“Rugby is seeking any assistance it can receive, as it strives to reach the level of popularity enjoyed by Formula 1 through the use of a Netflix-style approach.” – Andy Bull
It is currently 7:50pm on a Monday evening in mid-January, and Marcus Smith is at the premiere of Netflix’s rugby series, Six Nations: Full Contact. He is sitting nervously on the edge of a stool and speaking to a group of rugby journalists. Smith is dressed in a tuxedo, giving off the impression that he is going to his high school prom. We have been informed that he only has seven minutes to spare for us. When he is interrupted, Smith responds to the first question by saying, “Yeah, definitely…” However, he is cut off by an announcement for everyone to take their seats for the start of the event. The screening is about to commence.
Smith, who has a leading role in the first episode and the premiere, has been constantly moving from one camera to another. However, it is evident that he feels more at ease playing a Test match than walking on a red carpet. Perhaps the midfield offers more space for him. Tonight, he is accompanied by a group of five, six, seven individuals – handlers, agents, press officers, and cameramen. Two of them are using their phones to capture everything. When asked if they are with Netflix, they respond with a negative and explain that they are recording for social media. In the blink of an eye, Smith is whisked away and the two individuals quickly follow suit to keep up with him.
“I didn’t expect to have cameras constantly in my face when I signed up at 18,” Smith says with a hint of regret. “But, it’s a privilege.” He doesn’t seem fully convinced by this statement. “You can see the impact it has had on golf and F1, and I hope it can also help rugby, the sport I love and which has had a significant impact on my life, reach a wider audience.”
The popularity of Netflix’s Drive To Survive is often discussed in the evening. The show had a significant impact on the world of F1, particularly in the United States. As a result, other sports like golf, tennis, and athletics have also created their own behind-the-scenes shows in hopes of increasing their popularity. However, it is unclear if any of these shows have had the same level of success.
The initial installment focuses on the England versus Scotland game from the previous year, depicting it as a showdown between Smith and Finn Russell. The remaining 44 players are barely acknowledged, despite the fact that, as Russell’s coach Gregor Townsend notes, “rugby is the epitome of a team sport.” It’s possible that the producers are reserving their 45 minutes to delve into the intricacies of WP Nel’s scrummaging in the next episode.
Ellis Genge was clearly chosen to be a part of the event. He is also present at the premiere, examining a platter of small fried appetizers topped with gel. He has been busy and is starting to feel hunger. Selecting which players to focus on in a tournament like Six Nations: Full Contact is a crucial aspect. Genge, who is perceptive, direct, and humorous, was an obvious selection. He believes that rugby can benefit from all the support it can get. As a fan of UFC, he believes that his sport can learn from it in terms of attracting a new audience. He states that a spectacle is necessary to elevate the game.
The focus on individual players and the perception that rugby is becoming something different may cause discomfort for some. However, Genge is not concerned with such thoughts. He believes that rugby is in its own world and not the ultimate priority. It requires popular figures, role models, and positive media coverage. Other sports, such as football, the NFL, the NBA, and cricket, also have a strong following for individual players rather than just teams. Genge himself does not watch NFL and is not familiar with the teams, but knows the players. He wonders if rugby will reach that level and only time will tell.
Russell is casually strolling around the launch, moving at a slower pace compared to Smith. Similar to Genge, he is someone who always stays true to himself, whether he is being filmed or not. He even invited the crew to his home to film him spending time with his family. He admits that they guided their conversations, which may be more truthful than what his press team would have preferred. However, Russell is unfazed and open about it all. He has no qualms about showing what he does off the field, even if it’s just playing video games with his daughter. He has nothing to hide.
Russell mentions with a smile that they were never there on a Saturday night, which he is grateful for. Instead, we witness him spending quality time with his wife and child, as well as collaborating with Townsend. The two of them are quite candid about their tumultuous past and all the arguments they have had over the years. Russell hopes that by being open, it will attract new viewers to the sport. He believes that if someone tunes in and sees a back-and-forth kicking battle, they may find it uninteresting. However, by watching the show, viewers will gain a better understanding of the players’ experiences and thoughts during the game.
Additionally, Negri, a player for Italy’s rugby team, believes it is important to display one’s vulnerability so that others can understand the challenges faced outside of the sport. People often only see what is shown on television and are not aware of the physical toll and recovery that comes with playing rugby. This includes waking up with difficulty walking after games and the concerns of loved ones about potential long-term effects of head injuries and other injuries. Negri believes that providing this perspective can benefit the sport as a whole.
Netflix will release the premiere of Full Contact, a show about the Six Nations, on Wednesday 24 January.