A generation ago the rugby establishment worldwide had lapsed into a kind of evolutionary coma; frozen solid while the world washed over it, leaving it behind as a fossilised relic of a gentlemanly age that had gone. Yet, within a relatively short time much of what was wrong with rugby had been transformed.
The game took a great jump-shift forward. It extricated itself from under the rotting carcass of apartheid in South Africa. A more business-like approach was taken to the game’s finances and its often appalling public relations. In New Zealand the administration was radically restructured.
The large, unwieldy NZRU council – an unruly parliament of all the country’s provincial unions – gave way to a new executive board as the primary decision-making body.
Rugby took its first few steps toward becoming a business but few of us realized just how far that would go, or how quickly and destructively. We do now.
Rugby is in crisis mode once again because the market has got its hands firmly round the game’s throat. Markets, being markets, bring a confusing mixture of wealth and suffering.
In rugby those two conditions can be neatly equated with the two dimensions of the game, the professional and the amateur. One is consuming like there’s no tomorrow, while the other is sitting outside with a begging bowl.
Trickle down isn’t working.
The market certainly needs to have a place in rugby but must it always be the only determinant? As the eminently pragmatic Chicago economist, Charles Kindelburger, so pithily put it, “Where the market doesn’t work, don’t use it”.
That lesson is being painfully learned by governments and businesses all over the world as they come to terms with the devastation wreaked by free market greed yet it seems to be passing rugby by. As in the 1970s, rugby needs a revolution.
Many of those in the corporate sector who now effectively call the tune are equally convinced they are doing the right thing by the game and their sincerity is, mostly, very real.
But the interests of their own organisations and those of rugby don’t always coincide. They see it purely as a business and they want it run as a business.
They just don’t have any other frame of reference and all too often they push the game further out toward potential disaster without the slightest awareness of the risks.
It is the clash of those corporate interests with rugby’s community spirit that has caused the crisis that the game now faces and the most worrying thing about it all is that there seems to be no particular wish to come to terms with what all-out professionalism really means for rugby.
Rugby is now like the organ grinder’s monkey. It dances to the tune of a new owner: the market. In many ways the new owner has been remarkably beneficent.
It has enabled rugby to gain a foothold in a variety of new countries, something that wouldn’t have happened if the old amateur Commonwealth regime had continued to hold sway.
In some countries, like the United States, soccer mums have been joined by rugger mums.
The new owner has showered gifts upon those who play it best but that beneficence doesn’t filter all the way down to those who still play it for pleasure.
In many ways, it is now a case of trickle up. The game is divided into the haves and the have nots and the two dimensions are drifting inexorably apart.
This is an exclusive excerpt from Chris Laidlaw’s new book, Somebody Stole My Game, out now. Buy a copy through Mighty Ape.