Despite some spirited attempts at self-destruction (Australian Rugby axing the Force, the RWC 2023 host selection controversy) Rugby Union is in a buoyant state with World Rugby well on their way to achieving their goal of a truly global game.
Nothing will ever touch football as the world’s dominant sporting code but rugby is certainly laying a solid claim to No2 on the team-sport pecking order, rivaling cricket and basketball.
A small but significant event happened in the last week that brings this fact home – the English premiership secured a deal for free-to-air broadcasting in China, a move that gives them potential audience reach of 400 million households.
“This is a very significant day in the history of Premiership Rugby,” said Dominic Hayes, Premiership Rugby’s commercial director. “Launching free-to-air TV in China is part of our strategic goal of increasing the global impact of Premiership Rugby and helping to grow the game in new countries around.”
The contract even includes Mandarin commentary for live games and a weekly highlights show.
Much of the credit to the growth of the game goes down to three factors – the popularity of Sevens rugby (helped by Olympic exposure), the sky-rocketing growth of Women’s rugby (a highly successful Women’s Rugby World Cup was held in Ireland this year) and an attractive style of play seen in most tournaments across the globe.
Rugby is getting faster and the players fitter and more skillful. The All Blacks, so long the bench mark for the game, have shown the rest of the world what can be achieved if you play positive, ball in hand rugby. Fans love it and in New Zealand’s case it brings results, as well as making for breath taking highlights reels.
World Rugby also needs to be congratulated for promoting a more spectator-friendly game through some subtle rule changes and careful management of referees.
Next time you watch a Test match just observe how the decisions seem to go in favour of the team playing the most positive style of rugby. It’s no accident. The referees are just following World Rugby directives.
Men’s and women’s Sevens rugby has of course played a huge part in making rugby more attractive, helping to develop individual skills not only with ball in hand but at the breakdown, which remains a crucial part of both Sevens and Fifteens.
But the one real challenge that Rugby faces, and one that World Rugby are acutely aware of, is player welfare.
It’s interesting to note that of the world’s top ten team sports, as recently graded by TotalSportek.com, there are only three that involve a high degree of physical contact (i.e. collisions): rugby, ice hockey and American football.
And as rugby players get fitter, faster and indeed bigger – the collisions become more destructive. It makes for a better quality game – the All Blacks of today would have beaten the All Blacks of 1917 by 100 points – but also it takes a greater physical toll on players, especially where concussion is concerned.
World Rugby are to be complemented for all the work they are putting into this area, especially in regard to their new HIA (Head Injury Assessment) Protocol, which is in stark contrast to the NFL, which tried to pretend brain injuries didn’t exist for many years with devastating consequences.
But whatever steps World Rugby takes, and the new tougher regulations around head contact of any kind (accidental or deliberate) are commendable, they can not take it out of the game entirely.
This is rugby’s challenge: how do you make the game safer for players without making it any less thrilling for fans – and the sight of big men running into big collisions has a definite appeal to rugby fans.
It may not be tiddlywinks, as Tana Umaga once famously commented, but if rugby is to continue its impressive global growth, especially among younger players, it needs also not to be a bloodsport.
He isn’t exactly likening the supposedly infallible All Blacks to the Titanic, but Mike Tindall believes the autumn Test series highlights there is a crack in the hull, and that the rest of rugby’s international powerhouses must now exploit their chance to sink the ship.
He’s sat, bleary-eyed and jet-lagged at 10:30 at Le Meridien Dubai Hotel & Conference Centre in the shadow of Dubai International Airport, but former England centre Tindall is adamant the seven-hour flight from the UK hasn’t made him delirious. The man capped 75 times by the Red Rose smiles when he says he has been “laughed at” by friends and colleagues over the past year when he even dares question New Zealand’s invincibility.
But the evidence is there. They came through the end-of-season internationals unscathed, unbeaten against the Barbarians, France, Scotland and Wales. But against the Scots and Welsh in particular, they looked ragged at times, outplayed for long spells by both. Of their 14 games in 2017, they were beaten twice, by Australia and the British & Irish Lions.
