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'We have to keep the essence of what rugby is about': All Black legend's worrying words of warning

3rd April, 2024
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Roar Guru
3rd April, 2024
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3002 Reads

I am a rugby fan hanging on by a thread to a game I have followed for over 50 years.

It brought immense joy, frustration and disappointment in that time, but none more so than the current rugby climate. I am not alone, with many long-term fans expressing disappointment in today’s game.

The latest being All Black legend Tana Umaga who expressed his concerns with rugby losing its fans through a dying product. “We need the people in our communities behind it and we have to make sure that we’re going out there and giving them what they want,” Umaga told RNZ.

It appears to me that the major focus is on Super Rugby whereas attention should be on the NPC (National Provincial Championship) which is the foundation of rugby in New Zealand.

Super Rugby gives the impression it is purely used as a springboard for players to chase after the All Blacks radar, which makes the fan an afterthought. Tana Umaga said on Tuesday, “we have just got to make sure that we keep the essence of what rugby is about, that’s our point of difference.

“That’s what makes us unique, and we don’t want to lose that. We don’t want to be following anyone else, we need to be innovative about what we do and trying to understand what people want so that we can give it to them.”

Coach Tana Umaga of Moana Pasifika arrives ahead of the round one Super Rugby Pacific match between Highlanders and Moana Pasifika at Forsyth Barr Stadium, on February 24, 2024, in Dunedin, New Zealand. (Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

Coach Tana Umaga of Moana Pasifika arrives ahead of round one Super Rugby Pacific on February 24, 2024, in Dunedin, New Zealand. (Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

Umaga’s Moana Pasifika side is indicative of what is wrong with rugby union.

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The side is unable to find a permanent home, which makes it look amateurish. We also have one of the leading sides, the Crusaders playing from a make-do Orangetheory Stadium which from a television viewing platform is uninspiring.

I do appreciate it is biding time before the new Christchurch stadium is built and this comment is only related to watching a game on TV. Rugby games need to be the whole entertainment package from TV coverage, marketing and excitement to attract viewership.

Rugby has only been a professional game for 29 years so it is young and immature with growing pains apparent. Rugby League has been a professional sport since the late 1890s which gives it a massive head start over union. What will the union game look like in another one hundred years? Surely better than now.

I have always enjoyed rugby league from the days of Phillip Orchard, Olsen Filipaina to Shaun Johnson but it was always the entrée rather than the main course of sports viewing. Not now, however, with league streets ahead in terms of entertainment.

I have been trying to put my finger on what league does better than rugby and it is still difficult to define, but if I had a choice of watching league or rugby as my sporting pleasure, the former wins out.

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Phil Gifford aka Loosehead Len is another who fears for the future of the game. “But I’ve been more spooked by the fact some of our greatest players and coaches have, both in public and privately, said how watching the game they grew up with is no longer their priority. If people who have loved the game all their lives are struggling to engage, how can we expect the average fan to be riveted?”

It was all summed up perfectly by The Bounce writer Dylan Cleaver who wrote, “The Warriors’ 20-12 win over the Knights in a re-run of last year’s home playoff wasn’t an amazing game, but it looked like a hell of an occasion, and often that is more important.”

The NRL teams are striving desperately every week to win a long, tough competition with the only focus on the glory of such an achievement. What does Super Rugby bring? Teams going through the motions to promote their best players to the All Blacks or Wallabies.

Which reminds me, why would you send Super Rugby teams to the great rugby outpost of Melbourne to host games to predominantly AFL fans? Take the game to the hardcore fans and do not live on hope that you may convert one or two AFL supporters. Those in charge of rugby need to create memorable sporting events for the fans and not pander to the egomaniacs and their wants.

The reason why I write this shows the care and passion for the game of rugby union which I still believe at its best is the better game of league and AFL. But things need to change to avoid rugby slipping into the abyss.

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