The seventh edition of the Rugby Championship began last weekend and the familiar storyline of the All Blacks lapping the field showed no signs of changing.
New Zealand rugby is so far ahead of its southern hemisphere rivals that they cannot be called rivals really, while the All Blacks are also well ahead of the rest of the world.
Meanwhile, World Rugby – the sport’s governing body – sent out a gushing email last week about how a marketing tour of the Webb Ellis Cup inspired the popularity of rugby in India.
It was filled with amazing facts such as: “The Webb Ellis Cup received by a record-breaking crowd of over 15,000 schoolchildren in Bhubaneswar, the largest attendance at a standalone event since the trophy tour was introduced in 2014.”
India’s sports minister met with World Rugby leaders to discuss the growth of rugby in the region and the release claimed that nearly 55,000 players were introduced into its ‘Get Into Rugby’ programme.
Growing the game is all well and good, but it seems that the pursuit of growth in non-traditional markets such as India and the USA is coming at the cost of the spine of the sport.
Sport is about a contest between great players and teams. When one entity dominates over another it ceases to be compelling.
World Rugby’s major concern should be reviving South African and Australian rugby in the short- to medium-term because the sport needs healthy competition for the All Blacks.
The Boks and Wallabies have won four Webb Ellis Cups between them yet both nations have a domestic game in turmoil.
Australian Rugby is just about broke and almost every province in South Africa is on the brink of financial collapse, while SA Rugby itself has declared two massive financial losses in its last two audits.
If growing the game of rugby were a major priority there would be a comprehensive plan in place for nurturing the talent in the Pacific Islands. If ever rugby had a natural gene pool to dip into and parade on a world stage to truly represent a global image of the sport, then Fiji, Tonga and Samoa, are it.
But those islands offer no commercial value to World Rugby, so are left to fend for themselves. It’s no wonder they are a net exporter of rugby talent because there is no value for players remaining at home.
South African rugby is facing a similar crisis as players flock overseas because it’s not financially viable to remain at home, which erodes the domestic game.
The law book is also one of rugby major’s problems that need to be addressed long before it goes calling in India to grow the sport.
People in the current market are turning away from the sport (Super Rugby’s attendance and viewership figures have been on the decline for years) and one of the issues is people do not understand, or are frustrated by the laws.
Laws are not consistently applied, there are too many areas open to interpretation and it’s making the 15-man game less interesting and desirable.
Sevens is thriving because of its relative simplicity but 15s remains bogged down in a morass of unclear interpretation of complex laws and a seemingly never-ending season.
By all means, grow the game in India, but first fix the issues that plague the sport now. If Australia and South Africa disappear into financial ruin, the Pacific Islands are continually spurned and the complexity of the laws not addressed, then rugby will lose a large part of its player base, history and soul.
And India, the USA or Russia won’t be able to fill those gaps quickly enough. Rugby needs to grow, but not at any cost.