The third and final Test against Warren Gatland’s visitors was drawn 15-15 in Auckland. That followed defeat in the second Test, the first time since 2011 the All Blacks had gone successive games without victory – an incredible span of 77 matches. Add in defeat to Ireland at Soldier Field last November, the supposedly invincible All Blacks army have lost three times in 12 months. And Tindall feels that is a crack. Albeit tiny, but a crack nonetheless.
“I’ve said it and been laughed at for the last year for saying they’ve got a chink, a little crack in the ship,” said Tindall, who appeared alongside former All Black Josh Kronfeld at The Royals Rugby Sevens Dinner at Le Meridien last night ahead of the Dubai Rugby Sevens, beginning on Thursday.
“Not a big one. It’s a ship that’s made of cast iron usually, but since 2015 there’s a little chink and there needs to be a regular hammering of it to spring a leak.
“You look at the leaders they’ve lost. If Kieran Read doesn’t play, you don’t have an immediate standout as captain.
“You don’t have the seasoned veteran, like (Richie) McCaw. In their back line too, Beauden Barrett is undoubtedly the best 10 on the planet but he seems to go through a rollercoaster ride every now and then. His kicking can be suspect and he can have quiet moments in games. It’s a small chink but it’s down to other nations to prise it open. If it’s there, it can be exposed. Whether it’s the other teams catching up or them on a slight decline, the gap is closing. There’s an ability to get at them and every nation needs to feed off that.”
Closer to home, Tindall admits the Red Rose were hardly scintillating during the autumn. However, Eddie Jones rested Lions stars like Owen Farrell and Mauro Itoje, while a number of a new wave of talent were blooded. Even while experimenting, Jones steered England safely to wins against Argentina and Samoa, with a clinical 30-6 dismantling of Australia the highlight. “Overall they’ll be pretty happy,” Tindall said.
“Argentina was disappointing. How clinical they were in the last 10 minutes against Australia was encouraging. Even in the Samoa game they took their opportunities ruthlessly. So one poor performance and two good ones. If they want to establish themselves as the world’s No2 team though, they have to win a Grand Slam.”
Looking ahead to the Six Nations, England will be gunning for a hat-trick of titles, a feat no side has ever achieved since the inaugural Home Nations tournament was played in 1883. And Tindall expects several of the new breed to make Jones’ squad. “I think one place we’re not really set yet is the back-row,” said ex-Bath and Gloucester man Tindall.
“Sam Underhill and Chris Robshaw do a lot of the same things and it puts pressure on Nathan Hughes to do a lot of the ball carrying.
“Sam Simmonds has had a great autumn. He got through his work and can be that ball carrier. We always function better when we have two carriers.
“Henry Slade didn’t have the best game against Australia but played better (against Samoa) and Piers Francis came on and had an excellent game. The new role of a prop is to be useful around the field, we have that with Mako (Vunipola) and (Ellis) Genge.
“It proved our depth is strong. Their options are good. You get an injury and someone will slot in. Billy Vunipola is a massive player for England too so to play like we did without him is a positive sign.”
Despite the fact England have become a juggernaut under Jones, equalling the All Blacks’ record of 18 Tests unbeaten in March, Tindall doesn’t expect more history in the shape of a third successive Six Nations title to come easily. With Scotland resurgent even before smashing Australia 53-24 last weekend, Wales adopting more of a multi-faceted attacking game and Ireland already England’s nearest rivals, Tindall is predicting one of the most keenly contested championships in years.
“England should win it, is what I believe, and the other three could be a coin flip,” he adds. “Realistically it could be a coin flip for all four. It could be a top four of home nations. Italy are in a woeful spell and France are still not great so you probably put them last and second-last.”
