There’s more to rugby than just a highlights package
Much has been said in the recent weeks about the state of rugby, and I do not wish to add unnecessarily to an increasingly breathless and discordant debate.
However, I feel it important to briefly take a step back so that we might have a better view of the game, specifically where it has come from and where it appears to be going.
First, though, a question: why am I interested in rugby?
It is a question I have been forced to ask myself many times in recent days after the barrage of attacks on the sport by well-meaning–and other, I suspect, not so well meaning–spectators and participants.
Particularly salient at the moment are the self-appointed redeemers who have kindly wandered down from their league-shaped castles to ceremoniously present us–the witless and/or wicked rugby fans and administrators–with a few of their very own ingenious remedies guaranteed to halt the catastrophic rot of a code that has strayed so far from its allegedly noble past.
I don’t wish to be drawn into a discussion of when and how the sport has been debased, nor do I even want to dispute this argument with a long list of statistics that may or may not prove otherwise.
Rather, I wish to would like to toss aside the premise of this argument altogether and storm ahead with an impassioned defence of the sport I love, in its current form, more than any other.
Before I begin I would like to assure readers of all persuasions that I enjoy linebreaks, tries, exceptional passes and crashing hits as much as the next contact sport fanatic.
However I’d also like to stress that nothing on that list is responsible for my obsession with rugby.
I’m drawn to the sport for the unique technical demands placed on players in each position and the complex technical battles that are occurring between individual players and units of players all over the field simultaneously.
Teams are forced to fight on multiple fronts, and while they might be gaining ascendency in one or two areas of the game, such as the breakdown and lineout, they may also be losing it in others, like the scrums, tactical kicking and backline play.
I find the way this complexity plays out over 80 minutes enthralling, as well as how it shifts, slowly or dramatically, as certain players tire or break down and players with different strengths and weaknesses replace them. And so selecting the right players becomes essential, as well as being able to execute a game plan that fits the balance of skills in the team.
Just as when a player hits a gap it’s the result of the technical and tactical precision, equally, when a breakdown penalty is given, it’s is the result of a player being technically exposed, or of having just lost a technical battle with their opposite.
Far from bemoaning this aspect of the game, it’s one of the core aspects I enjoy most. I love Test cricket for the same reason – the drawn out technical and mental struggle which in many ways are even more pertinent than in rugby.
Again, I enjoy seeing batsmen hit boundaries or a bowler knocking out middle stump, but only in the context the wider technical and mental war; the pressure forced by one player or team over another, which, in the case of Test cricket, may have taken hours to establish.
Many of the critics who emerged from the woodwork after the third Bledisloe Test have made some very revealing comment about the absence of highlights in that game, most notably league writer Dean Ritchie in The Daily Telegraph. He stridently insisted that a lack of highlights is the clearest evidence of a poor game and a struggling code.
For me, if a sporting contest could be effectively surmised in two minutes of highlights I would be wonder why anyone bothers watching a full game, and it’s for the same reason when I miss a game of rugby I have almost no interest in seeing the highlights.
To me, it is like not reading a book and then being read five of the best pages to make up for it.
Sports like rugby league and Twenty20 cricket are based on the idea of the highlight package. When I watch them, I am basically just waiting for the moments that will end up in the highlights.
And those moments do come. The most spectacular tries are invariably scored in rugby league, and I have no hesitation conceding that. The game is quite simply better designed to create fireworks – there’s more space, less ambiguity and no mess.
Rugby on the other hand is full of contradictions; as a spectacle it is unwieldy, capricious, often unsightly, and prone to crabbiness and periods of depression.
It’s complicated, laden with technicalities, and the build-up of momentum is subtle and takes time while pressure is released suddenly in strange, often anti-climactic ways.
For coaches and players, the art of its mastery requires an almost alchemic balance between power and finesse; directness and chicanery; flamboyance and restraint. When the balance is wrong the result is awkward, sometimes excruciating to watch.
Yet looking at these qualities, I see no reason why true rugby fans should feel the need to hang their head in shame and apologise.
These are the hallmarks of the game we adore. And if these qualities don’t appeal to you, here’s a thought: it’s not the game that needs to change, it’s you who needs to change the channel.
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