Harking back and romanticising about ‘the good old days’ and bygone eras is a satisfying but, ultimately, a futile past time. The idea that the ball was thrown around with wild abandon is flawed. A couple of years ago, on the 40th anniversary of our historic victory over the All Blacks, Nigel Davies analysed the game in the modern fashion. One of the most interesting (ahem) statistics to come out of it was that the ball was only live in play for 9 minutes! During the 2011 World Cup the average ball in play time was 35 minutes 25 seconds. This represents a huge jump from the 24 minutes 48 seconds of the 1991 tournament and dispels the notion that rugby used to be all pace, verve and tries.
So, why is it becoming harder to engage new fans? The Pontypridd zealots will tell you it is because of the regions. The regional zealots will blame the WRU. We all blame Roger Lewis! Admittedly, these are contributing factors that haven’t helped with supporter engagement. I don’t intend to rehash well worn arguments to stir the pot. The Dual Contracts that are being handed out are the first step toward a more fruitful, cordial and united relationship with our Union. A step in the right direction.
But, what next? The Dual Contracts are not a magic bullet. The key is growing popularity and engagement at grass roots level. Healthy and competitive senior and junior leagues is what must be developed. How to do this? Buy more 3G pitches, tacklebags and brand new kit? These are undoubtedly necessary pieces of equipment but I don’t remember turning out for training on a Tuesday and Thursday because of the quality of the scrum machine.
At the Blues v Scarlets game at the Arms Park, what struck us was the length of the stoppages. Why all the stoppages? Well, where to start? Scrummaging is the main culprit. This is a gripe of Austin Healey and I am in full agreement with the ‘Leicester Lip’ .The forwards amble up to the scrum, have a break, clean their studs, take a knee. While this is going on the waterboy (the current trend is an injured player) is handing out drinks and relaying information from the coaching team. The referee then takes an age to set the scrum, inevitably it collapses and he gives the customary ‘don’t mess me about speech’ and the process begins again. An 80 minute game is becoming a 2 hour marathon and it doesn’t make for great viewing. Listlessness sets in, people chat and the game, crowd and atmosphere lose focus and momentum.
Then there is the TMO. Last Friday, the man in the middle, Dudley Phillips decided that he would go to the TMO at every available opportunity. For tries, ok I can understand, but not for every indiscretion that takes place during the 80 minutes. The referee no longer wants to make a decision. He was reassuring himself at every available opportunity and it needs to stop. I understand why they do it and coaches encourage it but it needs to end, with referees becoming more decisive. Referees will point to being harangued by coaches (Richard Cockerill) and fans alike but shortening these prolonged, tedium inducing stoppages will go a long way to improving engagement on the terraces and boosting atmosphere.
The other problem with these stoppages is that they allow players to recover physically. The game has become about explosive bursts rather than endurance. At this juncture I must add; I understand players need to be fit and strong. I am not a naive traditionalist and understand that the game has evolved and will continue to do so. However, it is my view that the modern obsession with size and strength is the road to ruin.
Brian O’Driscoll’s fantastic piece for The Telegraph sums this up far more succinctly than I, and offers an interesting and intriguing snapshot into what the modern player views as the essentials. Warren Gatland himself sees the ‘Holy Trinity’ as power and size, pace and skill with skill comfortably third.
In a startling post autumn series interview, Alex Cuthbert talked of his admiration for Hallam Amos. Somewhat perplexed by this baffling statement, given that the latter didn’t step onto the field in anger, I read on. Apparently, Hallam is regularly last in the gym and can shift some serious tin. This is startling because it appears that it is no longer exploits on the field that gain the respect of your fellow professionals, merely numbers and bulging biceps.
In addition, the hulking monsters that are revered by rugby fans are able to reach superhuman levels of strength, power and speed because of the regular stoppages in the game. They don’t have to have great stamina or endurance because they have long breaks to recover. Reduce the breaks in play and reduce the recovery. Make them run! To be fitter they will need to be lighter and their skill levels will have to improve because they will be in the game more.
It is not only the players that need to be lighter and fitter, but also the bloated benches and playing squads. European powerhouses such as Leinster, Toulon and Clermont are particularly guilty of stockpiling players on fat contracts but using them only sparingly from the bench. Reducing the match day squad from 23 to 20 makes perfect sense. This would allow your 3 front row forwards, 1 back five forward and a 1 utility back. This in itself would encourage a better skill set as players would be forced to become more versatile to claim their spot in the match day squad.
How many games have you watched where the unnecessary raft of changes saunter from the bench on the hour mark in a bid to provide fresh emphasis and impetus but actually only succeed in turning a gripping encounter into a lacklustre knockonathon?
Reducing the number of substitutes would result in more players having to play for 80 minutes. They would be fitter and lighter and there would be a greater emphasis in training on skills. Prop forwards would be expected to run and pass (like in NZ) and you may even see the return of the rapier like magician in the centre, instead of the auxiliary flanker that often resides in midfield in the modern game.
Many players would no longer be afforded the luxury of being able to sit on the bench and pick up their wages for 20 minutes work. They would be forced to move and there would be a better spread of quality across Europe which would allow a greater number of teams (namely the regions) to remain competitive in Europe.
A free flowing, fast paced game is what Super Rugby has managed to achieve. A product (I hate this word) that is the envy of world rugby and strong international sides as a consequence of this. Having a sport that is a joy to watch only encourages participation.
In the modern world, if the product is not strong then the public will not buy into it. Keeping our premier talent in Wales and the regions strong is a big step forward. Speeding up a game that is in danger of becoming laboured, lumbering and lacklustre should be next.