5 biggest risks to the future of rugby

Rugby is at a cross roads. At the elite level of the game the impacts and consequences of professionalism are still evolving, while at the grass roots rugby is having to compete with a myriad of other pastimes and hobbies to attract the attention of the public.

This article looks at the biggest risks to the future of rugby, in its broadest sense. This means threats to participation levels at club and schools levels through to threats to the success of professional rugby in the modern era.

We have also considered what would likely undermine what we all know as “rugby values”, given this is a unique part of why many of us play, coach and watch rugby. If “rugby values” are eroded this is also a risk to the future of the game and how it is played around the world.

These are our top 5 risks to the future of rugby in reverse order:


5) Officiating, laws, cheating and the TMO

Ask yourself this question; after watching a game of rugby, what is your overriding emotion at the end of it? Is it elation at a win, pleasure at watching a great piece or skill or joy at seeing 30 committed players playing and fighting for the pride of their jersey?

If you are anything like us, or the majority of the Twittersphere, the primary emotion after watching  game is frustration and annoyance. Frustration at inconsistent application of the laws; annoyance at the time it takes the officials to resolve a TMO referral; displeasure at the unsavoury act of a player which was missed; unhappiness about the constant negative, risk free tactics of a side.

For a lot of people rugby is no longer a pleasurable sport to watch.

Who is to blame? Well, it’s probably all of us.

Firstly, World Rugby and governing bodies don’t help the game through the failure to properly apply the laws and hand out appropriate sanctions for foul play. Coaches are too afraid to lose games so they set out their teams to play low risk rugby. Officials – who to be fair are having to deal with instructions from on high, struggle to manage what is a very complex game.

Players cheat and push the laws at every opportunity, rendering the game a series of offences, with the question being which offence will the referee penalise. And finally supporters, who on one hand bemoan the stop and start nature of constant TMO referrals, but on the other hand berate officials when they fail to spot an offence against their team.

Rugby can be a difficult game to watch and understand to the seasoned rugby following but it’s nearly impenetrable to those new to the game. It’s time to get all the parties around a table (including supporters’ representatives) to work towards what is best for the game.


4) Failure to spread the game globally

If we are being brutally honest, rugby as a global game has not expanded its reach since the inception of the first Rugby World Cup in 1987. Yes, South Africa were welcomed back in to the international fold and Argentina have improved immeasurably but the 2015 RWC participants look very similar to those in 1987 and the relative team rankings look the same.

Part of the blame must lay at the door of the world rugby governing body, which has failed in its remit to spread the game to new countries and provide more competitive nations. We know that the showpiece Rugby World Cups have grown in size and revenue, but on the pitch the same teams are doing the same thing, year after year.

The advent of professionalism in the mid-late 1990s certainly impeded the quest to spread the game, with the rugby world focusing on how professionalism would play out in their back garden; there was little interest in looking to see how the smaller nations would develop.

The period of professionalism also saw some huge mismatches as amateur teams came up against fully professional athletes at the top level. New Zealand 145 – 17 Japan (1995), Australia 142 – 0 Namibia (2003) and England 111 – 13 Uruguay (2003) were hopefully the nadir of test rugby.

Recent World Cups have arguably seen the gap between the tier 1 and tier 2 nations narrowing but World Rugby needs to find ways to further integrate these teams if they are to be brought to rugby’s top table.

Failure to spread the game and evolve the player and supporter base, will lead to its gradual decline.


3) Financial survival of the fittest

There was no way to stop the advent of professionalism in rugby – indeed it wasn’t called “shamateurism” for no reason, as players were being recompensed for their services years before the game officially went professional.

The 20-odd years since the big-bang have brought rapid change in the game. At the elite level, rugby players now earn around seven figure salaries, while the cash in the northern hemisphere game – and in particular in France, has meant that there has been a flood of players heading north.

Not so long ago players from the south headed to France and England for a bumper pay day before they retired. These days, players in their international prime are now plying their trade in the north, with the likes of Kurtley Beale, Bismark du Plessis and Charles Piutau all making the journey.

The money in France, and England, has also been a draw for a number of top Welsh players with a handful of Scotland’s internationals also moving “overseas”.

