No rugby was played this weekend, but with the remnants of several recent unsavoury events still lingering in the air like a Faf de Klerk box kick, it felt like a good time to take stock of where the game of rugby currently sits.
A thoughtful, if anguished article last week by Lawrence Nolan on the Planet Rugby website, lamented the prevailing negativity and conflict that presides over the game. Nolan came to the conclusion that while many people are looking to World Rugby to step up and fix matters, it is the responsibility of all of us in the sport to collectively chart a course that not only protects the integrity and future of the game, but returns the fun and enjoyment to it.
Does rugby have it within itself to do that? To recognise its shortcomings and pressure points, and evolve in a constructive and positive manner?
In 2017 my book, A World in Union Conflict; The Global Battle for Rugby Supremacy was published. Intended as a snapshot of the game from a local and global perspective, it attempted to provide an understanding of the commercial and political forces at play and, by offering reasons for why things were as they were, hint at the way forward.
It is revealing to revisit the book now to look at what progress has – or hasn’t – been made. I’ll spare you the suspense; it’s been four years of standing still.
The book begins in the aftermath of another Bledisloe Cup thumping for the Wallabies; 42-8 at Stadium Australia. The scene was set early when veteran Matt Giteau, bought back from France to bolster the Wallabies’ backline, under an eligibility condition named after him, hobbled off with an ankle injury, after ten minutes.
In the wake of what was a record home defeat, there were immediate calls to abandon the ‘Giteau Law’, one of the main reasons being that Giteau was blocking opportunities for emerging and developing players to establish themselves in Test rugby.
Four years on and still there are record Bledisloe defeats for Australia, and with each one, calls for the Giteau Law to be scrapped. What has changed is that the reasons are different; to enable the Wallabies to be strengthened by the inclusion of certain overseas-based players.
Rugby Australia has indeed signalled that there will be some tweaks to the policy that will hopefully enable them to walk the tightrope that is on one side, putting out the strongest Wallabies side possible, while on the other, not gutting the domestic professional game.
But fundamentally, the core issue remains the same. Giteau Law or not, some promising new players or not, Australia still lacks sufficient depth of Test-class players to consistently challenge the leading nations.
In a chapter on World Rugby, I posed the question, “How difficult can it be to allocate defined, agreed windows within which club and international rugby can comfortably co-exist?”
Extremely difficult, it seems. In four years, despite ongoing talk-fests and an admirable willingness shown by parties such as the Six Nations to shift the dial, the dream of a workable, equitable global season remains as elusive as ever.
And with private equity entering rugby not as a cohesive financial saviour for the whole game, but as a patchwork of interests aligned to individual competitions and competing national unions, the conflict over access to players and the calendar, shows no sign of abating.
Despite it being World Rugby which notionally administers the sport, significant change and advancement in the professional era has occurred mostly outside its jurisdiction.
One major exception to that is laws and referees, where responsibility lies unequivocally with the world body. Whether one agrees with the current South African view or not – that the standard of refereeing is the greatest crisis faced by the game – it is hard to find support for the view that law changes and refereeing have advanced rugby over the last four years.
The book devoted a chapter to the plight of Pacific Islands rugby, and was pessimistic about a level playing field in Test rugby ever being provided, whereby Fiji, Manu Samoa and Tonga might receive the same access to their best players as other nations do, and be afforded regular Test matches.
The then Fiji coach John McKee, articulated why the inclusion of a Fijian team in Super Rugby was essential, and in this area at least, with the mooted inclusion of the Fijian Drua and Moana Pasifika in Super Rugby from next year, it appears that finally, some progress is being made.
Chapter six of the book looked at how there has been a steady increase in the amount of cash into rugby since 1995, and how this has accentuated the gap between the haves and have nots.
What wasn’t taken into account was the impact of a global pandemic. It is still too early to calculate the full cost, but there can be no doubt for the national unions in particular, the damage to their balance sheets as a result of COVID-19 has been calamitous.
Eventually, there will be a way out of the fog, but there is nothing to suggest that when this eventually happens, the inequities and power imbalances that existed pre-COVID won’t still be in force.
There was a chapter which chronicled the crisis that engulfed SANZAAR in 2017, when Australian franchises went 0 for 26 in matches against New Zealand opposition, and pressure applied from broadcasters saw three sides – the Western Force, the Cheetahs and the Kings – culled from the competition.
Ultimately the Cheetahs and Kings found a home in what was then the Pro 14 competition, although both sides have since fallen by the wayside. Thanks to the largesse of benefactor Andrew Forrest, the Western Force was kept alive, has since returned to Super Rugby, and its prospects appear strong for 2022 and beyond.
But what is most telling is how the chapter concluded.
“What is also not clear is how the SANZAAR nations, with South Africa, Australia and Argentina all facing severe internal challenges, all wedded to a wounded Super Rugby competition, within a fast-moving macro rugby environment, will find the collective strength to position themselves to advantage for the next generation. Even if the immediate structural issues are solved, will there be enough money to ensure that leading players remain, to keep the quality of the rugby, as the name insists, ‘super’?”
