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Was rugby more enjoyable in the past? Watch it and you'll quickly discover the answer.
Rugby union Sport

Was rugby more enjoyable in the past? Watch it and you’ll quickly discover the answer.


Each week, new ideas emerge on how to enhance the game of rugby union. Year after year, we witness an array of exhilarating matches that would have been deemed legendary in the amateur era.

Warren Gatland recently shared his opinions on the potential evolution of the game. However, in our current era of constant social media usage, it is not uncommon to come across impulsive criticism about the state of the game.

Last year, meanwhile, a casual glance through just the match reports this correspondent has written reveals yet more extraordinary displays of skill and drama. From Newcastle’s 40-point victory over the champions Leicester on the first weekend, through France v Scotland in the Six Nations, Leinster’s win over Toulouse, Wales v Fiji at the World Cup and one weekend in Paris that has already passed into legend – and it happened less than three months ago.

The knockout matches of the current World Cup, which featured New Zealand against Ireland on Saturday and France against South Africa on Sunday, were among the most exceptional in the tournament’s history. Many praised the rugby played, especially in the first half of the Sunday game, as the best ever seen. In my opinion, while they were certainly remarkable, they were also just the latest in a series of impressive performances from a sport that consistently delivers excitement, as seen in recent rounds of European rugby.

Why do we continue to complain about the quality of today’s game? And, even worse, why do we idealize the 20th-century version as a golden age when players prioritized skill and finding open space rather than physical contact?

Expressing disdain for the idea is challenging with just words. Nostalgic individuals, do not doubt it, rugby union was terrible during the amateur era. If you don’t trust me, rewatch it all from start to finish. Not just the 101 Best Tries video your grandfather gave you for Christmas in 1987.

Although it may be challenging, there are videos available on the internet to watch full 80-minute games from the amateur era. During my research for Unholy Union, a book I co-wrote with Mark Evans about the history and future of rugby, I watched the second and fourth Tests of the 1971 Lions tour to New Zealand, tracking important statistics such as scrums, lineouts, and tackles.

Barry John of the British & Irish Lions bursts away from New Zealand’s Sid Going during the 1971 Lions tour

I completed the task twice in order to prevent anyone else from having to do it.

In both matches, there were slightly more set pieces (over 50 scrums and over 50 lineouts) than tackles. This fact is worth taking a moment to think about. The fourth Test, which ended in a tie in windy Auckland, was chaotic and disorganized. The players struggled with scrums, flapping around, kicking, punching, elbowing, trampling, and sliding around, often without the ball nearby. Despite this, we were taught that this was a legendary Test series.

One of the main drawbacks of modern sports is the high level of scrutiny it faces, as compared to the past. It is widely acknowledged that not every game in current times is a thrilling one. It is impossible for any sport to completely eliminate unexciting or uneventful matches.

Currently, a major issue is the availability of six live televised matches every weekend. This exposes sports like rugby, where the exceptional is always overshadowed by the exceptionally poor. However, envision being able to watch six live matches from the 1970s every weekend. This would break us out of our nostalgic mindset and greatly increase the modern game’s popularity, surpassing any changes made to kicking regulations.

The issue at hand is ironically the high level of skill in every aspect, particularly in defense. Today’s players possess significantly more skill than those in the past, as they are full-time professionals, and constantly search for openings on the field. However, the amount of available space has greatly diminished.

In the 1980s, there was a video circulating on social media of a try scored in a Welsh club match. The play involved smooth passing along the line, resulting in a try being scored in the corner directly from a scrum. It was a display of beautiful and uncomplicated skill.

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There were hardly any defenders present. The game may have begun with a scrum, but the defenders appeared on the screen one at a time, as if they had been let out of a cage on the sideline in a specific order.

The France fly-half Matthieu Jalibert carries the ball against South Africa.

The current level of skill in the game is what prevents such a feat from being possible now. The opposing team’s defenses would not allow it. It is even more remarkable that we now witness more impressive tries in a single season than could be compiled from the amateur era for a Christmas VHS.

In the current game, there is much less room compared to the past century. Back then, it was possible to cover a group of forwards with a picnic blanket as they moved from one set play to another, and from one fight to another. This leads to a higher number of collisions, causing significant concerns for the modern game to consider.

Do not mistake this for players seeking physical confrontation. Nor should it be associated with a sport that has become uninteresting and deceitful. The opposite is true in both scenarios. Present-day players exhibit greater honor and self-control, despite facing more grueling challenges than their amateur predecessors, and are able to find gaps in even the most aggressive defensive strategies.

In summary, they and their athletic abilities have greatly improved. We should be cautious about what we desire.

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Source: theguardian.com