Spectator sport

Where did all of rugby’s fans go?

16 October 2021

9:00 AM

16 October 2021

9:00 AM

Could rugby union get any better? The entertainment in the Premiership is breathtaking and the overall product as good as any you get in sport. But why is it not more widely loved? If you missed Harlequins’ epic comeback (where have we heard that before?) against Bristol last week, deepest sympathies of course, but do your best to savour any of Quins’ sensational tries.

It was Marcus Smith’s in the 72nd minute that did it. The Quins’ dazzling stand-off was confronted with massed ranks of Bristolians and so Smith ran across the field (even though they tell you not to at school) before magically turning back on himself at a slight angle, thus wrong-footing the defence, before chipping the ball over them all, and touching down unopposed leaving the Bristol-ians saying, ‘What on earth just happened?’

Smith’s claim on England’s No. 10 berth seems pretty overwhelming: he makes Owen Farrell look stodgy and leaden-footed by comparison, Frank Bruno to Smith’s Muhammad Ali. All he has to do is improve his place-kicking and he would be the brightest star in world rugby for a generation. Eddie Jones’s Achilles’ heel seems to be his loyalty to players past their sell-by date, so don’t hold your breath. But if Jones doesn’t act on this one then serious questions should be asked. And while you’re at it, Eddie, don’t forget Alex Dombrandt, the irresistibly powerful Quins No. 8 who seems to have a telepathic understanding with Smith.

Quins’ brilliant win came just a few days after one of the best rugby Tests ever played when the Springboks beat the All Blacks by a couple of points with a last-minute Elton Jantjies penalty after the full-time siren had sounded. The lead changed four times in the last five minutes, with superb running rugby and all-powerful forward play that you associate with those two great nations.

The question is, why aren’t millions of sports fans clamouring to see this magnificent game? The marketing appears to be done along the lines of: ‘Well let’s train 30 blokes to unparallelled levels of skill, fitness, strength and courage and then with a bit of luck someone will want to watch.’ The sport has never been better — or so badly marketed. Think back to the ‘golden age’ in the 1970s. Rugby was terrible back then, and ridiculously violent too.

Now there is no Premiership rugby on terrestrial TV, as a highlights package has disappeared from Channel 5, seemingly because the Premiership was asking too much. If ever there was a time for Rugby Special, this is it. BT’s coverage is outstanding, though the viewing figures would be abysmal, about 200,000 per game I reckon. Rugby still has its issues — player safety, and baffling laws around the breakdown — but entertainment is not one of them. Yet if it’s not on TV the game will stagnate, at a time when it has never been so good. I even enjoyed the much maligned Lions series in South Africa, although in this case the attraction lay in the relentless intensity of a high stakes contest.

Perhaps a new dawn is breaking though. The new ownership at Saracens, a consortium featuring Francois Pienaar, seems far removed from the traditional ownership structure of ‘old farts’ and wealthy narcissists. Could they bring a more global outlook for the game?

England’s squad for the Ashes is very Chris Silverwood — quite dull and predictable. No Liam Livingstone, no Saqib Mahmood, no game-changers. The get-out will probably be that Livingstone and Mahmood will be in Australia with the Lions, so England can call on them if needed. But why not pick them in the first place? In a good year, only Root and Pope would make the side as batsmen, and among the bowlers only Ollie Robinson looks like he can unlock the Aussie batting.

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