Rugby Under A Microscope..

“What A Wonderful World Cup!!”

 “The Year That Rugby Went Global!”

 RWC the best ever despite England disaster.”

 RWC wrap: When rugby’s rocket was lit!”

 “The Best World Cup Ever!”

The news headlines have screamed the good news in the days since the end of the Rugby World Cup of 2015.

There can be no doubt that Rugby World Cup 2015 was a huge success both on and off the field. The English had learned their hosting lessons at the 2012 Olympic Games, and they were truly superb hosts for rugby’s showpiece tournament. Well Done England!

A total of 2 477 805 spectators attended World Cup matches at stadiums that were impeccably prepared and extraordinarily well run. That is an average of 50 996 spectators at each game. Wonderful! 89 267 people watched Ireland beat Romania 44-10 on the 27th September, a record attendance at any World Cup match, ever.

In many ways this was a World Cup of superlatives. A seven week long rugby extravaganza that will be remembered by all that participated, be it players, spectators, volunteers, administrators, or television viewers across the world. The crowds were exceptional, the weather behaved itself, much of the rugby was sublime, Julian Savea scored 8 tries and Nehe Milner-Skudder ran 561 meters with the ball in hand. Argentina showed the value of regular high-level competition with a brand of rugby that promises much for the future. Their Sebastian Cordero made all of 514 meters with the ball in hand too!

Perhaps the moment of the tournament, if not Rugby’s moment of the 21st Century was Japan’s victory over South Africa. This moment signaled to the world that the little guys had arrived and could and would beat any one of the big guys if given half a chance. The minnows had learned to feed on the big fish!

As Bernard Lapasset put it last Sunday, this has been “the most competitive, best-attended, most-watched, most socially-engaged, most commercially-successful Rugby World Cup.”

Even England’s early departure from their home tournament was not a disaster for the tournament as a whole. There is much excited talk about the legacy that this Rugby World Cup will leave behind, especially in the cities, towns and villages of the host nation and it’s immediate neighbours. Some rugby scribes expect kids to immediately abandon the round ball game in favour of running around with the egg shaped one imagining that they are the next Nehe Milner-Skudder, or perhaps a Schalk Burger, Scott Spedding or one of their local heroes… I am not sure that will happen, soccer has universal appeal beyond the reach of rugby, but rugby has certainly enhanced it’s image with RWC 2015.

The Rugby World Cup justifies its claim to being a global showpiece.

After their magnificent performance against South Africa, a massive 25 million Japanese TV viewers tuned in to watch their team beat Samoa.

Remember that Japan, with its new and rapidly expanding support base, will host the tournament’s next edition in 2019. The sport is not only growing, but that Japanese support base is hugely passionate about their team!

Rugby’s potential for mass appeal was also enhanced by the performance of the other so-called minnow nations. Teams like Romania, Namibia and Uruguay showed that they have come a long way in catching up with the game’s big names. The runaway scores in excess of 100 are a thing of the past. In 2015 there were none of the embarrassing walkovers we saw in previous World Cups.

This was a tournament worthy of the title World Cup.

Whilst we bathe in the glow of a successful Rugby World Cup tournament, and whilst the interest of so many is focussed on our game, we might perhaps sit back and relax a bit, with the thought that our sport is healthy, and in a very good place at the moment.

This would be a serious mistake! This is the very moment when we need to focus on some of the problems that rugby faces in the years that lie ahead. Let’s not be blinded by the success of the World Cup – There is much that is wrong with our game, so much that needs to be fixed and fine-tuned to ensure the future of our game.

Perhaps we need to begin with the very root of all the problems within the game of rugby – a hugely complex set of Laws that defy logic. The Laws of the game are so complex that the Referees simply cannot achieve any level of consistency in the application of many of those Laws. Spectators frequently have no idea why a referee has made a ruling on the field of play. All too frequently even the players have no idea why a particular referee is awarding a penalty or free kick for or against their team.

The ruck is a strange mixture of legal and illegal activities, some may play the ball, some may not. Some may fall all over the heap on the ground, others may not. Some can lie around on the ball, others must “support their own weight” and more. An offside line is part of the ruck somewhere, but is frequently ignored by referees and players alike.

A lineout maul appears to be legalised obstruction that a defending team has no legal way of stopping. Legalising the maul is also in complete contradiction to other Laws in the book!

Scrums are like Algebra to Billy Connolly, a complete mystery. To some it is beyond astrophysics….

Forward passes defy the logic of the law, while the definition of straight is simply not applied when the scrumhalf puts a ball into the scrum or a hooker throws the ball at a lineout.

Perhaps the most confusing of all is that many of the laws contradict each other from one page to the next in the annual publication and revision of the Law Book.

Which leads us straight to the second issue that needs to be addressed – the standard of officiating in the game of rugby.

