Has rugby become staid, stagnant and predictable? The answer is an unequivocal “yes”.
I write not as the vice rector at Stellenbosch University, but in my personal capacity, having been captain of the South African Rugby Union (Saru), the University of the Western Cape RFC, Robertson RFC and South Western Districts Rugby Union, as well as vice captain of the Tygerberg Rugby Union.
And my belief is that there is an urgent need for rugby to rediscover its dynamism and shed its predictability.
What has become the norm?
Physical contact, aimless kicking, a predominantly safety first approach, and lots of non-rugby excitement before the match: “super heroes” arriving in airconditioned buses wearing eye-catching hairstyles, tattoos and a lofty air of importance.
Enter the heroes: warm-ups in impressive, colourful, branded warm-up kits, twerking cheer girls, thumping music, roaring motorbikes, snorting horses. Great expectations: blistering sprints onto the field, macho handshakes, brutish shoulder hugs, vigorous shoulder-rolls and armswings, encouraging butt-slaps, mean-eyed looks at the opposition.
Then cometh the kick-off: fluffed kick-offs, knock-ons, obstruction, playing the man in the air, forward passes, 50/50 passes, missed tackles, high tackles, dangerous tackles, shoulder charges, kicks directly into touch, dropping the bind, collapsing the scrum, skew lineout throws, skew scrum feeds, entering rucks from the side, holding on to the ball in the tackle, hands in the ruck, not gaining distance from out-of-hand penalty kicks, no tactical variations from penalties and free kicks (electing to scrum, kicking for touch, quick tap kick), running into the defenders instead of evading them, and lack of vision.
There are endless stoppages – for injuries, for explaining transgressions, for explaining the rules, for lecturing captains, for consulting assistant officials. There is undisciplined play, exaggerated, silly celebrations after scoring tries, turnovers, radio instructions from flustered coaches, inconsistent refereeing, poor officiating by linesmen and TMOs, often “going upstairs” when both referee and assistant referee were within 10m of play. Not to forget the excessive presence of distracting advertisements and sponsors camouflaging poor play with supposedly good products.
Stereotypes and cliches hyping up and socialising followers to accept average play abound: newspaper captions such as “X player to be ‘let loose’”, only for it to be proven to have been a grave exaggeration.
Excited commentators shouting “unbelievable” every so often concerning play expected as routine at top levels. “Great prospects” are labelled by the dozen, only to disappear into anonymity or hobble off injured.
Over time we have been socialised into accepting average, even mediocre play, the result being regarded as the supreme objective: “but a win is a win” and “look at the scoreboard”. In the same vein “super”, “brilliant” and “unbelievable” have taken on a new meaning.
Spectators and viewers are starved of the exceptions: quick tap-kicks, ideally with a planned tactical move in mind; judicious quick kick-offs from the 22; kick-offs to the “wrong” side; grubber-kicks through defensive lines into the acres of space, followed up at unexpected angles; variations from scrums, line-outs rucks, mauls, counter-attacking options; well-timed offloads in the tackle, or running intelligently into space.
So why the continued preference for size and weight above skill and flair, and the monotonous preference for a crashball approach, above skills like sidestepping or running into space?
How exciting and gratifying can a try scored through legal obstruction from a lineout be? Is rugby beginning to resemble American football in some respects?
Why the continued preference for giving possession to the opposition, allowing them to play and (hopefully) make mistakes?
Are professional players being coached during the game from the coach’s box, confirming a lack of ability to read the game and make intelligent decisions?
What do coaches in fact communicate to the players during the game?
Are players (especially scrumhalves and flyhalves) being required to read the game, and are they able to?
How much skill does it require for a scrumhalf to pass the ball, time after time, to a forward standing a few metres away?
Maybe Bob Dwyer had a point when he said: “Good big blokes are better than good little blokes. Then again, good little blokes are better than dud big blokes. And dud big blokes should play something other than rugby.”
Has a market been created which is satisfied with the mediocrity of the prime product subsumed in the dazzle of myriad commercial and other distractions and byproducts?
Perhaps it is time to consider a few truisms: the ball moves quicker than the defender. A gap presents less resistance than a wall of defenders. A try counts more than a penalty. Doing the unexpected and unpredictable mostly catches the opposition by surprise. Playing “low-risk” rugby is no guarantee for winning. The team should be so good that it should win in spite of refereeing errors. Lapses of concentration give rise to errors.
Come on, players: if playing rugby is all you do, if you are well paid, if you are scientifically conditioned, if your diet is prescribed, and you do not even have to carry your togbag, why do you play such poor rugby?
There will no doubt be mitigating factors: the natural evolution of the game, including approaches to coaching, the constant rule changes, the development of sport-tainment, the pressure on coaches and players to retain their “jobs”.
In the South African context some may blame the problematic notion of quotas, which does not constitute a valid argument.
Quotas were, in fact, the norm before the unification of sport generally and rugby in particular.
Although not referred to as quotas, the principle is the same. When black players were not allowed to play or be selected in provincial or national teams, the “quota” was 15 white players. Would all 15 have been the best in their respective positions if black players were considered?
It therefore follows that the white players “not selected on merit” but because of the colour of their skin, would have been the “quota players”.
If the concept of “quotas” is accepted (which I do not), it is not new, nor exclusive to selecting black players, yet is still being invoked to imply that black players in general do not merit selection, while ignoring selection preferences which sideline black players many regard as the best in their positions.
I accept the complexities and different contexts – especially professionalisation, commercialisation and the combination of sport and non-sport entertainment – but the excitement and creativity which are inherent to rugby need to be rediscovered by the administrators, coaches and especially players.
Spectators and viewers need to articulate expectations of a much-improved brand of rugby.
At the higher levels of the game boring and predictable excesses need to be balanced with judicious, creative and innovative play by teams of professionals who have been scientifically conditioned and who value rugby intelligence, skills and physicality.
Professor Julian Smith