Irish Rugby, Rugby

Rugby charting choppy waters

Team of Us, Jamie Heaslip cosplaying as Ron Burgundy, the most irritating stadium PA in world rugby and a desire to twin the sport with painfully boring corporate jargon. Irish rugby often seems like it’s going out if its way to alienate both those who are on the fence and those who already love the game. Glibness aside, however, professional rugby in Ireland is in rude health. The team – of players, not us – are performing to a standard never before seen, and the sustained success means the crowds continue to throng to Lansdowne Road.

There is always talk – in all sports – from ex-players, administrators and the marketing crowd of growing the game. The first two fairly want the game to grow because they love it, the latter because any large scale growth of the game means more eyeballs and more potential to generate revenue. The IRFU though must be perfectly happy with the space in which Irish rugby operates – it is the sporting lifeblood of much of the middle class and is marketed thus, while also enjoying popularity in many pockets throughout the country and, as the team are successful, the casual fan will continue to tune in.

For those who complain that international rugby has only five or six competitive teams, just look at soccer – club or international – or indeed gaelic football, and name more than four teams who compete annually, or biennially in the case of international soccer, for major honours. There is no intention to embark on a defence of rugby here, but it is mildly intriguing that some people are as vehement in their dislike of rugby as they are passionate in defence of their own chosen sport. Like hurling, horse racing or boxing, rugby has always been comfortable in its own skin, and this must prove irritating for onlookers of a more sensitive disposition.

However, aside from the largely inconsequential gripes surrounding Irish rugby that are mostly played out on Twitter between middle-aged men, the game is not in the healthiest place on a global scale. English club owners are being upended by their greed and hubris, South Africa are desperate to migrate to the relatively more profitable shores of the Northern Hemisphere, while the Welsh rugby appears to in the most precarious position of all based on recent reports. Meanwhile, Australia are relying on the enigmatic Eddie Jones to reinvigotate a game which has fallen miles behind rugby league, a game which already enjoys far greater popularity.

Eddie Jones – back to save Australian rugby once more? (courtesy Daily Telegraph)

Most interestingly, back in the summer of 2022, New Zealand Rugby Union sold a fraction of its soul – 5.8% – 8.58% of it to be precise – to U.S. private equity firm Silver Lake for NZ$200 (approximately €117 million). It is presumably a mandatory requirement that private equity firms adapt an anodyne name to divert attention from the fact that they’re on the scene to trim the fat and maximise profit. Why not something more snappy like Corporate Predator Group or Hyena Securities?

The Silver Lake deal is interesting as, to many Kiwis, it represented a sale of part of New Zealand’s culture. However, for those who may have been in any way concerned, Silver Lake Managing Director Stephen Evans alleviated any concerns with a perfectly vague explanation, possibly by way of ChatGPT:

“Digital technologies are changing sports and media, providing a lot of opportunities for rugby, and we are ready to help go after them while respecting the values and traditions of the game in New Zealand”.

As vanilla statments go, that’s as absoluely grand as they come. Still, to the commercial arm of the NZRU, this deal was likely considered too good to turn down. No doubt the players will have to add to the burgeoning collection of F1: Drive to Survive copycats as OTT platforms seek to replicate the success of a reality show based on Formula One, a sport that has all the ingredients for compelling off track storylines.

Rugby is, to put it mildly, boring as shit off the field, with most interviews sounding like something choreographed by a mix of David Brent, a strip of cardboard and a Google search for ‘make me sound corporate’. And why hasn’t anyone told the players that every time they mention ‘rugby IP’ in an interview an angel loses its wings? Moreover, if the players are going to milked, then you’d hope the reward is decent, but this constantly proffered idea that rugby has huge potential for growth has little grounding in reality.

Where is the as yet untapped market for rugby? The U.S.? Not a chance. Rugby just doesn’t have a foothold in America outside of Polynesian communities and some Irish and British ex-pats, and the NFL is a behemoth that sucks up any available oxygen for sports of a similar ilk. Also, unlike stupid real life and its consequences, NFL owners and for the most part, players, can do what they want with little fear of censure. They are also naturally extroverted, bordering on arrogant in their media appearances, cultural traits that aren’t exactly encouraged on this side of the world.

Perhaps Silver Lake have, surprisingly, invested unwisely and failed to reconcile the fact that unlike Formula 1 and Manchester City, both soulless entities, New Zealand rugby has real cultural significance for Kiwis both home and abroad ? In any event, New Zealand is an outlier, and the NZRU the only national rugby administration that is able to parlay its genuine cultural attachment and a carefully crafted mystique into significant commercial opportunities.