With South Africa sending their franchises north, and Argentina’s Jaguares dispersing to all parts of the globe, it is difficult to know if Super Rugby is in the midst of some kind of COVID-enforced hiatus, or is consolidating ahead of the pending addition of a Japanese component, or is simply a mess that Australia and New Zealand, between them, seem incapable of managing effectively.
Another chapter in the book was entitled, ‘Exploding the Player Welfare Myth’, and here again, it is evident that little progress has been made. For many Test players, there is still far too much rugby being played, and for others below the top tier, who don’t play so many games, there is too much repetitive training undertaken.
For professional rugby players, off-seasons remain far shorter than what expert exercise physiologists and sports psychologists recommend as optimal.
One thing has changed however, illustrated by the line-ups for next Sunday’s Test match in Perth between the All Blacks and the Wallabies. No fewer than five first-choice players, across both sides, will be missing due to those players attending the birth of their children.
This is a result of a combination of changing values in society, and expanded squad sizes providing coaches with easier interchange of players. It also speaks to the year-round nature of the season putting an end to the days when players and their partners would carefully plan matters to ensure that any new bundles of joy arrived during the summer off-season.
A chapter on the Lions recounted my own experience sitting on the sideline with my 1st XV schoolmates watching Andy Irvine tear up the Taumarunui Domain, scoring five tries in a match against a combined King Country-Wanganui side, in 1977. My conversation with Irvine, some 40 years later, was a highlight of the research phase, with Irvine, an absolute gentleman, modest to a fault about his career achievements.
Unsurprisingly, Irvine is a staunch supporter of the Lions concept, although, due to pressure from clubs, there has been, in recent years, increasing noises made that the Lions are on borrowed time.
The recent series in South Africa, conducted without the usual army of boisterously good-natured Lions supporters, containing little in the way of inspirational play, conducted in an atmosphere devoid of humour and good-spirit, has done nothing to cement in the prospect of a repeat visit to the republic in 12 years’ time.
Nevertheless, despite regressing over the years (a Lions tour is no longer a tour as we once knew it, but a block of test matches centred around the most populous centres), the commercial imperatives for cash-strapped host unions should ensure that the status quo, at least for now, remains.
So, after conducting interviews with 35 figures across all levels of the game, after copious hours researching newspaper and online articles, and reading almost every rugby book ever written, what was missed?
COVID-19 and the shake-up that the pandemic enforced on the game, for one. While national unions have been forced to borrow heavily and slash expenses, the real danger lies not with the impact on elite, high-performance rugby, but the ability to continue to try to arrest the dislocation between the administrative bodies and grassroots rugby, that was allowed to grow unchecked, earlier this century.
The extent and nature of private equity investment into the game was another omission; the prevailing view at the time being that wealth in rugby would be derived increasingly from digital and new media giants.
This is still coming, by the way; it is just that the expertise provided by the private equity investors is required to unlock it. As the then NZ Rugby CEO Steve Tew candidly told me during an interview in his Wellington office, in discussing the direction for broadcasting and digital in rugby, “We need to consider whether a bunch of 60-year-old, conservative rugby men are the right people to be working in this space.”
If I had my time over again, there would have been a specific chapter devoted to the emergence of Japan as an on-field and off-field rugby power. The signs were already there; a stunning win over South Africa at the 2015 World Cup, and in retrospect, the scalps of Ireland and Scotland at their own World Cup in 2019, under the canny hand of coach Jamie Joseph, were not the surprise they may have seemed.
The Japanese club competition has long been viewed as a quaint construct, framed by its composition of company-owned sides. But the influx of coaches and players from around the world, and a commercial awakening within Japan has begun to see the potential unlocked; with the prospect of further commercial and on-field advancement to come.
With the Sunwolves consigned to Super Rugby’s archives, and despite (or perhaps because of) the resounding success of the World Cup, it seems as if Australia and New Zealand are even further away now than they were in 2017, from the kind of partnership with Japan that might deliver tangible outcomes for all parties.
That is of course not to assume that Japan is desperate to jump into bed with two partners who have, increasingly, been too ready to air their dirty linen in public; Japan is, like anyone else, a sovereign rugby nation with its own aspirations and methods.
No matter, the admission of the ‘Brave Blossoms’ into the Rugby Championships is surely the biggest no-brainer since Kate Winslet chose Leonardo DiCaprio over Billy Zane in Titanic.
The book concluded by acknowledging the myriad challenges facing the game, while remaining optimistic that rugby will find, “a way to evolve as a modern professional sport; amply rewarding those at the top of the professional game, whilst simultaneously protecting the heritage, ethos and values of the game, and truly espousing fellowship for all participants, at all levels, in all corners of the world.”
Events of the last four years – and few months in particular – paint those words as naïve. In too many important areas rugby is standing still.
Beneficial forward progress can only be made if rugby finds a way to bed in governance structures that diminish the ability of the game to be held to ransom by a few – recalcitrant, self-interested clubs, ponderous tunnel-visioned national unions, and senior officials who, well-intentioned nice guys or not, mistakenly and recklessly trash the values of the game in pursuit of their own agendas.
Perhaps we will surprise ourselves and rediscover the joy of rugby? After all, it’s a great game, absolutely worth saving. Let’s check in again in another four years and see how we’ve gone.