Big guns must open up to help spread rugby word world­wide

The Daily Telegraph - Sport - - Rugby World Cup -

SPORTS WRITER OF THE YEAR in Oita some­times ruth­less dis­re­gard for emerg­ing coun­tries (see, for ex­am­ple, the re­fusal of the Six Na­tions Cham­pi­onship to em­brace pro­mo­tion and rel­e­ga­tion – or even ex­pan­sion). To be truly global, sports tend to need the back­ing of su­per­pow­ers, and the G8 coun­tries, who pro­vide the show­case and the money for those ac­tiv­i­ties to grow.

In rugby, the United States and Rus­sia were bit-part play­ers in Ja­pan. Amer­i­can rugby, even with its new league, has not pro­gressed at World Cup level. Rus­sia crept into the com­pe­ti­tion, but ar­rived with lit­tle more than courage. Canada are in dis­ar­ray. In In­dia and China, rugby is a fringe sport. Even in Europe, Ger­many and Spain are on the mar­gins. Which means that, of the G8 na­tions, only the United King­dom, France, Italy and now Ja­pan are able to field teams ca­pa­ble of com­pet­ing.

This not only places a bur­den on the Six Na­tions coun­tries and south­ern-hemi­sphere big four to pro­mote the game; it pro­tects those coun­tries from chal­lenge from be­low. One folly of to­day’s rugby in­dus­try is to pre­tend to be help­ing smaller coun­tries while also block­ing their path, mainly by deny­ing them top-level fix­tures.

There is talk of the 2027 World Cup be­ing held in Amer­ica, which could have all sorts of ben­e­fits, but only if the coun­try em­braces rugby as a mass par­tic­i­pa­tion sport. If foot­ball finds that hard in the land of the NFL, base­ball and bas­ket­ball, imag­ine how hard it would be for rugby. Un­til a break­through comes in an­other su­per­power coun­try, it will fall to those na­tions al­ready on the big stage to spread the word.

Some dis­play a re­luc­tance to do so – cer­tainly dur­ing tour­na­ments. Churned-out quotes, closed train­ing ses­sions and de­fen­sive mind­sets un­der ques­tion­ing are not the way to get your­self no­ticed. Eng­land are not be­ing talked about at home – yet – in part be­cause their cam­paign has in­volved three blood­less vic­to­ries. A win over Aus­tralia would stim­u­late in­ter­est. It would be a sur­prise, though, if the masses back in Eng­land have a clear sense of who this Eng­land team re­ally are.

Be­hind this cloudi­ness is the mod­ern im­per­a­tive of com­mer­cial­is­ing ac­cess, so that sup­port­ers ex­pe­ri­ence the team through of­fi­cial chan­nels, rather than in­de­pen­dent me­dia. The Rugby Foot­ball Union, which has re­cently lost world-class staff in this area, has been very good at this. Its “Ris­ing Sons” Youtube ser­vice, for ex­am­ple, has been pop­u­lar with young sup­port­ers. “Old me­dia” are bound to grum­ble when smart new dig­i­tal com­peti­tors take their ground. There is, how­ever, still a lot to be said for mass-mar­ket ex­po­sure as well as niche place­ment, which ex­ists to bring in rev­enue.

Im­por­tant to re­mem­ber is that na­tional teams be­long to ev­ery­one in that coun­try. They do not be­long to gov­ern­ing bod­ies. They do not even be­long to head coaches, who tend to care only about keep­ing their jobs – and win­ning things – rather than fan in­ter­est. World Cups are stress­ful and sieges are some­times eas­ier than open­ness.

This week­end’s four games in Tokyo and Oita could hardly be more tan­ta­lis­ingly poised to cap­ture the in­ter­est of a global au­di­ence, rugby-lov­ing or not. But more needs to be done be­tween fix­tures to foster a sense of en­gage­ment. The play­ers out there mak­ing huge phys­i­cal sac­ri­fices de­serve bet­ter than to be seen as obe­di­ent em­ploy­ees of a tour­na­ment ma­chine. We need to know who they are.

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