The Guardian view on rugby union: a sport rich in drama is at a crossroads
Are we here to praise rugby union or to bury it? Over the past few days, the sport has been celebrating the “greatest try of all time” – the one scored by Gareth Edwards for the Barbarians against the All Blacks in January 1973 – and on Saturday the Six Nations championship begins, with Wales v Ireland at the Principality Stadium and England v Scotland at Twickenham. France play Italy in Rome on Sunday. These are matches to savour: clashes of styles, traditions, sporting cultures. That is the beauty of the Six Nations and why the competition, the pinnacle of rugby in the northern hemisphere, never fails to captivate. Sometimes the anthems seem to go on for longer than the matches – Ireland insist on singing two and Italy have a virtually full-scale Verdi opera – but that is as it should be. The theatre of the sport is everything.
But offstage there are worrying noises, and some suggest rugby union – the 15-player game, as opposed to the 13-player rugby league version – faces an existential crisis. That was the term used over the weekend by Nigel Walker, acting head of the Welsh rugby union (WRU), after allegations of a “toxic culture” of misogyny, racism and homophobia at the organisation, which led to the resignation of the WRU’s chief executive on Sunday.
The crisis in Wales is just one of an unprecedented set of challenges facing the sport. Safety concerns, with several former players showing symptoms of early-onset dementia, and in some cases threatening to sue the rugby authorities for negligence, have led to a rewriting of the tackle laws in an attempt to minimise head collisions. In England, that revision has turned into a shambles. The Rugby Football Union has declared that from 1 July in the amateur game, tackles must be made no higher than the waist, but in the professional game, upper-body contact will still be permitted. Critics argue the new law will make the situation worse, because it will lead to tacklers’ heads being what Ireland coach Andy Farrell calls “sitting ducks” for ball carriers’ knees. It also risks a bifurcation of the professional and amateur games.
All this comes on top of worries about the financial viability of professional rugby: two English Premiership clubs, Wasps and Worcester Warriors, went into administration last year; in Wales the regional structure introduced in the wake of professionalism – which has never been popular with fans – is tottering. Rugby became a fully professional sport only in the 1990s and aspired to take on the football juggernaut, but that was always hopelessly ambitious.
Many of the sport’s current travails are the result of issues left unresolved 30 years ago, when an amateur, mostly recreational game based on traditional rivalries attempted to become a global mega-sport. Rugby union lacks the simplicity of football at its best; its stop-start nature, the impenetrability of scrummaging and the arcane nature of the laws make it a challenge for spectators. It may have to accept it will always be more of a minority taste – a passionate game but not a mass market game. It needs to stay true to itself, improve its governance and meet the safety concerns of players and parents of potential players head on. It is essential for the sport that schools and amateur clubs go on playing rugby. The Six Nations is the resplendent icing on the rugby cake, but if the sport is not careful, there may soon be no cake.