Oh rugby union, that beautiful and inclusive sport of yore, whither ye go now?
I have been an ardent lover of rugby union for quite a number of decades now. And, please be assured, this isn’t some misty-eyed lament yearning for those amateur days of long ago, when players like Gareth Edwards, Mike Gibson, David Duckham and Andy Irvine bestrode the turf below them like rugby gods.
Professional rugby union, for better or worse, has been with us for almost 25 years, during which time the sport has endured a multitude of peaks and troughs – and plenty more besides, as players have bulked up to such an extent that anyone under six foot and 15 stone has become an endangered species. And yet my love didn’t waver, even though defences lined up across the width of the field and teams formed boring pod after boring pod close to the breakdown.
And yet? Well, I fear my ardour may be diminishing a mite.
Only this week, Gavin Vaughan, Scotland’s national team performance analyst, described the sport as “like a double-chessboard with 120kg pieces”. And he couldn’t be more right. For rugby union has exponentially become a brutal, largely one-dimensional slugfest in which subtlety, flair and individuality are becoming ever more atypical.
Quite the most depressing player news of recent times was that Christian Wade, the 5ft 8in, 13st 8lb Wasps wing, was retiring from rugby union at the age of 27 to pursue a career in American Football, citing a preoccupation with his size as the reason he gained only one England cap. That is a pitiful return for a supremely athletic and gifted player who is the third most prolific try-scorer in Premiership history. What an utterly wretched reflection it is on the contemporary landscape of rugby union that there is no place for a player of Wade’s stature on the international stage.
And there was also the announcement (which surprised no one) that the next British & Irish Lions tour – to South Africa in 2021 – will be an eight-match rush-job squeezed into five weeks. Player availability (or, more accurately, player non-availability) and the conspicuous lack of preparation time for a scratch squad will doubtless be significant factors as the growing influence of the clubs and the increasing attention accorded to player welfare – something that is inevitable in this modern-day land of 19-stone wrecking-balls – means that the Lions, contemptibly, is a dying concept.
Anyway, I’ll be at Twickenham on Saturday to watch England play South Africa as the autumn internationals get under way and there will hopefully be some moments of coruscating individual skill among the raft of players knocking seven bells out of each other in the suffocating confines of a double-chessboard. And then, inevitably, there will be the weekly digest of which behemoths have been added to the crocked list.
As I said, this isn’t a lament. Merely a reflection that rugby union’s emphasis on putting brawn and muscle ahead of intrinsic sporting skill has gone too far.