The final weeks of the Six Nations Championship should be a celebration of all that is great about rugby union in the northern hemisphere. Instead, regardless of who wins the title the argument about precisely where the sport is heading, on and off the field, is intensifying. As we approach the 20th “anniversary” of professionalism, fresh battle lines are being drawn.
The Harlequins director of rugby, Conor O’Shea, hit the nail squarely on the head when he raised the most important question of all: what kind of game do people want? “ If it is a sin to want to play rugby, and not just kick-chase and put pressure on the defence, then I think the game has a massive question to ask itself,” said O’Shea, echoing the view of the New Zealand coach, Steve Hansen, that modern rugby was in danger of becoming boring to watch.
With a World Cup looming this is not an ideal moment PR-wise, for the coach of the world’s best team to suggest spectators might prefer to bring along their knitting to the tournament this autumn. Ultimately, though, it is all part of a fundamental debate that has to happen. Now is the time to look beyond rugby’s vested interests and decide how the game can be improved for all in future, particularly those struggling on the sport’s geographical peripheries.
In domestic terms, Newcastle Falcons are a perfect case study. Their managing director, Mick Hogan, believes the capacity crowds filling Twickenham mask a range of uncomfortable issues. The World Cup will be washing up on the Geordie shore this autumn, but Hogan still reckons the rugby authorities in England are far too Twickenham-centric. “Every single England game, every major final, every sponsor launch and every meeting takes place in London. The sport is wider than just that. Imagine if you committed to taking one of the England games or major finals away from Twickenham. Imagine the impact that would have!”
Hogan even argues that the Rugby Football Union should hand over the development of the community game to people such as him, with years of experience of selling in a tough environment.
The RFU, as one might expect, sees things differently. It points out that it invests £30m annually in the grassroots game in England and argues that an increasingly difficult marketplace makes growing player numbers a big ask. Clubs of all sizes though will tell you times are getting tougher, full stop. Few would disagree with Hogan in at least one respect: “We’re now at a pivotal time for the sport, with the World Cup coming up and the game being professional for 20 years. How can we manage the ambitions of everyone?”
Which brings us back to Hansen and O’Shea. When the marketers and the game’s leading coaches are both singing from the same hymn sheet, it is short-sighted to ignore them. If the sport wishes to broaden its appeal significantly, simply doing things the way they have always been done is not the answer.