Global rugby review: A sport facing many issues

rugby03 January 2024 07:41| © SuperSport
By:Gavin Rich
article image
Sam Cane © Getty Images

After the Rugby World Cup quarterfinal weekend, the games were lauded by many as the best to be played at that stage of the tournament, and there were many who thought the final between the Springboks and All Blacks was also the best decider ever.

Yet at the culmination of the highlight of the latest four year World Cup cycle, there was also an atmosphere of bitterness and as rugby heads into the next cycle building up to Australia 2027, there are many issues to be addressed. Some of those are around the laws and the card epidemic, others around the spread of resources between the nations who play the sport and the apparent ring-fencing of the elite by World Rugby.

As this time immediately after a World Cup and at the start of the new cycle is always the time to reset, it might not be an exaggeration to suggest the sport is at a cross-roads.

In many ways the World Cup in France was a microcosm for where rugby is going wrong, and in some ways a case of the chickens coming home to roost. There was a fear before the tournament that cards would have an impact on the World Cup. Eddie Jones, then still the coach of Australia, said as much before the tournament. So did other top international coaches.

And the fears proved well founded, with the tournament not two days old before England flanker Tom Curry was banished early from a Pool game against Argentina that was really no more than an accident resulting from clumsiness.

It was because England won the game that there wasn’t more of a fuss made. But there was plenty of fuss when a similar thing happened on the biggest stage of all, the World Cup final, and All Black skipper Sam Cane was red-carded in the first half.

The Springboks were bossing the game before then and my money says they would probably have won despite their opponents being reduced to 14 men. Losing a player often galvanises a team, and there have been many times when the loss of a player to a card has left the opposing team feeling their opponents have gained a man. It was thus at Stade de France on that damp late October evening in Paris. The New Zealanders upped their game when Cane departed.

But the card, plus the fact Bok skipper Siya Kolisi had his card kept at yellow by the bunker system in operation at the World Cup despite it appearing to many observers that he did exactly the same thing, gave rise to a post-tournament narrative that surely wasn’t good for the game. While South Africans celebrated their team’s World Cup triumph, there will forever be an asterisk in the minds of many foreign observers.


Unfortunately, the card epidemic has got to the point where everyone appears to be looking for incidents that might bring about an advantage to their team. Although so many seemed to be aligned to the view that there are too many cards and they are a blight on the game, that doesn’t appear to stop those same people blowing their top when the team their side is playing against appears to get away with an incident that could warrant a card given the ass that the modern rugby law system has become.

And here’s the thing - the margins of difference are so small, and the incidents so often just unavoidable collisions which you’d expect to just come with the territory in a contact sport, that hardly any game ever passes without someone feeling hard done by.

For instance, when Cane was sent off, suddenly there were howls of protest from Scottish supporters and media who felt that Jesse Kriel, the Bok centre, got away with one in the early stages of the opening Pool game in Marseille, a full eight weeks earlier. I must admit that watching it in real time I was surprised no replay was asked for, but was glad it wasn’t, not just because it was South Africa playing, but because cards do ruin rugby and must surely be turning eyes off the sport.

So too do other refereeing decisions in a sport that is so technical that it is hard for someone paid to write about to keep up, let alone the layman who just wants to focus on rugby for 80 minutes at the weekend and then get on with life rather than swot up a law book as if preparing for a university exam.


There were calls that went for and against both teams in an otherwise epic quarterfinal between the hosts and South Africa, yet because the French, and many neutrals, were so desperate for France to win, it gave rise to an ugly anti-SA atmosphere in their later play-off games.

Referees became the object of vilification, not just from the layman sitting in the stands but often too by writers and coaches who should know better. Social media of course exacerbates the modern controversy, and hopefully issuing death threats to players (Cobus Reinach) and referees (Wayne Barnes) won’t become a trend. There is no denying though, from reading comments sections of newspapers after the World Cup, that the ethos of rugby is being eroded and being replaced by a toxic environment that takes so much of the fun out of following the sport.

The card epidemic is of course sourced in the concussion that has led nearly 300 former players to launch a class action against World Rugby. If you listen to players who have suffered concussion or read what they have written it is clear that there is a very serious problem that needs to be addressed.


In my own columns during the course of the year, as someone who detests the card epidemic as much as dogs detest cats, I’ve aired some possible solutions. From the viewpoint of minimising the impact of a card on the rugby contest, the suggestion that players red carded get replaced from the bench after a period of time is one that needs to be looked at more seriously. The earlier point about cards sometimes galvanising teams aside, no-one wants to see a mismatch in numbers and big games are spoiled when it becomes 15 against 14 or 13.

But that won’t prevent concussions, which is the real issue, and I am told my suggestion that rugby look at mandatory headgear is a non-starter because there has as yet not been any headgear invented that offers complete protection or even goes in the other direction by making concussion more likely.

What does appear to be becoming clearer though is that it is repetitive less impactful head contact that is leading to the increase in concussion. Which means the amount of contact in training should be limited more than it currently is. And guidelines should be strictly adhered to, as you don’t have to be a medical expert to see how day to day cumulative bumps might be more of an issue than the one-off game incident that incurs wrath and sanction and becomes a controversy.

