THE BLOG

Is the Heart and Soul Being Ripped out of Rugby Union?

16/03/2015 13:00 GMT | Updated 15/05/2015 10:59 BST

After a close Wales v Ireland rugby union Six Nations game in Cardiff, I watched a drab, error-strewn Italy v France match in Rome and found myself asking, is this just two below-par teams trying to drag a result out of the game? Or is this a prime example of rugby union becoming a dying sport?

Over the years, rugby union has transformed from a sport founded on the principles of passing and finding ways to score a try, to a game where penalties and the referees' interpretation ultimately influences which team is set to win the match.

Rugby union was once dominated by attacking play, with players being able to sidestep and outrun opponents to score tries. The game was fast-paced and exciting to watch, with talented players such as Gareth Edwards and Mike Gibson truly showcasing their ability.

The game has since become very defensive, with referees frequently favouring the physical team, who break up play and slow the match down by competing on the floor and in the tackle.

The focus in rugby union has also become more entrenched around the scrum, with referees having their own interpretation of how it is managed, causing stoppages in play, destroying the momentum of the match and making it harder for the attacking team to build up a head of steam.

Decisions on who has the upper-hand in the scrum according to the referees' interpretation is often the team that ends up winning, so it is little wonder that the audience is growing increasingly tired of watching this negative, time consuming, predictable passage of play.

Rugby union never used to be about penalties and kicking, but about the fluidity of play, of speed and determination to score a try and although these aspects still exist, they are restricted due to whistle-friendly referees and lack of imagination from sides in possession.

The Welsh national team are a prime example of how the game has changed, a team who used to relish in the prospect of attacking rugby, a team who used to play a brand that was exciting to watch, a team that had flair and dexterity.

Wales are now a team who have adapted to the modern game, the modern rules, the modern physicality, possessing an accurate footballer in Leigh Halfpenny, a competitor at the breakdown in Sam Warburton and a set of 17st monsters in the back-line, with little to no imagination except to bulldoze the opposition defence and create gaps. Gone are the days of Barry John and Gerald Davies and more recently, Shane Williams, who would evade defences with his speed. Gone are the days of artistry and invention. Wales' game now relies heavily on the strength of their forwards and the size of their backs to try to out-muscle opponents.

In the run up to the Rugby World Cup, I'd like to know what's in store for the future of rugby union. Is it going to be dominated by strong defences? Is the path of a game going to be dictated by the number of penalties awarded, by packs of rolling malls and choke tackles?

Personally, I hope not, because it will destroy the very heart and soul of the game, a sport which will become used and worn out and shelved into the annals of history like boxing.

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