The Rugby World Cup provided us with a view of the top 12 Referees in the entire world managing some 40 pool games, and then 8 play-off games. 48 games that simply emphasised the unacceptable differences in interpretation and application of the laws amongst the top twelve Referees. Northern hemisphereans interpret certain laws differently to their southern counterparts, and then there are the national differences between the likes of France, England, Wales, Ireland, South Africa, and New Zealand. The lack of consistency at the very highest level of the game is simply unacceptable.

If we step down a level and examine the officiating at the Super Rugby, Premiership, Top 14, or other local or national competitions the level of refereeing competency becomes something of a joke. When a referee admits to ignoring the rulebook and blowing the game according to his instincts there is something very seriously wrong with the whole system of officiating at rugby matches.

Add to the problem of differing interpretations amongst the Referees, the insidious influence of the Television Match Officials and the Assistant Referees and their own personal interpretations of events on the field and the Laws, and the problem is compounded beyond the acceptable.

The less said about World Rugby’s inexplicable decision to “throw Craig Joubert under the bus” the better for all concerned. If World Rugby cannot set a standard for supporting officials there is a huge question mark over the entire organisation.

We now come to a third issue that reflects poorly on the professionalism of our game – the complete inconsistency of the findings and sentences dished out by the judicial officials appointed to handle disciplinary issues at the Rugby World Cup. Some of the findings were so palpably wrong as to beggar belief, whilst others seemed to signal a huge bias against the smaller, second tier teams and players. “Discounts” were offered for previous good behaviour, and the influence of highly paid lawyers at disciplinary hearings is a blight on our game.

A fourth issue that was highlighted by the crowds at the World Cup was the lack of spectators at the plethora of games hosted in the southern hemisphere. Whilst the stadiums that hosted World Cup events were frequently chock-a-block with spectators, a quick comparison between the spectator numbers at World Cup fixtures and the numbers that turn up to watch a Rugby Championship game in South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and the Argentine must give cause for massive concern. Add the number of empty seats at Super Rugby fixtures and the health of the game as a viewing spectacle must be of huge concern to administrators and advertisers alike. The Rugby World Cup comes around but once every four years, Super Rugby and the Rugby Championships recur every single year.

The fifth issue is perhaps the most serious, the one I term the “Ticking Time Bomb” of rugby. I have written and spoken before about my concerns about the long-term impact of rugby injuries especially those that are not immediately evident. The authorities at World Rugby have sidestepped the issue of long-term effects of rugby injuries on players with the same kind of footwork displayed by Nehe Milner-Skudder in full flight. There is a simple yet clear refusal to recognise that rugby is a high impact sport that can and does have long-term negative effects on the participants. Why can the American National Football League publically acknowledge that their sport can and does cause long term health problems for participants while rugby, a sport practiced for a much longer season than the NFL, and featuring a game where the impact of physical contact is so much more violent, simply denies the evidence and moves away from any discussion on the subject?

The next issue that requires immediate attention is to find the ways and means to incorporate the so-called Tier Two countries into more regular competition against the bigger fish. How about Georgia and Rumania being included in the Six Nations? How to include the Samoas, Tongas, Fijis and Japans into competition against the likes of Australia, New Zealand, perhaps even South Africa? What to do about Namibia in their unique position as a somewhat distant cousin to South Africa? Canada and the USA to compete across the Atlantic with 6 Nations countries?

Yet another issue that requires much thought and perhaps a variety of solutions is the ease with which players can cross borders and suddenly assume a new nationality, representing a country at international level simply because they have stayed and played within the borders of that country for three years. They often do not yet qualify for citizenship of their new country, yet they may represent that country at the highest level of our sport. The poaching of youngsters, nurtured and developed by one country right through to a national representative level of U/21 and then suddenly disappearing to sign a lucrative franchise or club contract elsewhere and quickly assume the nationality of another country is another serious blight on the game. The player drain from the southern hemisphere northwards cannot be good for the long term development of rugby in the donor country, nor in the recipient country.

Somewhat less of an issue, but one that rears it’s ugly head with increasing frequency is the issue of players serving two masters, club and country. We have clubs objecting to players being called up to national service, even when there are specific contractual clauses in place between player and club, and where World Rugby has provided regulatory frameworks for such call-ups. On the other side of the coin we find national coaches calling up fringe players who will spend an entire season as nothing more than bag-carriers and wearing the water-boy bib. There needs to be a re-think in this entire process.

There needs to be a seamless connection between club and country for players to develop to their full potential. Players need to be on one programme to develop all the criteria required to be world-class athletes. Take the strange and sad saga of ex-league player Sam Burgess as an example. His club, Bath, consistently used him as a loose-forward, yet England selected him as a midfield back! (He has since returned to 13-man rugby in Australia, which suggests his conversion to 15s rugby was simply an expedient to have a go at playing in the Rugby World Cup.) The real issue is a simple one, club and country were completely at odds with regard to the development and utilization of a player.

The above reflects a simple summary of some the more serious issues that face World Rugby in the afterglow of a hugely successful Rugby World Cup. We ignore these issues at our own peril!

I will expand on each of the above issues in individual articles during the weeks that lie ahead of us.