As more money comes in to the game, those nations with the deepest pockets will provide the biggest draw. For the smaller nations it will be a battle to keep their top players in the country and to compete it may mean that resources are pooled even further.

Scotland only has two fully professional outfits. Wales has 4, but with one of them already open to offers a move to 3 teams wouldn’t be a surprise. Italy’s 2 teams have struggled with providing competitive opposition while Ireland’s provinces also have financial challenges.

Looking forward, it is conceivable that professional rugby will only played in 2 or 3 northern hemisphere nations. This won’t be good for the game.


2) Performance enhancing drugs

Drugs are the talk of the sporting world at the moment with Russia’s suspension from athletics and partial suspension from the Olympic games and the focus on the Sky cycling team’s therapeutic use exemptions (TUEs).

Rugby has not escaped closer scrutiny with Dan Carter, Juan Imhoff and Joe Rokocoko attending a French Rugby Federation anti-doping hearing following recent reports they tested positive for banned drug corticosteroids.

In general though, professional rugby has managed to avoid the high profile, widespread doping failures that have blighted other sports where power, strength and speed are vital ingredients to on-field success.

There have been some examples of suspensions for performance enhancing drugs (Springbok Chiliboy Ralepelle is perhaps the biggest name to be suspended) but these have been isolated examples.

At a junior level the story is arguably different, with a large number of players being suspended for drugs violations. The UK Anti-Doping agency (UKAD) lists those individuals who have current Anti-Doping Rule Violations (ADRV) against them. At present there are a total of  58 suspensions listed, of which 21 are in rugby union.

Given the large percentage of violations at a junior level and the relative lack of suspensions at senior level rugby in the UK, this raises a few questions. Does professional rugby have strong structures and checks and balances in place which means that performance enhancing drugs are non-existent at the elite level?

Back in the late 1990s England’s John Bentley and another former international claimed rugby was “awash with drugs” . In more recent times there were claims from one international coach that there had been “institutionalised drug taking” since the game went professional.

If these individuals are correct why haven’t we seen high levels of doping violations in professional rugby?

There is perhaps a sense that rugby is yet to see its performance enhancing drugs scandal, but it is only a matter of time. If this does occur the game will be severely damaged and it will take a long time for credibility to be restored.


1) Concussion

Concussion is the elephant in the rugby committee room.

The issue of concussion or repeated blows to the head has now been linked with chronic medical symptoms including memory loss, dementia and depression.

Research in to the health of american footballers has exposed a large number of examples of brain damage caused by repeated impacts of blocking, tackling and being hit. There is some evidence that the use of protective equipment, including helmets, has perhaps exacerbated the incidence of blows to the body, as players feel they are “protected”, but any blows to the head area increase the risk of trauma.

Rugby is slowly catching up with the issues of concussion, helped by some high profile individuals in the game coming out and talking about the impacts. World Rugby’s former medical adviser Barry O’Driscoll is one such person who has stuck his neck above the parapet in recent years to highlight the risks of concussion.

There have also been a plethora of stories coming out about how players have been asked to continue playing in a game, even after suffering a serious head injury or concussion. One example was French centre Florian Fritz being ushered off the field after taking a heavy head contact, which left him dazed. He then collapsed on the side of the field before being taken to the changing room. 17 minutes later he was led back on to the pitch by the Toulouse head coach Guy Noves. Noves is now the French national coach.

The introduction of the head injury assessment protocols by World Rugby are a step in the right direction, despite the attempts of the likes of Austin Healy cynically suggesting the break for the assessment should be used to give a player a break (read here).

In recent times we have seen more and more professional players having to leave the game because of concussion worries; Ireland prop Nathan White, England’s Shontayne Hape and Newport Gwent Dragon’s Ashley Smith are just 3 examples of a growing list.

As more research is done in to the consequences of repeated blows to the head there is a risk that rugby will be seen as too dangerous to play. We can accept the risk of the odd broken bone or head cut but few of us would be happy playing the game (or allowing our children to play the game), if there was a reasonable chance of severe head trauma.

Rugby needs to quickly undertake further research in to this area and look in to the scenarios which lead to these repeated head blows. Only then can we determine how to play the game in the safest manner.


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