October 4, 2018
Some years ago at Cardiff Arms Park, a man was considering a question from a young boy about the difference between the two codes of rugby. Eventually he replied: “It’s like comparing chess and draughts.”
Union resembled chess in its greater complexity and tactical variation. League was more like draughts with its desire to get on with play: fewer components meant the referee was involved less. As simplifications go it was not outrageous, although it reflected the disdain in which league was held in a part of the country where many players had received a one-way ticket to the north.
The same question posed today would elicit a different response. Union has become more like draughts than chess in its obsessive quest to keep the ball in play for longer and longer and its dismantling of old staples, such as rucking and scrummaging. Teams rarely kick the ball to touch now unless they have been awarded a penalty and the more frantic the game becomes, the less time there is for thinking.
Gloucester’s home defeat by Harlequins on Saturday was for long periods league without the sixth-tackle law. The ball was touched 643 times but kicked from hand on only 26 occasions, with eight coming from the three outside-halves used. The game flowed and there were moments of skill, not least in three of the five tries scored, but there was little strategic about the rugby.
Coaching has taken a firm grip, not surprisingly given the numbers involved in any one team, but when initiative is needed on the field, it is too often absent. Even the All Blacks have become afflicted, as they showed against the British & Irish Lions last year and South Africa last month. Players take refuge in game plans.
Europe is catching up with the drive towards entertainment that was initiated in the southern hemisphere more than a decade ago. In itself it is a welcome trend: it was not that long ago, again down to instruction, that the ball spent much of the match high in the air with teams afraid to be caught in possession.
Now, prompted by various law changes that were designed with player welfare in mind, it is kept more in hand: more passes, more runs, more collisions, more injuries. There were occasions at Kingsholm that demanded a player with head still attached. The match was decided in effect by the scrum, Harlequins winning a penalty four minutes from time that sealed victory and in the final seconds in their 22 twisting Gloucester so they could not attack through their No 8, Ben Morgan, but it largely reflected the homogenous nature of professional rugby.
National identity has been blurred by cross-pollination. One-third of the head coaches in the Premiership are English; one-quarter are New Zealanders and one-sixth are from South Africa. The rest are made up from Ireland and Wales. In the Pro14 the 10 Irish, Scottish and Welsh sides have one local coach between them, Leo Cullen at Leinster, although Ulster’s Dan McFarland has spent most of his rugby career in Ireland after serving the first four years as a senior player in his native England.
Entertainment became the watchword in the south more than a decade ago in an attempt to stimulate attendance levels, even if it does not look enough any more. The way to attract a new audience is not by highlighting the arcane rituals of a sport which for long periods of the amateur era was known for its low scores and, as clubs in Europe look to broaden their base, so they have to offer more on the field.
The Premiership’s aim at the start of the decade was to rival the second tier in English football in terms of attendances. It is still some way from that: the average attendance in football’s Championship this season is 19,201 compared with 12,052 in rugby’s Premiership, which is closer to League One’s 8,455.
None of the matches in the opening five rounds of the Premiership campaign was played at a neutral venue. That will change this weekend when Northampton face Leicester at Twickenham, as it will in the Pro14, whose average attendance of 6,814 will receive a needed boost from the switch of Leinster’s match against Munster to the Aviva Stadium.
The best supported league in Europe is the Top14 in France where the average gate this season, after six rounds, is 14,021. Only three clubs in the three main leagues have attracted more than 20,000 for a match this season: Bordeaux-Bègles, the best supported club of the 40, have done so twice while Leicester and Bristol have managed it once. Eight of the teams in the Premiership and in the Pro14 are averaging less than at this time last season and the majority of those with an uplift have come from a relatively low base, such as Sale, Newcastle, Edinburgh and the Southern Kings.
Bristol generated the highest attendance, 26,079 against Bath at Ashton Gate on the opening night of the season. That is more than the total the champions, Saracens, managed in their three home matches last month, although with Bath and Worcester sending weakened teams to Allianz Park and Exeter respectively last weekend, the top two will struggle to generate sell-outs.
Twenty matches this season have attracted a crowd of 15,000 or more, 15 in France, five in England and none in the Pro14. The danger with taking the entertainment route, as the south has found, is that new supporters come at the expense of established ones. It is a question of balance. The laws, if not their application, still lend themselves to a thinking game.