The Truth About Rugby
21 years. 21 years of playing a sport. To never lace the boots up again or share the field with friends who would quite literally put their body on the line for you, or to never meet my parents post game again for some parental comforting no matter how I performed. It’s a strange thought to fathom, one in which I’m sure I’ll look back on further down the line when I meet with old team mates or see clips of myself playing in Premiership finals, European knock out games and close derby matches with a sense of pride to have been able to experience it, but that’s not to say it’s been a journey that doesn’t really make sense.
Have you ever been so deeply involved in an artistic process? Be it a painting that you’ve put hours into, a book or a piece of music that you’ve tirelessly taken time to refine. Being so submersed in a project its often when you step away that you make the most progress. The initial stages are fun, everything that lands on the canvas is new and exciting and there’s no greater thing to you than what you’re about to create in that moment. It immerses you, draws you in. Inevitably you hit a sticking point and you step away from your work to help create a new perspective. You see details you missed or you over did. That part of the painting you can see you tried too hard, added too much detail. The piece of music you created had too much going on. Taking away certain elements helps refine it and brings it more to life. The chapter of the book that strays unnecessarily away from the plot. Stepping back a lot of these can easily be rectified with a fresh set of eyes. Sport, is not so dissimilar. Sitting down a few months into my retirement, my career and the sport all seems that much more clear. This period has allowed me to reflect on areas where I went wrong, things I would have done differently and areas where the sport has much to grow.
Sadly, when you’re in the 11 month season, tired week to week, battered day to day and under so much pressure to perform it’s hard to step away and take a moment to realise what needs to be done and then try to re-enter the system. You’d be left behind. Few have done it, Gavin Henson is one I can think of. Taking a year sabbatical sailing the Mediterranean on his yacht having what sounded like an incredible time! You’ll have pay a visit to his pub in St. Brides Major, Wales, to get some stories out of him. I certainly don’t think they’re for me to say…
I still reflect on my professional rugby career most days. It spanned over 12 years and is the only thing I’ve known in my adult life. It happens mostly when walking my dog at either ends of the day. The peaceful sunrise and sunsets over Hampstead Heath give you the perfect opportunity to let your thoughts run with flash backs of decisions made in close games, memories… or lack of memories from team socials, conversations with coaches about next year’s contract or the time Gordon Ramsay made you an idiot sandwich.
Now to most a job is a job and a lot of people, they still do, say that we as sportsmen are so lucky to be able to do what we do or have done, this is massively true. You get to run around a field with your mates and do a bit of gym? Its a no brainer! Yet, most don’t see the sacrifices that you make, mentally and physically. It’s a 24/7 job that runs all year round and it not only affects you but selfishly the people closest to you. Constantly thinking about your sleep quality from the night before, nutrition, how did I feel in this game? Have I recovered enough from our hard days training on Tuesday? Why did I train poorly on Tuesday? Thursday comes round and there’s clips in the meeting of what I did poorly on the Tuesday training. The game comes round on a Saturday and you narrowly lose, you’ve had a stray boot connect with your face and it cuts your nose open, you return to the changing rooms after the game with your nose and eyes bloodied with a message that’s come through on your phone from an anonymous social media user telling you how bad you were. Surprise surprise the user has 6 followers and his profile picture is of a fish, but the comment stays with you. Were they right? The comments continue to pour in on the team’s social media letting you know how poorly they thought you were, these unless you don’t go on your phone are often hard to not see.
As Saturday night continues the game is just a constant loop of your own TV in your mind of the mistakes you made, not the good elements, just the bad. Sunday is a write off as you can barely walk and then Monday comes round again knowing full well that your stitched up nose from the game could be re-opened by yet another stray body part in training that very afternoon and then you repeat the whole process for the next 11 months of the year. To go through all of this week after week you have to be resilient. It builds character like no other profession or sport. The pain in which you go through and how relentless the season is, is like no other. No other sport is there as much physical contact, for as long of a season, for as little pay. This is where I’ve made the most realisation. It is madness. And to do this all for the salaries that players are given. I certainly would have to really consider it if I had the choice to go through it all over again.
Gone are the days of 12 stone centres and 16 stone props with the post-match ritual of drinking 10 pints with the opposition and touching each other in a 10 man bath in the home changing room, last bit might not have happened but you get what I mean. The sport isn’t about loyalty or one-club players anymore. It’s a business. The problem is the money and the understanding of how to run a top sports club isn’t there.
Rugby is sitting perfectly balanced in the middle of amateur and professionalism and realistically it is going to tip either way in as many years as it took to become ‘professional.’ The sport is getting a stuck in its ways and tunnel visioned in its approach to learning. Coaches go from their club to foreign clubs, usually southern hemisphere to northern and vice versa, watch training, learn a few drills and return home. The only organisation or coaches that I know that looked at other top sports from around the world is Saracens. Arguably the best club team over the past decade and if you’ve been in any way involved in their set up you’ll understand why they’ve been so successful. Taking lessons from top sports, how they treat and look after players, how the organisation is run but not only just from a rugby point of view but the whole organisation from the cleaners to the CEO.
