Rugby is losing the long-term battle: What the IRB must learn from Australia before it’s too late


The woes of Australian rugby as a result of 20 years of poor management have been well discussed and debated in recent times, and I for one hope it is coming to a head and there is a rare moment of clarity.

I would like to see the entire board sent packing in the upcoming AGM.

However, while depressing and frustrating for rugby tragics, the board room matters may now play a secondary role to the direction in which the IRB is taking the code as a whole.

I wrote an article eluding to this same thing about a year ago with some negative feedback, so I will preface this article by saying I love rugby, my opinions come from a place of genuine love of the game and desire to see improvement.

When you see a great passion in your life being destroyed by the very governing body tasked to protect it, it drives you crazy. I’m sure many others have the same frustrations, concerns and thoughts.

Australia is arguably one of the most competitive sports markets on the planet. Several well-run winter codes competing for a share of a small pie, so it stands with good reasons that the IRB could at the very least be aware, maybe even be monitoring what is happening down under.

Australia could be a proper case study of what is to come long-term, internationally.

The IRB seems to have completely lost sight of what rugby needs in the professional era to build equity, health and prosperity.

In its purest form like school boy and club rugby, I still find high-quality entertainment – little bastions of light where the game is still free-flowing and beautiful, where officiating hasn’t spread like a virus.

The referee shows the red card to Jone Koroiduadua of Fijian Drua. (Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)

No blame should be laid upon the great men and women who do take up the mantle of referees and assistants; they are simply following the commands of these above.

Sport is entertainment in the modern era and rugby union is losing the long-term battle by inflicting such pedantic oversight and implementation of its rulebook, largely due to the TMO and the game’s seeming paralysis when it comes to head injuries, concussion and the dangers as they pertain to CTE.

The simple confusion is how do rugby league, AFL and the NFL continue to improve their product and entertainment value despite facing the same concerns?

Rugby continues to eat itself alive with non-sensical officiating, including yellow and red cards in most matches.

For the first time ever, I turned off the Rebels vs Drua game last Friday night, because of the stop-start nature and switched over to the league.

In doing so, and after watching plenty more league, AFL and Soccer recently, it is stark that their professional product is superior.

Yes, the quality of the Australian sides and the need to reduce our Super franchises play a big part – but the issue of officiating with the Kiwis and the Six Nations continues to destroy the spectacle.

Scott Barrett from The Crusaders charged in for a high tackle on Alex Hodgman from the Blues. (Photo by Peter Meecham/Getty Images)

Rugby league had their clamp down a few years ago and realised it was unsustainable, and have subsequently reverted back to some common sense adjudicating, while the IRB remains stuck attempting to impose non-contact sports laws on a contact game.

If rugby league was governed under union laws, there would be countless yellow and red cards every game, and without exaggeration, there would be a TMO check/investigation every few sets of six. This would result in painful stoppages each time with milli-second freeze framing etc. It simply makes no sense.

So how can league continue, thrive, and give great entertainment, while rugby continues to go the other way?

This then leads to the onus on the professional individual who decides to play the game. Players are educated and aware of the risks involved, so why does the IRB deem it necessary to completely change the fabric of the sport?

For anyone who’s played rugby, they know it is at times a game of grey areas, 50/50 calls, and split-second decisions. Attempting to find black and white, while penalising at any opportunity is not going to deliver either quality or fair outcomes.

Concussion and head trauma are serious issues and many will argue, that unless there is a change, there will be a lack of rugby participation.

However, again, why does following in rugby league, AFL and NFL continue to swell, while rugby maintains its decline?

Even Soccer has genuine head knock concerns relating to “headers”, yet they are not ripping apart their own sport to accommodate this issue.

There must be another way through these concerns. How does the UFC navigate this field? Why can’t rugby union implement the same strategy as rugby league when it comes to this issue?

While professional sportspeople play rugby knowing the risks, player protection needs to be paramount. There also needs to be an overarching degree of common sense, logic and commercial reality, of which there is very little.

Rugby union in Australia will soon be eradicated once league, AFL, soccer and other sports have completely stolen all market share.

Again, the Australian sports market should be a serious point of concern for the IRB, but sadly, this does not seem to raise a sweat or echo in the IRB chambers of the northern hemisphere.

It could be many years before the chickens come home to roost, but it will most certainly happen in my opinion, unless the game reverts back to less officiating.

Are the IRB worried about declining participation if they don’t make rapid changes?

Are they just trying to change the fabric of professional rugby from a free-flowing game (formerly played in Heaven) to a strictly controlled contact sport?

Australia’s Samu Kerevi suffers a red card for leading with the arm. (Photo by Ashley Western/MB Media/Getty Images)

In answering the questions above, ask themselves then, how are rugby league and AFL continuing to refine and improve their product given they are facing similar concerns?

Schoolboy, junior and club rugby is all I watch these days, and wow it’s good stuff. Even in New Zealand where Rugby is life, there is the growing threat of League, Soccer and potentially AFL somewhere in the future. This must be a result of interest levels in rugby plummeting.

Strapping into a game of professional rugby these days you aren’t assured of a good watch, instead, you are left pondering will my team get the rub of the green with the officiating? Will my team receive a yellow or red card? Will there be many, match stoppages?

This is especially prevalent in International rugby, where a yellow or red card can often cost your team the chocolates. It simply does not pass the “pub test”.

Sadly, the demise of the professional game will inevitably lead to the demise of all rugby. At the very least, minimise the involvement of the TMO to be used only in the same way as League – it could add immediate and dramatic improvement to the game.

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I remain a rusted union fan and will support the Wallabies no matter what.

Yet, it’s hard to live in fading hope that the professional game can return to its glory days of being free-flowing and full of cohesion – without the momentum killer of the TMO whistle.

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