Rugby does face an existential crisis as a community wide recreational sport due to the ongoing concerns surrounding brain injuries, but that won’t kill the professional game. Where it will be most affected is at the grassroots level, where parents won’t want their children playing a sport which features regular reports of ex-players sadly incapacitated by head and brain trauma. If this happens, it may be the case that the elite players will be identified early, and their path will be set.

Look at American football, where the only people who play the game beyond 22 or 23 are those who end up pursuing a professional career in the NFL or the lesser-known Canadian Football League. This has absolutely no impact on the game’s popularity, and it wouldn’t be a great surprise if rugby follows this route.

The issue of brain trauma can’t be neatly discussed in a few paragraphs, and it would be remiss to attempt to do so. However, one would hope that the stark, grim lessons learned from the early days of the professional era will point the way forward. At some point, men and women are going to take the information available to them and decide they want to play rugby. It is not the job of journalists to simultaneously praise the games while also taking the moral high ground at each available opportunity.

The cause of brain trauma – predominantly to tacklers – are manifold and it may come as somewhat of a surprise to people that, in the NRL at least, head injuries are as likely to be caused by contact with the knee of the ball-carrier. So, while the eradication of shots like the one inflicted by Uini Atonio on Rob Herring are rightly being chased from the game – or at least they were up until recently – it is possible that rugby, like many other sports, will be acknowledged by its participants as assuming inherent risks and once the correct guidelines are in place, the show will go on. If you know, you know so speechifying on a weekly basis won’t help the case.

The next six months should theoretically be the greatest for world rugby’s four-year spin cycle between World Cups as the sport will build up to what appears to be the most open World Cup in the professional era, with six teams realistically holding aspirations for victory in Paris on 28th October. But, the game is probably facing more challenges now than at any time since William Webb Ellis allegedly failed to grasp the rules of football and picked the ball up.

Briefly on the topic of what to do about the complete lack of atmosphere at the Aviva Stadium, this has been an issue since the newly developed stadium opened in 2010. The removal of terraces has an irreplaceable impact on the atmosphere of a stadium and this is obviously something that can’t be rectified. However, the more salient issue is the continued desire of stadium management in Europe to blindly ape the model in place for US sports which is largely as follows: shit music blared out whenever there is a break in play, refusal to allow the crowd build a natural atmosphere or worse still trying to contrive an atmosphere by imploring the crowd to ‘make some nooissssse for Oirland’. Add this to the increased ticket prices and, as desired by the IRFU in this case, international matches become events or days out in much the same way as a concert or an NFL game might.

As a consequence, you can’t charge people upwards of €100 for matches and then tell them how to spend their time at the match, that’s just basic customer service. However, a quick look at Croke Park or the Aviva Stadium when soccer international matches are played shows a world of difference. The most obvious point is that the majority are there for the on-field activity and so aren’t overly bothered by the fact that they’ve to curtail having a few pints for two hours. They’d possibly get a drink if it was available but it doesn’t impact on their decision to attend the match.

Just for example, Ireland v Georgia – the night of the tennis ball protest – was a bog-standard 1-0 victory, but the atmosphere there trumped the atmosphere of probably 80% of Irish rugby matches I’ve attended. But, maybe that’s just the way it is, and some things will never change.

At a minimum, however, the IRFU and stadium announcement could curtail needless PA announcements, stop with the piped music or perhaps have a band perform on pitch pre-game. As to the fans boozing, Alan Quinlan was whinging about this from his free seat back in 2013, so this is just the same argument being rehashed. Perhaps the bar could be closed after half-time as a compromise, but realistically this isn’t going to happen. Also, sports administrators in Europe will have taken note of the fact that most NFL stadiums fill out on a weekly basis despite roughly half of the teams being rubbish. Depressingly in thrall to everything the yanks do, rugby will continue in its attempts to create a ‘gameday experience’ to safeguard againt those days when the team is not performing at a high level.

There is also little point in comparing the Irish and French supporters. Yes, the stadium sounded like Stade de France at times last week and the French are intensely passionate and vocal, but they also boo their team off the pitch regularly after a bad 40 minutes. Imagine the team got booed here? Gerry Thornley would probably have a heart attack and the team of us would be in awful place.

The IRFU quite happily made this bed, and will have little difficulty if you can’t sleep in it. As long as the team keeps winning, and the beer keeps flowing, someone else will. It is what it is.


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