Rugby Rugby World Cup sportsbiz

“Why it is important to pay attention to the positives of the Rugby World Cup”

September 27, 2023

In this Member Insight piece, Richard Brinkman focuses on the Rugby World Cup and how the fixation on head contact and sending players off is killing the spectacle and ultimately the sport unless more time and attention is paid to emphasizing the positives of the event and sport.

Its a funny old tournament The Rugby World Cup. As a rugby fan the bringing together of all the top nations alongside a host of noble teams that one has never seen and know nothing about in an ongoing series of meaningful games is an enthralling prospect.

However, the immensely physical nature of the sport means that just as you “get into” the competition by watching a number of matches across a weekend you then go into a hiatus of 5 or 6 days where nothing happens. Its hard to maintain interest and enthusiasm – particularly once you get to the latter stages of the group games (where we are now) where most of the major teams have qualified for the knock-out stages and hence are playing “dead rubbers” or very one-sided games in their final group matches with largely second-string teams.

The alternative of playing midweek matches (and these usually fall unfairly on the smaller teams so as not to jeopardise maximum TV audiences in the major markets) remains a sub-optimal solution to this issue.

All this adds up to a tournament that is too long (8 weeks – 8 Sept – 28 Oct) and has too much downtime, too many meaningless fixtures and too little action at the back-end.

And yet, for all that, and despite the chaotic scenes around the stadiums of spectators trying to enter (after the Champions League Final is this now a French “thing”?), RWC is a very compelling and watchable event. It’s great, but at the same time a bit rubbish, in that its never quite as good as you think it should be.

This weekend I was lucky enough to watch Ireland’s epic showdown with South Africa, England finally deliver some rugby against Chile, a wonderfully exciting draw between Georgia and Portugal, Scotland take care of business against Tonga, and Australia’s capitulation against the efficiency of Wales’ Warrenball v2.

It was rugby of all shapes and sizes. However, rather than celebrating the variety and diversity of approaches and athleticism on show the abiding memory I am left with is of refereeing decisions and TV Match Official Reviews. These are, in my opinion, literally killing the game as an entertainment product.

Nothing against the Refs and TMOs themselves – indeed, I was a ref myself for many years and loved it until the travelling around the country became incompatible with a demanding job and youngish family. It is a tough job, very technical and requiring consistent concentration and communication whilst fatigued but it is massively rewarding and second only to playing for camaraderie. No, my beef is with World Rugby and how what they are asking the officials to do in terms of application of the laws.

The Japanese have a form of suicide called “Seppuku”. This was practiced mainly by Samurai  and involves ritual self-disembowelment in order to avoid dishonour, such as after defeat or bringing shame on oneself. I am much reminded of this honourable tradition in World Rugby’s approach to making the game “safer” (as an aside – how many times must we hear pundits churn out this tedious line?).

WR’s motives are no doubt laudable. No-one wants to see people hurt unnecessarily and the wellbeing of participants is important. That said, no-one I speak to wishes to watch rugby where physicality, courage and mental and physical bravery are not to the fore. If you remove intrinsic elements of physical jeopardy from the sport it will have no point of difference and become bland.

In the current climate spectators are very likely to be watching an uneven contest of 14 v 15 for at least part of the game and, in many instances, at least half of it. Given the price of tickets (not to mention the inconvenience of most stadium experiences) this has to effect the sales proposition on an ongoing basis.

Apparently, its just a simple case of players learning to amend their “behaviour”. According to administrators and pundits once they do this the issue will go away. This is an extremely (wilfully?) naïve approach. Players play (and are paid) to win. 99% of their tackles are fine for nearly every player. They are not going to risk being less effective 99% of the time to ensure they are not punished 1% of the time. It is very muddled (and wishful) thinking on the law-makers behalf.

Of course, safety of players is only half the story and impending legal cases from players suffering with various brain injuries is a far more existential threat to the viability of the sport. Violence and careless head-shots in rugby have been straight red card offences for over 30 years it should be remembered.

Rugby Union is already significantly more safe than when most of those claimants played. Understanding of the brain and how players can reduce harmful impacts has been introduced consistently across all levels of the sport. However, World Rugby need to accept that you cannot completely eliminate risk and sterilise the sport into being totally “safe”. Reducing head contacts may reassure a mother that it is a sport that is OK for their child to play – but once she has seen a significantly larger human running full-tilt at her child it is unlikely to convince her that it is a “safe” sport! In order for a sport to teach you important life-lessons it needs to have the ability to place you in very uncomfortable situations.

The disembowelling of their own sport that World Rugby’s current protocols are creating is multi-layered. It involves

  • the punishment of players for innocent mistakes – players are being sent off for tiny mistakes that are not dangerous or harmful purely to make a point. This is frustrating for players and fans – 2 of the 3 most important stakeholders for any governing body. Imagine if a batsman was given out every time they played and missed or a footballer was sent off any time a ball touched hand or arm regardless of circumstance.
  • the conflating of mistakes to the same level as wilful acts of violence – the punishment for slipping up in a tackle is the same as running into a static ruck shoulder to head.
  • the under-mining of on-field referees – TMOs with no feel for the on-field context are advising (often via garbled communication channels) referees to question their instinctive responses under the guise of a review to get to the “right” decision.
  • the continual tinkering to the point of incomprehension of the laws and disciplinary processes–witness the debacle of Owen Farrell’s on/off red card ban or the pundits response to a yellow card bunkering of a Tongan player for a high tackle in their match against Scotland on Saturday. 3 former players and a former player anchor who have played and watched literally thousands of hours of rugby had no idea whether the card would be upgraded to red or not. Even having heard the on-field explanation of the final decision they were at a loss to explain it.
  • as well as the breaking any kind of dynamic flow within a match. There is already a highly physical sport which continually stops and analyses every action via reply. Its called NFL, is highly successful, brilliantly marketed, and World Rugby should be mindful to keep significant clear water between the two sports.

But worst of all is the constant fixation and incessant debate about these incidents in the media coverage. The sport is encouraging the media to discuss little but the very part of rugby they are trying to eliminate! Scotland’s half-time on Saturday was a classic example – nothing else was discussed other than bunker incidents. David Flatman’s “we don’t like to focus on these incidents” whilst rubbing his hands with glee and sending the Scottish pundits off the long-run about it was risible. With this constant focus it is little wonder that casual fans are left with the impression that rugby is a highly dangerous sport.

It will be interesting over the coming weeks to see how this plays out. Can rugby present the myriad positives it undoubtedly possesses during the latter stages of its showpiece event. Or will it continue to shoot itself in the foot by trying to present itself as something its not to casual “big eventers” who are, at best, ambivalent about the sport. Neglecting and turning off your avid followers is an erosion that can take a lot of recovering from. Next you will be telling me that it’s a good idea to launch a cricket tournament aimed at people who don’t like cricket………

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