Test rugby in the northern hemisphere is currently in the dock for being dull and unentertaining, but ex-England skipper Dylan Hartley believes the prevailing trend in Europe was started last year at the World Cup in Japan by the Springboks. 

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Rassie Erasmus’ South Africa fought their way to glory with a restrictive game plan but while their win over England in the World Cup final was widely acclaimed, European countries are now being heavily criticised for copying that low frills template set by the Springboks.

Appearing as co-host with ex-Wales midfielder Jamie Roberts on the latest RugbyPass Offload show, Hartley suggested the current lack of entertainment isn’t a trend that has only materialised in recent weeks with the conclusion of the delayed 2020 Six Nations and the one-off Nations Cup.

“I engaged with a few fans post-game on Twitter,” said Hartley, referencing the low frills England win over Wales last Saturday in Llanelli.  

“No-one gave South Africa stick for winning the World Cup but they played a pretty defensive set-piece, kicking based game. I was thinking why is everyone playing the way they are now? Is it because South Africa won the World Cup they almost set the trend for the next six months, the next year?

Roberts replied: “My issue with this is as a professional sport, as a game, we have a duty to entertain. Rugby has to ask itself who are those people they want to entertain? Is it the usual rugby demographic we are aware of, middle-age man, loves going to the game with his mates, enjoys the intricacies of the game, the scrum, the maul, the kick pressure game, or do we want to bring on board more younger fans? 

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“If the answer is the latter then the game needs to adapt and change. If it’s the former and we just want to keep the traditional fans happy we can carry on with the way things are, but if rugby wants to attract new audiences it needs to evolve. If I put myself in an 18-year-old’s shoes now, I probably wouldn’t watch any game.”   

Hartley suggested it comes down to substance over style and that winning matters most. “Imagine being a coach, a DOR somewhere, are you worried about playing entertaining rugby or are you worried about the form sheet and seeing a W next to your team every weekend?

“I look at Northampton, they seem to play this nice brand of rugby but they are on the wrong side of results at the moment. Fans are pretty quick to say want this style of rugby and then you give them this style and you don’t get the result, it’s like the coaches need to go. 

“So from a professional point of view, and this is where I side completely with what Eddie (Jones) does, it is all about the result. Do what you have got to do to win because people are ultimately going to be happier to follow a winning team, not a team that plays a nice style of rugby but loses every week.”

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Roberts took up the baton again. “It’s a conundrum the game needs to solve. But the point you are making, we are talking about winning rugby is boring rugby so there is no reward in the risk of adventure in playing. 

“Teams don’t want to do it because they are worried about the risk of getting turned over, being too loose… teams don’t want to take that risk and because there is no reward in doing it we are not seeing entertaining rugby. It’s fascinating and whether World Rugby makes any changes remains to be seen but for me, rugby has to decide whether it wants to cater for its traditional audience or it wants to attract some new fans to the game.” 

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