couple of months out from
what is likely to be the most
commercially successful World
Cup of all time – it doesn’t feel
like rugby is a sport fraying badly at
the edges.
Incredible broadcast deals have been
locked in across Europe and the Southern
Hemisphere is believed to have sold its
assets for a record deal. The All Blacks are
building their family of sponsors, Sevens is
a year out from going to the Olympics and
has a greatly improved world circuit and
playing numbers from Timbuktu
[literally] to Timaru, are growing.
How could anyone have their doubts
about the future of rugby?
It is well on the way to becoming a truly
global sport. Look at Georgia who are now
pressing a strong case to be included in the
Six Nations.
The All Blacks played a test in Chicago
last year and Portugal drew with New
Zealand at the Hong Kong Sevens. No
way is the sport in any kind of difficulty.
It can’t be.
Yet, for all the achievements and boxes
that continue to be ticked; for all that
money pours into the game and the wider
audience is drawn to it, it feels as if there is
something a little troubled in its soul.
The more it grows, the more it loses a
little bit of its true self. Rugby couldn’t
have remained the giant public school,
old boys club it was in the amateur era,
but much of the ethos and values of that
period could have been retained in the
transition to professionalism.
The game has to be contemporary.
Innovation has always been a central
plank and adaptation is to be welcomed.
Rugby can’t stand still or it will die.
Change, per se, is not the problem. Nope,
thats not it. What is worrying is that the
game has lost its essence.
In building terms, rugby needed a new
façade – not for the whole lot to be gutted
and the interior to be recast in chrome and
blond wood.
It stands now as virtually
unrecognisable to those who played even
15 years ago.
Does it really know what it wants to be
any more? What type of sport is it?
Change has seen rugby become
confused by what it stands for; what it is
all about. Change has been too much in
some aspects and nowhere near enough
in others.
The laws – the foundation of the game
– are now, arguably the biggest issue.
Change has seen technology be given
a role to play yet no one has been brave
enough to rip up the rule book and
start again.
The athletes of today bear no
Jerome Kaino watches on
in Sydney this year after
being shown a dubious
yellow card.
resemblance of the athletes of even 10
years ago. The speed, agility, strength and
size of the average player today is maybe
10 per cent greater than it was in 2005.
Possibly more and as a result, the archaic
rulebook that was written in the dark
ages, is the game’s greatest burden.
No one disputes it is riddled with
clauses and sub-clauses that confuse
players, coaches and officials – most of
which are out of date and not relevant. No
one disputes the game would be better if
the ruling body was brave enough to take
denitive action and begin re-writing it.
All Black coach Steve Hansen said as
much last year when he urged World
Rugby to “rip up the rulebook. His
comments were universally endorsed and
because he said them as coach of the
number one team in the world who were
still managing to win despite being
victims of refereeing incompetency, he
was taken seriously.
But this is what happens in rugby. Good
ideas go nowhere largely because the
governance of the game is stuck in the
dark ages. World Rugby remains an old
boys club where a nation such as Scotland
with a barely plausible right to a seat at the
top table, continues to have
disproportionate power and influence.
Conservatism and self-preservation
often dominate the thinking of those
empowered to grow and improve the
game, which is why the speed of change in
some areas – such as the evolution of the
rules – is glacial.
Professional coaches and players – in
both hemispheres – would agree that the
tackled ball area, the rolling maul and the
scrum are the three areas in greatest need
of simplification and new thinking.
Change the laws in those areas and much
of rugby will be xed.
But a swift and clinical response is
unlikely because World Rugby work by
committee and endless obscure trials and
then have to vote on everything which
requires a 75 per cent majority. By the time
they agree on anything, the game has
evolved to render the trial obsolete or the
three Celtic nations get together and vote
against it anyway.
The law book is in such desperate need
of work and yet it could be another year to
18 months before we see anything done.
“There is a package of things we are
concerned about the way the game looks,”
says New Zealand Rugby Union chief
executive Steve Tew. “The law itself...the
referees can only referee the law they
have in front of them and there are some
areas where I think we all agree that we
simply don’t have enough clarity.
“There is a process underway at World
Rugby – it is a bit of a slow process –
because we are all nervous about making
too many changes in a cycle.
We have got to get the game so it
becomes as easy as it possibly can be for
our players to play and referees to referee
and then our fans to understand.”