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The Nations Championship is a novel idea but won't fix the real problem

By Hamish Bidwell
Photo Credit: ©INPHO/James Crombie

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What happens when we get bored of playing England and France all the time?

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What happens when the novelty of the Nations Championship wears off?

What happens when it becomes clear the competition’s a closed shop and our Pacific neighbours fall further and further behind and more and more of their elite talent turns out for tier one nations instead?

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Aotearoa Rugby Pod | Episode 12
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Aotearoa Rugby Pod | Episode 12

I’m not against the Nations Championship concept. Not against the idea of the All Blacks playing Northern Hemisphere opponents in a meaningful context.

Games between Rugby World Cups have to be more than just revenue-generating exercises and, in time, the so-called Nations Championship might become a competition of consequence.

But let’s not overlook why countries such as New Zealand need it.

It’s because fans are bored.

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The problem is, though, that they’re not bored because regular foes Australia and South Africa can’t cut it.

The Springboks are as formidable as ever and Australia are on the rise, so it’s not as if familiarity has bred contempt.

No, the fundamental flaw in all this is that fans are actually bored of rugby.

We can play whoever we like and, for a short period at least, playing new teams might help renew interest. But it won’t alter the fact that the game itself has become a bore.

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As I say, I’ve nothing against the idea of a Nations Championship. I just have concerns about where we turn when that no longer excites fans either.

The folk at Fifa, for instance, have mooted the idea of a football World Cup every other year. Why wait four, when you can cash in every couple?

But then what? Annual World Cups?

Now that’s just an issue of greed. Whatever football’s flaws might be, waning fan enthusiasm is not among them.

The game is brilliantly played and supporters, in the big football nations, can’t get enough of it.

Sadly, folk here in New Zealand appear to have had their fill of rugby.

The professional game is utterly unwatchable live.

Where replays and talking heads help make the television experience tolerable, you simply cannot stay engaged and connected to games in person.

Almost every burst of play is followed by a break for water. Then a couple of scrums go down or a Television Match Official wants to have a look at something and, before you know it, five minutes have gone by without the ball being in play.

You can’t take a child to that; they simply don’t have the attention span.

Plus, thanks to inventions such as PlayStation, they’re used to seeing all the stars in action. Try explaining to a 10-year-old that in real life players have rest weeks and sabbaticals.

With no atmosphere in grounds, they pound you with music to the point where you can barely talk to the person next to you. By the time you’ve been to the loo or bought another beer, to stay occupied during the breaks in play, you feel like watching the second half in the pub.

That’s if you can be bothered to go to a game in the first place.

We have to be honest here and accept that the product isn’t actually good enough. If it was, people would watch it.

How often does a whistle blow during a match? Sixty times? A hundred?

And if you’re at a game in person, it’s impossible to know why. All you see is a pile of bodies, 50 metres away.

The game is mystifying and pedantic and pedestrian right now and until the ball’s in play more often and the laws are more easily understood, it’s going to continue struggling to attract an audience.

The powers that be waste so much time on things that have nothing to do with rugby.

Commercial and broadcast deals, social-justice gestures, format changes, media training, anthem singers, halftime entertainment, mascots, marketing, craft beer and healthy eating options. Could we just concentrate on improving the footy?

I wish the proposed Nations Championship all the best. I hope it’s a roaring success and attracts legions of fans everywhere.

I just worry it’ll be let down by the game itself.

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