A lot of people have seemed rather down on rugby lately. We at Sport500 must take our share of blame, for we have written widely and caustically of The Things Wrong.
But let us be clear, we in rugby have never had it so good. This, the end of the second decade of the 21st century, is the best rugby has ever been. By miles.
I have just returned from an afternoon in the 1970s, where, for research purposes, I studied the 1971 Lions series in New Zealand. You’ll have heard of that. It still gleams just beyond the horizon of scrutiny as one of the greatest episodes in rugby history.
Well, I’ve just sat through the entirety of the second and fourth Tests. And I did it so you don’t have to. It was woeful. Yes, we’ve all seen the good clips: JPR gliding through to set up Gerald; Barry doing his thing. Beautiful. What they don’t show you is the rest.
The scrum gets a lot of bad press these days. Much time is taken up by it. In 1971 they wasted no time in forming each scrum. Which is just as well, really, as there were 48 of them in the second Test and 52 in the fourth.
Compare and contrast with Dublin on Saturday. Eight.
And why so many? Well, because in 1971 the players were a bunch of amateurs. They kept dropping the ball. No surprise – they had day jobs to maintain – but don’t let anyone tell you the game then was even a fraction as good as it is today.
There were roughly as many tackles (122 and 100 in the respective Tests vs 345 in Dublin) as there were set pieces. Think about that. In 1971, set pieces are constantly forming and dissolving, like patterns in a kaleidoscope. There were 55 and 56 line-outs (vs 22). The kick to touch was about the only skill even remotely as well executed as today, which, bearing in mind the balls they were using, is some feat. But, by God, did they kick to touch. There was barely any continuity at all (36 and 42 rucks/mauls vs 228).
And then there was all the tedious stuff off the ball. Normally, that’s celebrated as the Dark Arts, back when men were men. No, they weren’t. The men we watch today are put through an infinitely more aggravating experience, and if they so much as mistime a tackle, let alone swing a fist, they’re off. Or at the very least cited – usually by someone who, er, dished it out with impunity during the amateur era.
Rugby is a different proposition now. Yes, there are shit games. All sports have them. Can’t be avoided. Now they tend to feature endless hit-ups, back then it was endless set pieces. Even the ‘good’ games had endless set pieces.
We’re much better off where we are in rugby’s history. There is a lot wrong, but let’s not forget how lucky we are.
Michael Aylwin’s novel about the future of sport, Ivon, is out now https://www.amazon.co.uk/Ivon-Michael-Aylwin/dp/1910453463