Wales v England

Rugby Matters: Professional game is fast losing its soul

SO there I was last Sunday night at a deserted Haywards Heath Hospital – and that is another story –  and suddenly I was besieged by what I can only describe as May Day calls from three of rugby’s great and good. It was like sitting in the confession box, sworn to secrecy, while listening to everybody’s intimate but previously unthinkable thoughts.

There was a former England coach, a former England captain and one of the best and most respected rugby broadcasters in all Christendom. All, by sheer coincidence, either texted or phoned within the space of an hour and all, it seemed, had reached breaking point and wanted to vent off the record, piling into the game they once loved and desperately want to love again. 

The sheer paucity and mind numbing boredom of the weekend’s rugby – Newcastle v Sale headed the roll of dishonour but the Autumn Cup also got a shoeing – was the immediate cause but in all three cases it had been building for months. It had started with a miserably poor Six Nations back in February and March before the tournament was interrupted. 

It was a real canary down the coal mine moment. If they collectively were at breaking point the flame was in real trouble.

In roughly descending order the list of things they wanted eradicated was the ‘fecking caterpillar’, box-kicks, offside from box-kicks, the jackal having to do so little to earn a penalty, offside in midfield, kick tennis, forward passes, not being able to touch a scrum-half who has suddenly become a protected species, off your feet at rucks and forward passes. Regular readers of this column will already know my complete concurrence with all of the above.

For all three it was the meltdown moment when their love of the game temporarily became outweighed by its many failings. For me that tipping point had actually come a few days earlier after what some might think was a rather innocuous incident. It came when Leicester supremo Steve Borthwick refused point blank to offer a few injury updates on various Tigers for their ever supportive local paper and radio station.

‘Groins’ we call them in the business, a simple matter of keeping supporters, season ticket holders and rugby folk up to date and make them feel involved in the club which they support and help finance through thick and thin. Mostly thin recently at Tigers to be fair.

The sheer bovine contempt and arrogance from Borthwick for thinking all this was unnecessary and beneath him had me raging from afar. Still does. The obscene thought that the very fans and supporters who pay his wages are not worthy of that little service and interaction.

Rugby is fighting like never before for column inches and media space. The sport is currently on its arse to use the technical expression. Why on earth would you adopt such an unhelpful, negative approach? Since when has that been part of the rugby ethos? 

All this came amid news of Ray Prosser’s death and my mind went back to Pontypool in the mid 80s when I was covering them for the Argus and then the Echo. Back then I would phone Pontypool’s  match secretary/press officer Tony Symons on the dot at 7.30am every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday morning for team news, injury updates and, being Pooler, upcoming disciplinary hearings. In fact any titbits he wanted to throw my way.

I was on an 8.30am deadline and Tony had to clock on at 8am at his work so time was of the essence. Tony didn’t get paid a penny – on the contrary Pooler were greatly in his debt – but he never missed a call, and always had something up his sleeve to make sure his beloved Pooler got a mention in the paper later that morning. Keep things ticking over. 

Players as well. I tried when possible to interview them after games and on training nights but on many occasions, especially in those hectic south Wales days with news stories breaking almost by the hour you had to pluck up courage and chance an early morning call. Very early.

Not once did those involved – often big hitters like Graham Price, Mark Ring, David Bishop, Eddie Butler, John Scott, Jonathan Davies, Paul Turner, Ieuan Evans – fail to man the pumps. Well ok, The Bish was usually still fast asleep but he would always phone back as soon as he surfaced.

Nowadays you have to jump through a dozen hoops to maybe, possibly, get a one-on-one interview in one designated 15-minute slot once a fortnight. No promises, mind. It is insane and an insult to those who went before to make rugby the game it is.

The problems facing rugby right now are many and huge but increasingly I’m wondering if the main problem is not just a very bad attitude by some and a collective sense of humour failure from others. That encompasses simple common courtesies like giving the local media ten minutes and this macho smart arse determination to always find a way around every law and regulation. Rugby badly needs to get over itself.

When there is a mindset to play – witness the first half especially of Bristol against Saints last Friday – rugby can still soar.

All sorts of law changes have been mooted and a few well thought-out tickles might be in order but the main problem is that rugby is fast losing its soul and the qualities that made it stand out from other sports.

BRENDAN GALLAGHER

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