So how do you improve rugby?
Have you ever been to an American sports game? Apologies to any super American sports fans but the actual sports themselves are nothing on other world sports. NFL is a slowed down dull rugby. Baseball is cricket in which they rarely even make first base. Its dull. The event and occasion is however incomparably better in every single way. The sports stars are worshipped, their social media content is genius, their interactions with the fans is so engaging, entertaining and inspiring. Even though going to a baseball game in New York was like sitting slap bang in the middle of a musical chairs game with visiting the food stalls in the stands concourse below the only way you’re allowed to re-enter the game. But they love it! I loved it! I don’t even know what the score was. Who won? The Mets or the Yankees? But the whole atmosphere and occasion engulfed me. I realised this is what sport is. This is what we get horribly wrong in rugby.
You visit a rugby game here in the UK, give me a pillow and a duvet to keep warm and you could put me to sleep watching it within the first half. Not quite but… Rugby has everything. Intricacies within the sport should you want to delve deeper into the crux of it or just simple big collisions between behemoth men for a simple watch. That’s all you need. So why is it so dull?
Stop pretending we’re this elitist sport that’s so much more superior than other sports. We’re not. We’re way behind. For example, players don’t respect the ref quite like the narrative suggests. The whole game on the pitch it’s a constant drone of complaints to the ref. You don’t hear it as a fan but there’s a “f*cking hell sir!” At least once a minute in the game. And every break in play there’ll be complaint of some sort.
‘Rugby, a game for thugs played by gentlemen.’ As the old saying goes. We need characters. We don’t need dull yes men to comply with this gentleman’s image of the game. American sports have their faces plastered over the big screens around the stadium almost God like, which envokes reactions from the crowd whenever they’re put up like how I imagine Jesus would have been welcomed. Their pre and post-match interviews are almost comical. They’re great to watch, entertaining, different, unique and show the true character of the individuals. There’s an admirable arrogance to them which is what a macho sport like rugby needs. Not just another group of all the same carbon copy gentleman playing a game of pleasant rugby football union. Because they’re not. There are some unbelievable characters within the sport and they need exposure and showing off.
The sport needs a whole new fan base and the best way you’re going to attract them is by the improving the match day experience.
Sport stadiums in the US are designed to make you enjoy the experience beyond just watching the sport. Premiership teams talk of redeveloping grounds, you look at the plans and they’re just the replicas of the current stadium with a few extra seats and newly painted walls just so more of the same people can blurt out every so often “come on you *insert team name.*” Racing 92’s ground with the giant tv at one end is leading the way in rugby and for me has to be the way forward, it mirrors a basketball game, a sport in which the match day experience has the same scale and choreography as a Taylor Swift pop concert in which the players are almost untouchable with the lights and sound and the shows that go on display. You’d happily go there just to be immersed in the experience of the match day even if you had no real interest in the sport.
I briefly mentioned why I’m not too surprised Saracens have had so much success over the past decade. From my time there, they were unique. Saracens were American like in looking after their players and running the organisation and the only way other teams will be successful and we’ll get a better sport as a whole is by implementing a similar approach to what Saracens have done, as they’ve copied what American sports have done.
First and foremost the player who runs out for the team on the weekend is the most important person within the whole organisation. Not the physio, not the chef, not the scrum coach. What does Joe Bloggs the player need to be ready for the weekend. As simple as that. How can I help Joe Bloggs the player be his best for the weekend. No other team had this approach to the same extent. I was once told off for not doing a gym exercise after a morning training consisting of live mauls, scrums and live contact. My back couldn’t handle the exercise after training and the coach couldn’t understand why I couldn’t do it, he just wanted to tick his own coaching ego box. Coaches needing their input in meetings and training just so they can have their say so they don’t need to be accountable should the team lose. It happened at every other club. I was once shouted at by the part-time chef for trying to take lunch 10 mins too early after a heavy training morning. Madness. It feels an extension of school where the Director of Rugby was the headmaster, the coaches, physios and S&C the teachers and we had to go along like pupils.
Saracens had a way in which every member of the organisation were all on the same page and had a connected drive to achieve what they have done. All that came back to was a ‘player first’ mentality. They had a professional environment like no other team I played at. Saracens were the club that felt the least amateur.
Having touched on a few points about the game from an individual and teams as a whole, it’s made me realise how far rugby needs to go to be the sport everyone wants it to be. It has the fans there, the passion and most importantly the product to be a significantly better game. Will it ever be like football? Of course not. But can it be what the NFL is to the Americans? Of course.
I am no longer a participant and am now just a fan. I need to decide on a team to support now! I truly hope rugby grows into what it can be and exceeds its potential, I do though have a slight looming doubt that we may keep the sport stuck in its ways. Let’s hope I’m wrong.