Ultimately, if you spend a lot of time reading about concussion and what causes it, what starts to hit you in the face is that the only way to really minimise concussion is to play less rugby. Indeed, the concept of less is more is something that rugby administrations worldwide should long ago have paid more heed to, and for reasons other than just how it should ease the physical impact on players.


With three top English clubs having gone bust financially in the past year and a bit, and Welsh club rugby in a parlous position, questions about the sustainability of the sport with the current numbers who are playing professionally have to be asked. Clearly in Wales there are too many professional players for what that nation can afford, and arguably England too.

Scotland more than survive if you consider they rose to fifth on the World Rugby rankings before the World Cup, and they have just two professional teams. Ireland, the leaders in the game before they bottled yet another World Cup, have four. South Africa has only four elite teams, though of course speaking about this country is skewed by the number of players playing overseas. There is no more fertile breeding ground for top rugby players than South Africa, but it comes down to what can be afforded by the local game if it is going to thrive.

The connection of the local communities to the rugby teams that represent the towns and cities they live in appears to be what sustains the French club game, and justifies their 14 team competition. But they also have owners with ridiculous wealth that keep the clubs healthy and powerful. It is one of the reasons there are more foreign players playing for French clubs than is the case in the other nations. To an outsider, what the wealth attached to some of the French clubs appears to be doing for that country is similar to what the IPL has done for Indian cricket.

But generally, if you hear what some Kiwis are saying about Super Rugby subsequent to South Africa’s departure from that competition, the club and provincial game isn’t in a great state, and maybe it is time for the penny to drop that there should be a smaller playing pool and a much shorter rugby season rather than the year round season we appear to be aligned to in South Africa in particular.


A proper four month off-season with fewer games being played during the season by club teams when internationals are being played, thus meaning the squads don’t have to be as big as they are now, with players being limited to a maximum game time much lower than it is now, might succeed in killing a whole flock of birds with just that one proverbial stone.

Fewer games means more of them become meaningful and watchable, and less playing time drawn over a long season and instead concertinaed into a smaller time frame should also surely increase the quality of the product. And that’s before we’ve gone back to the concussion issue, which is what might ultimately drive the reset in the demands placed on players that is starting to become the obvious way forward. Less is more should become rugby’s mantra as it looks for solutions to the many issues blighting the sport.


One issue it won’t solve though is the huge chasm in resources and playing ability between the Tier One nations and those that make up Tier Two, and which frankly make the first part of every World Cup a bit of a yawn.

This last World Cup was the first one in 20 years I did not attend, and it did bring an interesting different perspective. When you are there, it is fun to go to a game between the Springboks and Spain, like I did at Glasgow’s Hamden Park on my 34th birthday in 1999. But the games featuring big nations against lesser rugby nations do not get people back home piling into pubs, at least not for the neutral games. And there were too many of those at this last World Cup.

It seemed from afar to be an obvious fall down in the tournament, for after all the bulk of your audience, and the people you are trying to sell the sport to through the global showpiece event, is the one that watches on television. The on day match attendance is only a minute per centage.

What was clearly needed was the World Cup organisers to formalise a system that would see more of the top nations clashing with each other in the pool phases of a shorter tournament, but instead in the last week of the World Cup they announced they are going in the opposite direction - there will be 24 teams at the 2027 World Cup. That’s just too many.

And it makes no sense to expand the number of teams at World Cups when the other big announcement made during this last World Cup, the formation of a two tier international championship made up of 12 teams in the elite tournament and 12 in the tier two tournament, can only make the chasm between the haves and have nots even bigger.

Portugal will come to South Africa for the first time in July, but given the schedule around the competitions that will come into effect from 2025, it will be their last visit for many years. We won’t see Georgia here again either, or Fiji or Samoa. Many might say “Well, who cares?” But that’s not the point, those nations need exposure to the bigger teams if we expect them to be competitive when they play at a World Cup. The big scores racked up by the All Blacks and France against the likes of Namibia don’t do anything for the sport or for the cannon fodder that is the losing team.

Rugby is in danger of making the same mistake cricket appears to have made in placing too much power in the hands of three powerful and financially strong nations - India, Australia and England - with the result being the further erosion of the importance of test cricket.

At the moment we are watching a riveting series between SA and India but generally test cricket these days seems to revolve around series involving India, England and Australia, to the detriment of the rest and the sport as a whole. It’s money that drives that, and doubtless money could play a similar role in keeping a more competitive world game elusive for those who’d like to see a bigger spread of nations who can challenge for the World Cup.


On that note, by the way, the Boks and All Blacks are threatening to turn the World Cup into a closed shop, as you have to go back to 2003, meaning 20 years, to England’s win for the last time any other nation got its hands on the trophy.

This was supposed to be the year that France or Ireland would bring bacon home for the northern hemisphere, and the optimism from that side of the equator looked justified when Ireland and France produced a high quality Six Nations game for the ages in Dublin and France then went and gave England a 50 pointer at Twickenham.

But South Africa remain masters at tournament rugby and New Zealand haven’t yet been impacted by South Africa’s departure from Super Rugby as much as we thought might be the case (it will come), so France 2023 turned very much into business as usual. That might be why there was so much focus on the negative once the two favoured northern nations were knocked out.

There can be no denying though that there are issues that the sport faces that need urgent addressing and hopefully this first year of the new cycle will bring some far-reaching and positive change.