England were exposed at the 2015 Rugby World Cup – the first host nation to not make it beyond the pool stage in eight tournaments. Under former Japan coach Jones though, they have rediscovered their swagger, something Tindall admits was lacking under predecessor Stuart Lancaster.
“(Jones) doesn’t play to the media. He does the opposite,” said Tindall, who scored 14 tries for England. “Look at Sam Simmonds. He’s been the best No8 in the Premiership this season so everyone’s saying he should start and he doesn’t. I think he does that to show a) he’s still boss b) it’s the mental game with the players to keep them on their toes. People compare him to (Jose) Mourinho.
“He’s doing a fantastic job, giving them more freedom. Stuart was a bit of a disciplinarian.
“(Australia coach, Michael) Cheika talked about bullying England in the World Cup. Michael Hooper said ‘we knew we could do anything we wanted because we knew they wouldn’t retaliate’.
“Eddie’s said that won’t fly so Dylan’s (Hartley) captain, Mike Brown is vicecaptain and Owen Farrell, people who are really in your face.”
Michael Cheika’s Wallabies certainly are record breakers.
Following on from last Saturday’s biggest ever loss against England, Cheika’s side set a whole new host of records against Scotland today at Murrayfield.
In the history of Australia vs Scotland test matches, stretching right back to 1927, the 53 points were the most ever conceded by Australia against the Scots and 29 their biggest ever losing margin. Scotland’s eight tries were also the most they have ever scored against the Wallabies.
But to fully appreciate those three new marks you need to put them in context. The previous highest score by Scotland against Australia was 34, in the controversial quarter final loss at the 2015 Rugby World Cup – that mark was beaten by 19 points.
The biggest ever losing margin before today was nine points, that was exceeded by 20 – and the most tries Scotland had ever managed against Australia in a Test before today was three. That was beaten by a staggering five five-pointers.
Then there were the marks that Scotland almost set. It was the third most points ever scored against Australia in 617 Tests; they became only the third country after South Africa and New Zealand to rack up a half century against the Wallabies (the first northern hemisphere nation) and it was the equal ninth largest lost in Wallaby history (again the largest to a northern hemisphere nation.)
Yes, the Australians played over half the match with 14-men after a mindless and totally out of character shoulder charge by Sekope Kepu but this was insane rugby by any standard.
Scotland have made stunning strides under new coach Gregor Townsend, and this was their second victory over Australia this calendar year, but this was far more impressive than that 24-19 triumph in Sydney.
The Scots were decimated by the loss of their star Stuart Hogg just before kick-off but rather than go into their shell they fully committed to their new-look high-tempo, highly skilled running game.
Even when they went behind 12 – 10 just before Kepu was sent off or when Australia scored first in the second half, the brave Scots refused to flinch.
Their skill levels were breathtaking and despite their break-neck speed their accuracy was impressive with just six dropped passes (eight by Australia) and 23 missed tackles (29 by Australia).
The match showed the Scots nearly-victory against the All Blacks last weekend was no-fluke and Scotland are now right up alongside England and Ireland as Six Nations favourites.
As for the Wallabies – Cheika has to take full responsibility for this debacle. Yes Australia were unlucky against England but there was no luck in this. Kepu’s red card, and Kurtley Beale’s second in two games, shows a recklessness and lack of discipline that stems straight from the coach.
If the coach cannot control himself how can the players.
When they were reduced to 14 men they had to have a plan B – keep it tight, play territory – but they still threw the ball around like it was an end of season Barbarians jaunt. It played right into the Scots hands, and the adoring Murrayfield crowd’s hearts.
Just over a month ago the Wallabies deservedly beat the All Blacks in Brisbane and after a horror spell in Australian rugby, on and off the field, things were finally looking up.
But after record losses to England and Scotland the Wallabies end their season as a dis-heartened rabble and Cheika has to start all over again in 2018.
If the Wallabies are to have any chance at all in the 2019 RWC, or claiming back the Bledisloe Cup before that, Cheika must learn some discipline and then instill that discipline in his team. Or else more dark days like this will follow.