game. This is, of course, not strictly true and many players made a living from the game, but that is a discussion for another place and another time.
During the amateur era different rugby nations played different styles of rugby. The South Africans revelled in their rock hard, fast fields, with flyhalves that kicked the ball into low earth orbit for very quick wings to chase down, and mountainous forwards that thrived on the physicality of the old adage of subdue and penetrate.
The All Blacks relied on superb ball skills amongst their backs and granite-like sheep farmers and tree-felling foresters amongst the forwards to grind the opposition into the ground while the backs ran circles around everyone. Over in the United Kingdom they worked out how to play forward oriented rugby that survived the mud of endless rainy winters, with the exception of the Welsh, who somehow found the ability to run in the same mud.
The French stood well clear of all their competitors for flair and unpredictability. They found ways to exploit space that other teams did not even know existed. They would do outrageous things with the ball, throwing passes that crossed half the field one moment and the next move would slip a backhanded offload to someone just inches behind them. They were known for running with the ball from every square inch of the field, sidestepping and jinking like a rabbit avoiding a hungry fox. They were not the winningest side in world rugby, but they were the most spectacular to watch.
Then 1995 dawned, the last amateur Rugby World Cup was played, and rugby went professional.
Since then the game has undergone an extraordinary transformation.
Players are bigger, stronger, faster and fitter than ever before. They are physically trained and scientifically assisted to increase their speed across the turf, their speed off the mark, and their speed in making decisions.
Coaches are assisted by a plethora of specialists, from strength coaches to psychologists, nutritionists and hand/eye coordination specialists. There are backline attack coaches and defence coaches, scrum coaches and lineout coaches.
Technology has provided little sensor packs that slip into a pocket at the back of the jersey and provide GPS detail on every step a player takes on the field, how far he walks, runs and sprints. It measures the impact of every tackle, his heart rate and body temperature……
Video analysts watch every move the opponents make in every game they play, and also analyze the way their own and opposition players stand and run, pass and kick.
Biokinetisists show players the ideal way to hold their shoulders and how to move their feet and when to breathe when sprinting. Every single aspect of the game is broken down to find the best way to put it all together again.
Teams are better organized, both on and off the field, and coaches more astute and they have ample time to think about the game. There are no day jobs to worry about anymore, and their entire focus is on the game of rugby.
We have reached another use of the word: “Over”. The game is being Over-Analyzed.
This over-analysis focused many teams on what some coaches refer to as Zero-Risk Rugby. Take no chances and make no mistakes. When a player or a team made an on-field decision they were drilled, brainwashed almost, into taking the lowest risk option.
For some teams, defence ruled the game, with the primary attacking option being to hoof the ball into your opponent’s half of the field and then try and pressurize them into making a mistake at a ruck, maul or scrum to milk a penalty within range of their posts. (Anyone recognize JakeBall??)
Winning became everything. Entertainment was not part of the equation.
Fortunately, there has been a move away from this over-sterilized form of the game as many teams, led by the adventurous New Zealanders, sought to once again exploit those three essentials of rugby: Space, Surprise, and Speed.
Yet these endevours are often complicated by the Laws and the way the referees apply them. There is simply no space around the fringes of a ruck or maul anymore. There is no surprise in pick-and-go tactics as forwards simply try to grind their way forward in phase after phase of the same thing.
The fact that there can be no contest for the ball on the ground once the ruck has set means that the defending team can leave just one, perhaps two players in the ruck itself, flood the immediate fringes with their biggest tacklers, and spread the rest across the field to close off any space that the game might thrive on.
Although we are seeing a move back to an exciting, open, innovative game, the Laws and referees still over-complicate the issue and prevent the game from developing. At the time of writing the average rugby match offers up some 31 minutes of the ball being in play, out of the 80 minutes that a game is scheduled to last.
There is something wrong with that!
Over-Complicated Laws, Over-Officiated Games, Over-Analyzed Tactics and Teams, Over-Coached Players, and we have a game that has become somewhat static and sterile.
Add in the fact that our game has become Over-Exposed in the media and by having too much of the same drudgery on offer, week in and week out in an Over-Long season, and I fear that the game is slowly but surely strangling itself to death.
The Average Joe Spectator does not want to see two colossal packs throwing the kitchen sink at each other. Trundling into contact and recycling a ball, over and over, without actually going anywhere.
Average Joe does not understand the complexities of the scrum and lineout Laws. Hecannot figure why the prop may not put his hand on the ground, or why the referee is penalizing someone for something truly obscure. Joe has no idea what is actually happening in and around the ruck.
Average Joe does not want to see teams trying to milk penalties for technical infringements at the scrums, mauls and rucks that form the core of the game. Joe is tired of watching super-efficient goal kickers line the ball up with the posts and totting up another three points for their team.
Average Joe wants to see tries scored. He wants to see players run with the ball. He wants to see side-steps and shimmies, dummies and scissors. He wants to see razzle dazzle and footwork. He wants to see the ball being passed with pinpoint accuracy to a man who can run into space at speed!
He wants to see that sleight of hand as a player pops a short pass to his team mate who is running right on his shoulder. He wants to see the ball move down the backline faster than a man can run, and he wants to see the player with the ball take outrageous chances.
Joe wants to see desperate defence and instant counter-attack.
Average Joe wants to see sublime skills, not flexing muscles!
He does not care about overly complicated Laws, rules, regulations and interpretations.
Average Joe wants to be entertained!
He will fill those stadiums if he knows he is going to be entertained! He will be glued to his television set if he knows that he will be entertained. Joe will be happy, and he will be a rugby fan for life! The sponsors and advertisers will be happy, their products will be associated with something worthwhile and attractive. The players will be happy, playing a game they love in a stadium filled to the brim with spectators and humming with expectation. That is what rugby should be about!
And I am Average Joe.