I have been accused of being a rugby fan. I never really thought of myself as a fan. Sure I have season tickets and go to a number of other games but many people do. Does that make one a fan? However, I realised I probably was a fan when I decided to go on tour. I went on, and thoroughly emjoyed, the 2007 Rugby World Cup. I even sat through - shh - the Cardiff game and still went on to watch the semis and the final at the wonderful Stade de France. I guess maybe I am a fan.
Unfortunately I am really not enjoying the rugby much anymore. Perhaps it's always a bit hard when your teams aren't playing well but I think it's more than that.
I've never wanted to be one of those people that go on about how things were better in the old days, because they weren't. My memories of the old days is that they were boring and uneventful, apart from regular boozing (which really doesn't appeal so much anymore). No, I'm not one to lament the passing of the old days, except that I can't help but think rugby used to be more enjoyable in the old days.
I don't think it's a case of rugby necessarily being worse than the old days. But quality of play does not have to translate to quality of the spectator experience. Although I will allow one side indulgence at this point - the scrums! The modern scrum is awful! It has been ruined. We may as well give up and make the scrum a ridiculous formality as in League (which is otherwise a top spectator game). Anyway, back to the main point.
It's possible that professional rugby players have just got too good, especially on defence. It doesn't seem to me that anyone wins rugby anymore, they just don't lose. Rugby seems to me to have become like an election - don't make any mistakes and you shouldn't lose. But that makes for a poor spectator experience if you ask me (which admittedly you probably didn't). I remember teams winning games. I remember supporting teams and leaving the game win or lose reasonably satisfied. Often the difference between teams was that both teams played reasonably well and it was a close game (perhaps a little too often being sorted out by penalties admittedly) or one team playing well and another playing an inspired game. I didn't even mind my team losing in this case; the rugby was exhilirating.
But now it just doesn't seem the same. Now both teams play stifling, choking defence and the one that makes the most mistakes loses. I just can't quite find the game as motivating.
Perhaps the problem is that I am watching the games live. At least on TV there always seems to be some action. If you're at the game you can see everyone holding off from the tight stuff, seagulling around leaving no gaps. The modern tight five probably don't play a lot more in the tight than the backs nowadays; but boy can they run! And the backs now have to be big so that they can play in the tight when they have too; but boy can they run! It's all getting more and more back to front.
Now, as I like to think I'm a constructive chap here are some ideas to make rugby more of a spectacle again (ironically as this was the reason most of the new rules were brought in).
1. Bring back the old scrums - I know we don't want injuries but it doesn't have to be one rule for everybody. Keep the new rules for junior grades and maybe even club rugby; and maybe even for the Air New Zealand cup. But, if you're going to play for New Zealand or a Super 14 (15?) team then you have got to handle old school.
2. Get rid of all these new ruck and maul rules. I know that it allowed a lot of interfering of the ball, which was annoying sometimes, but defeating that was a skill. At least it meant that the tight five (and more often than not the loosies) had to get into the heavy stuff which left a bit more room for the backs. Maybe we could even see the skillful speed of a Terry Wright again (he would be too small for the modern game).
3. Chill out a bit and get the video ref out of it and tone down the citing commissioner a bit. I know that there were a few injustices but there still are. The really bad rough stuff should be sorted out but a bit of niggle has always been part of the game. A flowing game is always a better game. Referees have destroyed games by being too officious. The great Clive Norling is the sort of referee we want. The best referee isn't the one that catches everything, he's the one that lets the game flow but plays it exactly the same for both teams.
4. Maybe less rugby. Quantity isn't a substitute for quality. There are too many games and too many teams. No wonder the number of fizzers has increased. It is physically impossible for any human to be as hungry as they need to be for every game in a season.
5. Make the players compete. When a player attains a position in a team then they need to want to keep it. Even a great All Black has told me that you always played and you always played your best. If you lost your position just once you might never get it again. And this idea of utility players is overstated, specialist players play a position best. Utility players make great subs but they should never start a game.
Anyway a few ideas and most probably quite wrong, but I still like the old games more than the new ones. And I actually find that a bit upsetting.