Rugby’s Existential Crisis

Rugby's Existential Crisis

“Show me the money!”

Those were the immortal words shouted by Cuba Gooding Jnr. and Tom Cruise in the movie Jerry Maguire. In the context of the scene, it meant ‘put up or shut up’. Rugby’s existential crisis now is quite similar; in context of whether the product represents the very best of the sport.

The revenue stream is slowly being eroded both by lower broadcast viewership and weekly ticket sales. The product which was once attractive and saleable, now has fans questioning their own consumption. What is found today; in terms of on-field judgement and decisions that confound traditional rugby fans, could erode much of that perceived value. The professional age, so reliant on the returns from rugby, could be reducing it’s own revenue streams through a less popular product.

In another sport-related role in the movie Rat Race, Cuba Gooding Jnr. plays a NFL referee who gets the coin toss wrong in a Super Bowl match. He then suffers harassment by every fan who recognizes him as ‘that official’ after the match. It affects his characters life, and goes to show that sports officials have a really hard time when they get something wrong in matches.

Matches that sometimes rise to the level of religion for some fans. And in the high-stakes decisions of International rugby, of multi-billion dollar professional competitions, getting the right call impacts on the stakeholders [fans and sponsors] whom expect perfection.

Rugby’s existential crisis could match the experiences of cricket

In the early 2000’s the International governing board for cricket, the ICC, faced a similar problem. They were losing fans in numbers never seen before. What was actually happening (slowly at first, then at an alarming pace) was that technology had caught up with them.

Through television coverage, fans could now see clear and detailed slow motion video replays of deliveries. Viewers see side-angle shots of run-outs, detailed in super-slow motion, with some ‘natural decisions’ undermined by technology. Fans began to raise their voice – and they were not happy.

Umpires Mark Benson and Steve Bucknor fell foul of Indian cricket fans when they made decisions on the spot which, in replays, could clearly be seen to be erroneous. Rugby today is finding a closer inspection on referee decisions is highlighting errors that either home team or visiting teams’ fans, object to. Commentators too, claim that the television match official (TMO) is employed too much, and subsequent off-field sanctions are made due to clouded laws and interpretation.

Referee and officials calls now under intense analysis

It is worthy noting that many decisions, on review, were glaringly incorrect. This tainted the game to the point where fans were ready to give up on their favorite sport. Umpires faced similar abuse [the same as shown in the Gooding Jnr. film] once they left the field. Some who had very productive careers as officials in the 1990’s were suddenly booed when they walked onto the pitch.

For many years, the ICC refused to accept this cause as their biggest problem. They decided that the format of the game was the likely cause, that they needed better scheduling. Maybe they needed to expand the amount of nations playing in top tier tournaments and allow weaker, less competitive teams onto the field. In the end, they couldn’t hide from the truth any longer. It was the split-second decisions that were made in arrogance and haste, that fans had walked away from.

France see Red - World Rugby call it a 'Yellow Card'
Benjamin Fall of France receives a red card from Referee Angus Gardner during the International Test match between the New Zealand All Blacks and France at Westpac Stadium on June 16, 2018 in Wellington, New Zealand. (Photo by Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images)

In rugby’s existential crisis, the fair view of referee’s can now be digested and then countered by World Rugby – as Angus Gardner found, when his red card decision in the June Internationals, was overturned by committee ruling.

The same can be said of Super Rugby, of many professional competitions (like Premiership Rugby) where the television viewer satisfaction, can be undermined by poor calls and unclear rulings; just as other sports like Cricket have.

World Rugby not keen to learn from others’ mistakes

Rugby has seen a similar decline on the professional stage in the last ten years. In the heydays, if you went to a bar at 11PM on a Saturday night in South Africa to watch the Springboks play the Pumas, it would be packed. All the fans would be sporting their team jerseys. There were adverts that showed friends getting up in the wee hours of the morning to drive to their mates’ houses to watch a Test between Australia and England. Those days are long gone.

Only the most important Tests (those that happen only once every four years) will get anyone out of the comfort of their houses, to trek to a venue and watch the game in a group setting. They do, but are more circumspect and the product needs to be attractive.

World Rugby has done everything that the ICC did and yet somehow, still expected a different result. In recent years, fans have decried the standards of the officials and the lack of action taken by the governing body to correct those obvious mistakes. In one game; the Quarter-final in the 2011 World Cup, Bryce Lawrence was so bad that the game degenerated into an all out brawl in the break-downs. He wasn’t sanctioned by World Rugby, but was no longer scheduled to blow any matches in South Africa – for fear of his safety. The common understanding was that he was not held to account – and that rugby did not learn from that incident.

In some domestic competitions, referee abuse is an unfortunate aspect of fan support. It can be made by both traditional and new converts to the sport. Understanding the laws and rulings – or misunderstanding – can lead to some either losing interest, or worse.

Bryce Lawrence’s fear was probably well founded. Many rugby fans would remember Piet van Zyl attacking Irish referee Dave McHugh in 2002 (below) during the Springbok v All Blacks test match, in Durban.

His actions were diabolical. There is no place for that and his ban from rugby venues was deserved. Fans of the game whom have no outlet for their frustration and some of the really bonkers ones will feel they have no other option than taking it out on the man they deem responsible [not an endorsement by Last Word on Rugby] but it shows how passion and frustration can be poorly demonstrated.

Looking at the 2018 season, it’s very clear that frustration is creeping back in. Talk Sport and fan forums are full of the reaction and disbelief some hold firmly. In the public eye, World Rugby still arrogantly refuses to accept any responsibility…..even while the amount of mistakes is ever increasing.

In a year where they maintained that consistency would be their focus, World Rugby have failed to act convincingly, as it appears each week more controversial decisions occurred.

TMO and Assistant Referees impact on-field questioned

Cricket has since recovered. Umpires are prone to mistakes and their egos sure to be wounded. But the DRS system that they have implemented has alleviated fans’ concerns and the game is now healthier than ever. Rugby on the other hand, for all their attempts, still do not allow the TMO to overrule the Match Official. The best they can do is suggest looking at another angle. The assistant referees on the sideline primarily focus on foul play and rarely interject for forward passes, knock-ons or offside play.

The law books also don’t provide much clarity for the officials to do a consistent job. In the All Blacks vs France Test in June, a defender was obstructed by the referee but somehow, that scenario isn’t covered in the rules. Similarly, a penalty try awarded to the Reds against the Rebels in the Super Rugby Week 18 game, didn’t come with the required yellow card sanction.

These are just some of many incidents, that have spoiled the current season for many fans.

There is little World Rugby can do at this stage to save the season from forever being tainted as ‘one of the worst displays of officiating’ so far. The fact that many fans from South Africa, to Australia and New Zealand, are no longer willing to shell out their hard earned money to attend matches, is just more proof that the public has had enough.

The simple truth here is, it will take a long time to restore fans’ faith in the game. However, if they were to engage in some corrective actions and embrace the opportunity that technology has to offer today, the games governing body may still save themselves from rugby’s existential crisis – save World Rugby from a not so slow, steady demise in viewers and supporters.

For one thing, reviewing how the laws are written so that they allow for interpretation, instead of being so blunt and concise on each and every sanction; which is also required, but must consider what tools referees can use on the field. Scott MacLean has put forward some new proposals, which might be pro-active. So one might hope that when World Rugby meet in San Francisco, that every option is on the agenda.

Fans have the ultimate power though, as they control the purse strings. Right now, wallets are slamming shut, at an alarming rate. The product is less attractive, and nobody can justifiably ask to ‘show me the money’.

“Main photo credit”
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