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If it ain't broke, don't fix it

By Owain Jones
The XV – Not Dead

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Just last month the decisive cricket Test between England and India was cancelled two hours before the first ball was to have been bowled. The cause of the cancellation, according to former England captain Michael Vaughan, was the Indian players’ reluctance to run the risk of testing positive for Covid ahead of the following week’s start of the Indian Premier League.

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At stake, according to Vaughan, were lucrative contracts. His view – and he isn’t alone – is that, in the players’ minds, not even the biggest Test match of the year, can be allowed to go ahead if it runs the slightest risk of jeopardising an IPL contract.

Earlier the same week, by a quirk of fate, the former Rugby Football Union boss Ian Ritchie had launched the World 12s. Ritchie boldly predicted it will have a similar impact on rugby to the way the IPL has revolutionised cricket.

Given the events played out just hours later in Manchester, it’s a claim that threatens to put parody out of business.

 

IPL cricket
Does rugby want to follow cricket’s lead with the IPL? (Cianflone/Getty Images)

I wonder if the bitter irony and scandal of Old Trafford has dawned on Ritchie? Perhaps not? Because it certainly hasn’t stopped a cast of some of rugby’s greatest names who, despite having the benefit of hindsight, have lined up behind Ritchie and blundered on in their endorsement of World 12s without so much as pause for thought.

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Because if the farcical events at Old Trafford is what the IPL has dumped on cricket, then I wonder what pile of smelly stuff World 12s has in store to tip all over Twickenham, Murrayfield, the Principality Stadium, the Aviva, Kingsholm, Welford Road and just about every other acre of hallowed turf that rugby (as we know it) will be played on between now and the planned first tournament in August next year?

According to Ritchie and his disciples, who include previously successful administrators and World Cup-winning coaches, rugby needs a shake-up. If that means getting to grips with the physical dangers posed by a sport played by bigger, heavier, faster and fitter players than ever before, then I entirely agree. Rugby’s concussion crisis is real and I don’t envy any of the many decent folk whose job is to make rugby safer while at the same time retaining the physical and gladiatorial characteristics that make the game so attractive to both players and fans.

I do see the sport needing change. You can’t just sit still. If you watch the majority of international Test matches at the moment, if New Zealand and maybe France aren’t playing, then it doesn’t really excite me

Danny Care

But then offering an alternative to the crash, bang and wallop is not what Ritchie has in his sales pitch. According to Ritchie, World 12s “is a game for our changing, fast-paced world that can excite a global fan base in the way that we have seen with the IPL or most recently The Hundred in cricket”.

Having kicked the ball, it’s a sentiment with which one or two current and former players have caught and run with. Ironically, one of them is a playmaker for the team who have produced some of the best rugby on the planet in recent months. Danny Care told us recently: “I do see the sport needing change. You can’t just sit still. If you watch the majority of international Test matches at the moment, if New Zealand and maybe France aren’t playing, then it doesn’t really excite me – I tried to get my son to watch that Lions tour and he was like, ‘What is this?’”

Romain N'Tamack
La Rochelle’s home games have been a sell-out since the start of the Top 14 season (Photo by Lionel Hahn/Getty Images)
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Nobody here is going to pretend the Lions tour to South Africa will be remembered for its pyrotechnics. Gripping and tense? Yes. But was any of the three Cape Town Tests an 80-minute sales tool that would convince a Martian who’d just stepped off his spaceship that a rugby match is where he’d rather be than at, say, the ballet? Perhaps not. But then you could say the same of any one of a string of major football finals, one-sided Wimbledon denouements and even the odd IPL match. The difference, though, is that none of those compelling yet ultimately underwhelming contests has ever been cited as a cause to reinvent the game.

Earlier that morning over the back of The Stoop, hundreds of kids cheered on by well-behaved parents were involved in a mini-rugby festival organised by Quins. What I saw on both pitches was a sport in rude health not in dire need of reinvention.

Last Saturday, I was in London where Care, once again, was scampering around with typical invention and the zeal of someone half his age as Harlequins, in front of a full house, beat Worcester 35-29 in a match that ended with the visitors clinch two league points by scoring the game’s ninth try on the final whistle. It was a cracking occasion.

Earlier that morning over the back of The Stoop, hundreds of kids cheered on by well-behaved parents were involved in a mini-rugby festival organised by Quins. Presumably, many of them finished off a fabulous day out by watching the grown-ups next door. What I saw on both pitches was a sport in rude health not in dire need of reinvention.

Elsewhere over the weekend, the parochial passions of the European game were on display – at Kingsholm, where Leicester shaded Gloucester in a 59-point match, while in France, big budgets collided as champions Toulouse went toe to toe with Clermont Auvergne in one of the world’s great rugby cities.

Down south, the pick of the two Tests was the 100th between rugby’s two greatest international rivals, New Zealand and South Africa. Perhaps predictably, this match was more beast than beauty, fought with an entirely predictable intensity. The irony is that it was settled by the actions of Jordie Barrett’s right boot – perfectly timed, without controversy and so close to the final whistle that the only red card it prompted was on the Boks’ hopes of delivering a final riposte.

Jordie Barrett decided the tense encounter between the All Blacks and Springboks (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

The common theme about all these matches is that each fed on rugby’s tribal nature. In this respect, it has much in common with football. Sacrifice that at the alter of Ritchie’s concocted teams with confected rivalries and rugby will have walked straight on to its own sucker punch.

At the root of Mr Ritchie and his mates’ attempt to revise rugby as we know it is, of course, a fast buck. That, too, is something World 12s has in common with the IPL.

Yet even if you, and even they, remain unconvinced that rugby doesn’t require seismic change, then above everything else I’ve just told you, consider the statement issued on Friday by the La Rochelle box office.

The notice was in itself nothing new. In fact, fans of La Rochelle have rather got used to it. It declared the Stade Marcel Deflandre was sold out for the next day’s match. Saturday’s 59-17 win against Biarritz was played in front of a full house for the 57th consecutive Top 14 game at the home of last season’s beaten finalists.

If indeed Ritchie’s message that XVs is on the wane is out there, then I’d suggest the bottle carrying it has yet to be washed up on that particular stretch of the Atlantic coast …or, for that matter, anywhere.

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