Rugby is for players, not fans. I don’t just mean the top professional players. I mean the millions of players registered globally – from school kids to colts, to subbies and grade players – who pull their boots on, just for the love of the game.
People complain that the rules ruin the spectacle, that five tries shouldn’t lose to two or that professional sport needs to entertain. But these arguments miss the point, that rugby really only needs to be fun to play.
Hopefully it is fun to watch as well, but that shouldn’t be the primary focus.
Certainly I’ve had quite a few mates who have played both union and league comment that they prefer to watch league but preferred playing union.
I think rugby, by its nature, is harder to understand than many of the codes it competes with in its role as a spectator-sport entertainment.
Backs frequently claim not to understand what goes on in rucks and mauls; only props really know what is happening in the front row.
A lack of understanding means fans lack enjoyment in those areas of the game that aren’t understood.
I wonder whether rugby and facets within rugby are inaccessible to those who haven’t played. My gut feel is that rucks, mauls and scrums in particular are much harder to understand and enjoy if you haven’t piled into quite a few of them.
Does this mean that the vast majority of rugby fans are current or ex-players? Is this a critical hurdle to the growth in popularity of the game?
I’m curious whether union is more heavily weighted in this regard, compared to other codes?
Some sports flag their simplicity as a badge of honour. This makes them highly accessible even if you have not played them to a serious level.
Regardless of whether a game is simple or complex, it is easy for the uninitiated to enjoy a well-struck goal in soccer, a mighty six in cricket, a huge shoulder charge in league, a flying dunk in basketball or a spectacular pack-mark in Aussie Rules.
It is harder for the uninitiated watching those same codes to appreciate the offside trap, tight line-and-length bowling, a well-executed kick-chase, players blocking out to secure a rebound or hard running into space off the ball.
Rugby, meanwhile, almost trumpets its complexity; the number of laws is almost a badge of honour.
Players and spectators alike recognise that a referee could blow for any number of penalties at the breakdown.
People who understand the game intrinsically get why the laws are the way they are; it must be very confusing to people who haven’t played as to why the game is the way it is.
If rugby is to grow in popularity, is its key path through increasing playing numbers at the junior and amateur levels?
Am I wrong? Are there mountains of fans out there who love rugby and yet haven’t played?
Do all sports draw the majority of their fans from those who have played or is rugby more weighted in this regard?
Do the rugby powers just need to focus on making the game as fun as possible to play and then work on getting more people playing it?
Should rugby not worry about becoming more popular as a spectator sport and just focus on keeping its players happy?
I’m still enjoying playing the game, despite the frequent complaints about rugby as a spectacle and the need to change the rules.