Is Rugby Union in Danger of “Capping” Itself? (Part 1 of 2)

This thought occurred to me as I cooked dinner tonight and read this story from the New Zealand Herald.  In Australia, originally thought of as a hotbed for rugby (and it still is) rugby is the fourth most watched sport in the country. falling short to Aussie Rules Football, Rugby League and Soccer.  

This got me thinking, in a lot of nations rugby is a very popular sport, but it’s not the most popular. It doesn’t have the impact in Australia or Great Britain that, say, American Football has in America.  It’s still an incredibly popular sport, but it’s not quite as popular as soccer, or even cricket in some parts of the world. 

I also started thinking that because of rugby’s provincial background, coming from the schools for “upper class” kids, or in the case of South Africa, a very definitive white-black divide between rugby and soccer (remember the scene from Invictus where the two security officers, one white and one black, discussed Soccer vs. Rugby? The white security officer was talking soccer down and the African officer was having none of it.)

You see this is true today in the United States as well, as those who see themselves as the ‘true arbiters’ of the sport and pooh-pooh most things coming from USA Rugby tend to be from Berkeley, California (home of the perennial champion University of California Bears – more on why they don’t want change in a later post), or the east coast, another bastion of this schoolhouse mentality to rugby.

This upper class mentality led to a split in rugby in the 19th century, between rugby union (which is most of what I write about here) which was played by the upper classes and rugby league, played by working class players and becoming a professional league many many years before Union picked up on it.  The reason being was that if players were not being paid, then those that were hurt playing the game had no income to replace what they would lose by missing work. 

This didn’t impact upper class and “professional” professions (barrister, banker, etc) because they didn’t rely on their backs to make money. But for the players who would eventually become league players, they were the working class – the coal miners, the farmers, the people who couldn’t afford to play without getting a level of compensation. Thus led to one of the first splits of rugby, thanks to a class on class struggle. And you’re seeing this split occur in places like Australia where League appears to be more popular than Rugby Union, and in England, the home of both codes of Rugby. 

(as an aside, I remember visiting my dad in Texas and watching Rugby on ESPN late in the evening back in the 90’s, and even back then the games they were showing were League games, not Rugby Union)

Previously I extolled the virtues of the love of Rugby in New Zealand, as this N.Z. Herald story points out, Australia has about five times the population of New Zealand, which brings a lot more sponsorship and salary dollars to the Aussie’s National Rugby League than the Australian contingent of the Australian-New Zealand-South African Super 14 competition. 

In the long run, this could decimate the game of rugby, relegating it to a third or fourth popular sport in many nations unless something is done to change it.

And what can be done to boost rugby’s image in not only the traditional rugby powers but also in other parts of the world? Tune in tomorrow to find out!