I was trying to explain to a football-obsessed mate the other day why I loved playing rugby and why I still think it has a unique appeal. It made me start to question where rugby is, how it has changed since I played, all those years ago, and where it might be heading.
A brief explanation as to why I loved playing, and started playing rugby, was down to the challenge that it presented above all the other sports. I played most sports, and enjoyed them, but it was the physical nature of rugby that really hooked me, the challenge for me of the fear that it induced, and how you dealt with that. Fear of being hurt, yes, but also fear of not performing because of that, of letting team mates down. So the challenge of building yourself up to deal with the physical challenge, the collisions, but ensuring that you stayed calm enough to think, to play, to plan to win.
None of the other sports offered that challenge. I enjoyed cricket, was okay at it, enjoyed football and was similar but in neither sport was there the fear factor and, for some bizarre reason, that appealed to me!
I love watching other sports. Big sport is special, so some of the huge football games are just superb, as are all the big sporting encounters, from the Olympics to Ryder Cups to Ashes Tests.
So when it's competing against such variety, such choice, how does rugby survive?
It's a tough ask, let's be honest, and tough for any sport competing with the giant that is football. And yet there are opportunities, weaknesses in the football armour, and that is what rugby needs to focus on.
Families can go along to rugby matches, from international to club games, and feel safe in the knowledge that there will be no violence, no threatening behaviour and by and large no moments where they have to shield their kids ears or explain away some behaviour. It is a safe environment, an inclusive environment, and one that rugby should be proud of.
Alongside that is the example that players set in terms of respect for a referee and, for the vast majority of time, their fellow players. As I have said I am a football fan but the two areas that really let it down for me are the abuse it still allows players to hurl at the referee and the pretence at injury.
I know I am going to sound all old-fashioned here, and even chauvinistic, but how can a man pretend to be injured? Where is his pride, his dignity? Rolling around on the floor as through you have broken your leg in 59 places, and then two minutes later getting up and carrying on?? That for me is just pathetic. They need to grow some.
So, rugby should shout out about the respect referees are still afforded, and also that despite the ferocity of the collisions, very rarely, do players pretend to be injured or have any desire through pretence to get an opposing player into trouble. The game is still underpinned by admirable conduct, not perfect don't get me wrong, but in the main still hugely admirable.
The other defining factor for rugby, especially in its draw for corporate world, was the eloquence and conduct of the players away from the pitch. And no, this was not solely down to the fact that a large percentage of rugby players were middle class or privately educated. It was more to do with the amateur nature of the sport, and the fact that players had a perspective on life, and hence their sport, that professional players do not have. The likes of Jason Leonard, soon to be President of the Rugby Football Union (allow me a little smile here), was as captivating to captains of Industry as the Oxford University-educated Simon Halliday, back in those days! And why? Because he had stories to tell, he had an ability to mix, and ability to talk, to listen, and be interested in a whole variety of company.
This is one area that I worry rugby might lose its advantage over football and some other sports. As the players have become supremely fit and as their days have become so finely organised and planned, by others, the players are in danger of losing the ability to engage, not only with fans but with the corporate world. Rugby is one of the favourite sports in the boardrooms across the city, across the IT and telecoms worlds and this has given it a much needed calling card with sponsors and benefactors.
Somehow rugby, the clubs, the unions and the players need to find a way to sustain this.
I am still lucky enough to meet many of the current players, from all the countries, and it is fascinating but slightly concerning to see how they have all coped with the professional world. New Zealand leads the way, without doubt, on and off the pitch. They are a class act when playing and a class act with corporate guests. Bloody impressive. And not far behind are the Australians and South Africans but, worryingly, some way behind are the northern hemisphere, and England.
Leaving the on-field performance aside, the southern hemisphere seem to have managed to maintain players who are still able and confident enough to mix and mingle with fans and corporate guests alike. The brutal truth is that the some of the English players can, but not enough, and not as well? Why? If it was just about the progress and effect of professionalism, then the southern hemisphere players would be exactly the same. They are not.
And bizarrely I do believe it has an effect on their ability on the pitch too. Rugby players need to develop interests and focus away from the game alone, firstly to give them some perspective on life but also to start to prepare them for life after rugby. It can be all too short a career, and even those lucky enough to have a long career, still need another career afterwards...
So my hope is that the unions, clubs and players start to understand the importance of investing in interests outside of rugby, to help develop the players as characters as well as rugby players. And as I said, this development in them as people will benefit them as rugby players and team mates.
Alongside this development needs to be an understanding that rugby has to go far and beyond football in terms of marketing the character that plays the game. To do this, my belief is that rugby needs to look at American sport, and particularly how American sport has allowed access to TV. Access to training, to team hotels, to changing rooms, team coach, medical room etc, etc, etc. Rugby needs to let the cameras in to get the message out.
Allow the cameras to show the character, the qualities that rugby players have, the bravery, the focus, the work, the humour, the bond within a team. All are hugely popular to the world and to the sponsors, and rugby has to fight in order to get those messages out there.
Rugby is far from perfect, as we all know, but it does possess some great qualities, and yet it still seems too shy to shout about them? In the current climate and in the fight to differentiate itself from other sports, it needs to start doing just that. Allowing greater access, being proud of the product that is being delivered and developing the players are just three areas that need working on.
The Olympics not only showed us great sport, great achievement, it all showed the appetite there is for a family friendly sport that can capture the qualities of sportsmanship. I hope rugby is one of the sports that puts it's hand up... very high!
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