6-0. Yes, 6 – 0. The lowest score in Super rugby history and it happened last Saturday. Not only that, it happened between two of the competitions proudest franchises, the Crusaders and the Highlanders. Tragedy. In between the fumbled passes, botched scrums and terrible kicking there was something that resembled rugby, but it was a warped version – confused, uninspired and unskilled. It was broken and I’m afraid rugby as a whole is too. If you listened carefully, over the mumble of the crowd and the bored ramblings of the commentators, you could almost hear the final breathe of interest being exhaled by the rugby watching public. It was the most boring thing I’ve witnessed this year… and I work at council.
Today Eddie O’ Sulivan echoed what many die hard fans have secretly been thinking, rugby isn’t worth the effort anymore. He essentially blames the new law changes, which may be part of the problem, but it isn’t the whole story.
If you live in the Auckland area, have a look at the Blues latest marketing campaign. Right there on those big billboards you can see an illustration of how rugby fans have been treated in the professional era – with arrogance and disdain. Ok, maybe not disdain, but we’ve been taken for granted.
So picture the billboard. Ali Williams is on the beach physically carrying a surfer against his will, presumably back to a half empty Eden Park. The slogan? “Don’t make us come and get you”. Not only does the campaign reek of desperation, it’s also a particularly good example of the NZRFU’s assumption that we are somehow obligated to watch rugby. They might as well say, “never mind the product, you’ll take what’s given to you. Oh, and we’ll be mighty pissed off if we have to expend any energy actually getting you here”.
It’s long been taken for granted that the New Zealand public will always watch rugby, so it’s safe to focus on things like TV revenue and expansion of the game in to other markets. Hence the development of a ridiculously extended rugby season (cricket should be all we think about right now) and the loss of afternoon rugby, all for the sake of greater TV coverage. Unfortunately, it seems as long as lots of people can watch it, it doesn’t matter how the game is played.
People like watching games on TV that have an atmosphere, which is generally created by having a full stadium of excited fans. Unfortunately people are reluctant to pay for tickets to watch 30 men drop a dewy ball in the thick fog of a freezing Southern night. Remember the final in Canterbury, I think it was NPC, where the fog was so thick you literally couldn’t see anything? Even if you did want to watch, you’d have to get Sky to see it live. Which is fine for some, but surely , if watching rugby is part of our duty as New Zealanders as the NZRFU imply, at least one game could be provided free-to-air per week. The NFL does this and so does the NBA.
Essentially, the horse has been put before the cart – trying to sell a brand overseas whilst simultaneously devaluing it at home. I’m not sure this approach will garner any long term benefits for global exposure. It’s hard to get people overseas excited when you don’t have anyone actually supporting the game here. If the game is exciting – which rugby has in the past been – both people in New Zealand and overseas will find a way to watch.
I’ve talked about this before, but it seems the way players are treated is part of the problem as well. Who are these faceless men we are meant to support? I know they like coca cola and driving through the country in sponsored cars, but so what? Oddly, though the NZRFU are clearly focused on capitalistic pursuits, they run their PR like communists. The media are afraid to say anything for fear of being blacklisted, and it seems the players are too. This has transferred into how the game is played on the field. No wonder we lack playmakers at the moment, they’re all too scared to be individuals. If Saturday’s Crusaders vs. Highlanders game was architecture it would be a Soviet building -no character, no creativity and very, very shoddy.
As we all know, or at least anyone over ten knows, it wasn’t always this way. I remember watching the Blues vs. Crusaders semifinal match at Lancaster Park . Zinzan Brooke was screaming at the ref and Merhtens was calmly guiding the proceedings. The crowd was packed and at times I was unable to put my feet on the ground in the crammed embankment. We screamed like madmen for a Crusaders win and the rugby was brilliant. We were excited, the players were passionate and the game meant something. Somewhere, Andrew Merhtens is shedding a tear.
Anyway, I’m not sure I’ve articulated even half of what’s wrong with rugby at the moment, but I’m equally unsure about whether I’ll watch any more to find out.