Rugby has a problem. It’s now more than a decade since the game went professional and there are growing signs that it isn’t sustainable. Everywhere it is played, there is a growing sense of unease about this, and it is becoming more and more obvious that some fairly radical changes are needed.
It is not the first time I have had that feeling.
I last wrote a book about the game in the early 1970s as a thoroughly disgruntled ex-player, when rugby had run into another crisis.
Unlike the present runaway pace of change, what happened back in the 1960s and 70s was a crisis of inactivity.
Rugby had become stuck in the mud.
I wrote “Mud in Your Eye” for the very reason that to do so as an amateur was considered an act of rebellion. Anyone who appeared in print was treated much the same way as a member of Al Qaeda or, equally treasonous, a defector to rugby league.
Any suggestion of commercial gain from amateurism immediately defined you a professional, an outcast, on the wrong side of a very forbidding fence. Ironically, if you’re not on the professional side of the fence today you’re a loser.
Rugby has meant a lot to me. I played it at every level and in several countries. I owe it a huge debt. It took me round the world, opening new horizons and awakening a personal awareness of politics and the meaning of democracy and discrimination.
The friends I made then – among club, provincial and All Black teams, at Oxford and in France or Fiji where I played and coached in the early 1970s – are friends for life.
Many of them are as anxious about the game as I am. Most are realists.
They know that the professional game is here to stay but they wonder what sort of game it will be if the amateur dimension – its heart and its soul – just withers away and dies. They have reservations about letting market forces completely determine every aspect of the game’s future.
Those reservations are justified.
With professionalism has come a cloying bureaucracy, a suffocating mass of red tape, the stunting of player lifestyles and a hundred other challenges that threaten to drown rugby in its own politically correct pea soup.
A few years ago, fascinated and at times horrified by the new professional revolution, I found myself getting involved with my old game again.
I started writing about it, talking about it on television, and became a director of the Hurricanes professional franchise. I discovered that it wasn’t just a game anymore. It was a business, too.
A business like many others in an unforgiving world in which costs rise inexorably and income is very uncertain.
Every crisis has its particular motif. For me, the most compelling hint that rugby had a problem was the extraordinarily crass attempt by the New Zealand Rugby Union to persuade its fans to pick up part of the new professional tab in the late 1990s via a television commercial featuring All Black Justin Marshall asking for donations.
This was trickle up economics, the same madness we saw a decade later that brought the world economy to its knees. It was the first ominous hint of unsustainability in the new commercialised game.
That hint has now turned into a loud scream.
This is an exclusive excerpt from Chris Laidlaw’s new book, Somebody Stole My Game, out now. Buy a copy through Mighty Ape.