Following the announcement of the World Cup All Blacks team the Dominion-Post, with as usual in quiet New Zealand, no real news to write about, devoted their front page to the public reaction.
It turned out there wasn’t any as the reporter, Olivia Caldwell, walked around the capital’s CBD and asked 30 people for their thoughts on the selection until finally managing to scrape up three who gave a damn. And one of those was a visiting Colombian woman.
This brought back memories of the 2011 World Cup staged here.
A month before the opening game a nation‑wide survey showed 30% of the public had absolutely no interest in the event whatsoever, while another 30% acknowledged only a mild interest. I mention that as it’s time we ended this “national game” tosh.
Further evidence is from the Rugby Union itself, which recently expressed concern at the dramatic decline in school‑boy player numbers.
There’s an obvious explanation, namely the ever‑growing rich diversity of alternative sporting spectacles and participation activities in the modern age.
But here’s a further possible cause in the decline. I can’t think of another sport so overwhelmingly rule‑bound. Constant whistle‑blowing, pedantic referees, interference empowered linesmen and third television referees to re‑examine the rare moments of action, make for a tedious spectacle. It reeks of the school room.
I’ve always been critical of my fellow New Zealanders for their timid acceptance of rule‑obsessed officialdom blighting our lives, so overall, the decline in interest in rugby is probably a healthy thing.
The sight of a referee, having for the thousandth time blown his whistle and stopped play, then beckoning with his finger as if addressing a two year old, to a giant forward to come to him is degrading. The oaf stumbles forward, stands meekly before him while he’s scolded, then if yellow‑carded, hangs his head in shame as he leaves for his 10 minutes punishment.
I thought about that when watching the greatest game of all, namely test cricket and the just completed, wonderfully dramatic Ashes series. A fresh Aussie bowler came on, stripped his jersey off and handed it to the umpire, already adorned with three other player jerseys around his waist, then the bowler pulled his hat off, banged it on top of the two the umpire already had on his head, then carefully placed his sunglasses atop of the pile, before commencing to bowl.
During overs it’s common to see players joking and chatting with the umpires. It’s a game for God’s sake.
My travel agent tells me that the expected bookings surge by fans to go to Japan for the World Cup have not eventuated.
Add to that the loss by Sky of the rights and the convoluted process now required to watch games will add further to the decline in the sport’s following.
On the positive side, this World Cup is arguably the most interesting ever with every side winning and losing to one another in the months leading up to it. In short it’s wide open and there’ll be no such thing as an upset once through to the knock‑out stage, as any one of about 8 sides could win. For the good of the sport, hopefully it’s Wales, Ireland or Scotland, none having ever captured the Cup.
If the All Blacks succeed, we can expect a resurgence in interest; if not then the decline will continue.
Potentially rugby is a spectacular game but there’s an urgent need for a more relaxed approach to the rules, a cry I might add, echoed by the previous coach.
For example, why not allow a foot or so tolerance with forward passes, ignore accidental knock-ons and other minor infringements which induce the constant whistle-blowing hold-ups. A complete revision of the rules is overdue.