Rugby union failed us again on Saturday night.
As a concept, rugby union is great. When played well, rugby union can excite even the most skeptical, non-partisan viewer. But rugby union is rarely played well.
The only time I was truly captivated by a game of rugby union was, of course, in the year 2000. The so-called ‘Test of the Century’, in which the All Blacks edged out Australia 35-34 in one of the greatest exhibitions of running rugby, rightfully deserves its place in history.
But sadly, nothing has come close to topping this game since.
It is rare that both teams will sub-consciously agree to play running rugby. Sometimes, one team will attempt to open up the game, while the other will produce stifling tactics at the breakdown designed to frustrate the opposition and fans alike. Often, both teams will agree to grind the entire match out, relying on their kickers to slot anything from inside 50 metres out.
In the absence of free-flowing offensive play, commentators will of course focus on the ‘contest’. But the contest alone will not save rugby union.
No-one (with the exception of middle-aged, private-school educated, 1st XV ex-prop forwards) cares about scrum tactics. To those who appreciate continuity, the scrum specifically can be too much to bear. The mere sight of 115+ kg men failing to properly engage, thereby wasting several minutes of play per game, is fucking frustrating.
The referees, too, are another unfortunate variable in rugby union – a code already plagued by variables.
The Australian Rugby Union has it right with their decision to trial a new points system in the upcoming National Rugby Championship. Here, penalties and drop goals will be worth just two points, with bonus points to be awarded for teams that score several tries. Conversions will be worth three points, thus enticing teams to play attractive running rugby.
Fuck it’d be good if this rule change catches on internationally. It would be, as they say in the business world, a real game changer.
But for a code that talks a lot about running rugby, it doesn’t actually do a lot of it. It’s sad, because in this increasingly converged sporting landscape, rugby should strive to capture the audience’s imagination, lest it lose out to a competitor code.
Rugby union is, in essence, a sheltered private school jock who has never moved off Sydney’s North Shore. He got a job straight out of university (Commerce/Law at the University of Sydney) and now works at one of the Big Four banks.
But rugby union needs to realise that there is a big wide world out there just waiting to be explored. It’s got the tools to do it – it just needs to open its mind and think a bit outside the box.
In order to salvage its flagging reputation as a boring bloke, rugby union needs to have a go. It needs to create a Couchsurfing account, travel South America, have anonymous sex in a backpacker hostel and get locked up overnight in a Bolivian jail for public intoxication.
I get that it rained a bit on Saturday night, which made handling tough. But a 12-12 scoreline comprised solely of penalty goals isn’t going to win non-partisan types over.
It might even have partisan types switching over to the AFL just to see what’s going on.
By Dave Edwards