Rugby is the ninth most popular sport in the world but its global appeal is restricted by too many players, complex rules, the widening gap between amateurs and professionals, and a lack of genuine super stars of the Jonah Lomu variety. These are the findings of NGJ Rugby, a UK-based Youtube channel specialising in “rugby video essays, vlogs and analysis.”
It was not clear where these figures came from, but “450 million rugby fans worldwide” does seem a tad fanciful. A number of the other sports listed have the advantage of being mainstream in one of the worlds three most populous nations – cricket and field hockey in India, ping pong in China and both basketball and baseball in the US.
Even American football has over a million players at high school level, though rugby’s 3.2 million registered players overall heads it off as the second most played football code behind soccer. Rugby probably has more of a global spread as well, with over 100 nations affiliated to the international administration now, and one of the requirements being organised domestic competition. I would imagine that, among team sports, only soccer and possibly basketball have more of a global spread than rugby.
Personally, I think the increasing physicality in the professional era is going to create major challenges for the game’s survival this century. Secondary schools rugby is obviously the main production line for the game’s future senior players, so when school numbers are on the decline in a rugby-mad nation like New Zealand (as reported in the New Zealand Herald earlier this year), serious questions need to be asked.
The big hits may look good on TV screens but they’re not going to encourage parents to sign their kids up for rugby and it’s a good thing World Rugby is addressing this, along with other issues.
Then there is the predictability of international competition with relatively few upsets occurring at the top level. Of course, there are surprises, as we saw in Perth last weekend – and also at the last World Cup where Japan caused one of the biggest shocks ever. People are still talking about that win over South Africa, and with good reason. Those kind of upsets are extremely rare in rugby.
At the 2003 World Cup, for example, there was precisely one upset from 48 games – Australia’s defeat of New Zealand. It was mind-numbing. Most of us can pick rugby’s winners with at least 90 per cent accuracy, so that the main interest in any prediction league will always be the winning margins.
A sport needs to be competitive in order to maintain maximum public interest, but rugby’s showpiece tournament is by and large a lopsided affair.
Of course, the game as a spectacle needs to be considered as well. A lot of the individual artistry which characterised rugby in the amateur era has disappeared and been replaced by a power-based game, as many foresaw at the outset of professionalism.
The constant re-setting of scrums is also a poor advertisement, while the most tedious aspect is surely the repetitive attempts to wriggle across from a scrum or ruck at close range, eventually culminating in a try that no one could actually see due to the multitude of bodies piled on top of the ball-carrier.
I’m not sure if everyone views it this way, and I certainly don’t claim to have the answers. World Rugby is actively engaged in trying to make the game safer and more entertaining, experimenting with new laws on a regular basis.
Finally there is the matter of poor media coverage outside of the established playing nations. Mainstream rugby websites claiming “international” coverage really only appear interested in tier one rugby. Brazil’s stunning upset of the Argentina XV in last year’s South American championship received no mention, for example.
One site claiming “planetary” coverage of the sport ran 15 stories about European club rugby the next day, and 14 about Super Rugby.
Moreover, should you venture onto the forums of any of these websites you are unlikely to encounter discussion on anything other than first tier rugby. That is because international chat sites tend to be dominated by Brits and Kiwis, with smaller numbers of South African, Australian and Irish fans on board – and virtually no one else.