At first glance, it looks as though rugby union is in its best place in its illustrious history. The 2015 Rugby World Cup was undoubtedly the finest ever, new rugby nations are emerging, and the foul play that blighted the game even 20 years ago has been largely eradicated. And yet, rugby is at an important juncture. The growth of the game is not inevitable.
First, the good.
Much of what is happening is great for the game. To reiterate, the 2015 World Cup featured the greatest team of all time and the biggest upset in sporting history.
Argentina’s inclusion in the Rugby Championship has revolutionised the sport in that country. The Pumas are now a real global force, and have completely overhauled their traditional forward-dominated style. Argentina are now one of the best teams to watch in the world.
Staying in the Americas, the game in the USA is going from strength to strength, with the States’ hosting major test matches, boasting record viewing figures, plus the overtures about joining the Pro 12.
Across the Pacific, Japan, astonishing conquerors of the Springboks last year, will be the first nation outside of rugby’s top tier to host a World Cup. And their showing at England 2015 has given them the perfect launch pad.
Georgia, another great success at the World Cup are pushing very hard for inclusion in the Six Nations, and despite their brain drain, Fiji were thrilling winners of Olympic gold in the Rio sevens.
But amongst many of the more established unions, the garden is not so rosy.
The Springboks are at their weakest for over a decade, and socio-economic factors such as the weak rand mean more and more of South Africa’s finest are playing abroad. No less a figure than World Cup-winning captain John Smit calls the state of Springbok rugby “very worrying”. Without being unduly pessimistic, these trends need to be reversed quickly.
As usual, French rugby is paradoxical. But now Les Blues appear in a right royal rut. The Top 14 is not a good thing. The French season is far too long, the matches too defence-orientated and the early glamour of southern hemisphere stardust has been brushed away. After the quarter-final loss to New Zealand, lock Pascal Pape told The Guardian:
“The problem is much deeper. We’re in a system with a championship where you have to play 40 games a year. What happened tonight shows that when you play against a team whose players have played 20 games in the year you can’t compete. The national team comes last.
“It is time that everyone in French rugby sit around a table and make the France team a priority.”
Italy are also in a desperate position. Treviso and Zebre permanently languish at the bottom of the Pro 12, which has the knock-on effect of downgrading the rest of the competition. The Azurri made steady progress in the Six Nations for years, but now appear to be going backwards. They are reliant on Conor O’Shea and Mike Catt to turn their fortunes around.
This malaise has even reached twice world champions, Australia. After a woeful Super Rugby season for the Australian franchises, the thrashings by New Zealand that followed England’s 3-0 series whitewash have dented Wallaby pride. And it is arguably Down Under that rugby faces one of its biggest challenges. Unlike in South Africa, the problem is not financial, but cultural.
It is worth remembering that rugby union is not the stand-out winter sport in Australia. Aussie rules and league both top it. Rugby Championship stadia have been hard to fill. As Steve Georgakis, sports studies academic at the University of Sydney explains in The Conversation:
“Rugby union is not a national sport. Its support base primarily lies in NSW and Queensland. Generally, the national appeal of rugby peaks during the World Cup or Bledisloe Cup matches against the All Blacks and hibernates between these periods.
“This is similar to the periodic pattern of support for sports such as rowing, archery and yachting at the Olympic Games”.
There is then, plenty of gloom amid the undoubted optimism. But both outlooks are accurate, and rugby cannot be so complacent as to assume that global expansion is certain. If the sport grows in the US and Argentina, but declines at the same rate in Australia in South Africa, what will that do for Rugby Championship?
Fortunately, World Rugby is doing some excellent things. Concussion protocol is a step in the right direction, overseas residency rules are rightly being looked at and unlike in other sports, there are reasons to be confident in its anti-doping procedure.
Progress in rugby is happening, but as the cases of Australia, South Africa, France and Italy demonstrate, it is not inevitable.
Daniel Rey, Pundit Arena
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