For my last post of 2017 – now in the midst of festive season planning and last minute shopping – I thought I would offer a brief review of where English rugby union has reached after another heady but hectic past twelve months.
On the negative front, the Aviva Premiership continues down its imperfect path.
I believe there is but one Premiership club making a profit. There again, one that is currently up for sale (Worcester Warriors) is losing about £3.5 million per annum, so there is clearly an existential lack of logic in so many of the power-brokers’ decisions.
The only people making hay whilst this particular sun shines are firstly, the players – who some might argue have a cast-iron defence in that rugby is statistically such a short career that nobody could be criticised for cashing in whilst they still can – and their agents.
The old question-and-answer joke (Question “How to make a small fortune in [choose your industry?” Answer: “Start with a big one and go into [that same industry]”) applies so aptly to rugby union. Commercial logic doesn’t come into it. As with so many walks of life, in rugby ‘making progress’ depends upon individuals or organisations with deep pockets actively making a long-term commitment, then gritting their teeth and shelling out for foreign mercenaries and/or whatever else it takes to succeed in the hope of getting it back (and more) somewhere further down the line.
Injuries – especially to the head – are a major problem. In general strategic terms elite ‘player welfare’, though much-discussed and allegedly (if public statements are to be believed) constantly in the minds of everyone concerned, is de facto, to all intents and purposes, non-existent in practice.
Why? Simply because the elite clubs, despite the high-profile nature and generally positive branding of the sport, still see playing more games as the best or primary means of generating more money.
If you asked me, I would hazard a guess that from a physical heath point of view – for each individual player – playing elite matches no more than 24 times per annum (i.e. twice per month) would be the desired optimum. Playing anything up to forty games per year, as a proportion of top players do, is a recipe for long-term physical health problems.
At international level – with the 2019 Rugby World Cup now looming upon the horizon – nobody would disagree with the proposition that the All Blacks will be the team to beat. England under Eddie Jones’ stewardship are almost certain to make the quarter-finals with their progress after that being subject to the vagaries of the draw, results thus far (theirs and other teams’) and the debilitating effect of any injuries and/or suspensions picked up along the way.
For the 2018 Six Nations, I see England and Ireland as joint favourites. Otherwise, it would be nice if Italy (now coached by Conor O’Shea and Mike Catt) actually won a match for once, just in order to justify their position in the tournament; I desperately hope that Wales and Scotland will continue to make progress because this Six Nations will probably be a strong indicator of how they will eventually fare in the Rugby World Cup; and as for France – well, God only knows!
In the ‘positive’ column, however, we hear that the audience for rugby worldwide is picking up well. The USA is now taking live television coverage of Premiership and international rugby matches – their own elite leagues are also burgeoning – but plenty of missionary work in North America is still yet to be done.
The Daily Telegraph reports today that a new four-year deal has been signed with a national Chinese broadcaster which it is claimed will take the regular TV audience for rugby union above the 600 million mark. With Japan hosting the 2019 Rugby World Cup, an opportunity for expansion is definitely on the horizon.
At the nuts and bolts level, issues with the laws of the game abound. The problems are well-known. Scrums take too long. The ball doesn’t get put into them straight.
Elsewhere, generally, forward passing is being allowed (or routinely ignored).
Defences are now coached so well that the cause of attacking rugby is blunted to the ultimate detriment of the sports’ entertainment value.
There is so much recycling of the ball that the union game is becoming more and more like rugby league in the middle of the field.
Some of this is due simply to the newer types of paying spectators drawn to the game (those who know or care little about the sports’ traditions and rules) who get drunk, shout obscenities, misbehave, fail to observe silences for kicks and during anthems, leaving ‘oldies’ frustrated and turned off by their antics.
You might argue that – sadly – this development was inevitable as the demographic spread of interest in the game grows exponentially.
Others might point obliquely to the continuing Rust argument between the merits of attending matches and just observing on television from the comfort of one’s living-room. Maybe this is a particular issue for rugby union – and maybe it is just the way the world is going and so those who hanker after the much-loved (but illusionary) ‘golden eras’ of the past are just kidding themselves.
Rugby’s growing pains sometimes seem insurmountable as time flies by. Plus, things may well get worse before they get better. But maybe that’s life …
Happy Christmas and a prosperous New Year everybody!