Big guns must open up to help spread rugby word worldwide
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.