Rugby union football in the 21st century: quo vadis?

Rugby union’s potential demise has been greatly exaggerated.

Rumours of the demise of rugby union are a bit like those of Mark Twain’s “first” death - greatly exaggerated.

The recent and sudden appearance of a hybrid rugby code ⎯ supported by Mark Ella and played in a clumsy format by two schoolboy teams in Sydney - generated some talk suggesting that union was on the way out!

Globally, and indeed in Australia, rugby union is under no threat; it is merely continuing to develop.

As a card-carrying member of the “old farts” society I found the new professionalism of our game hard to accept.

However, the transition has produced a game that is spectacular and played by outstanding athletes with far superior skills and fitness than those of my era.

And in the main, despite the idiotic continuance with the ‘rolling-mauls’ and preoccupation of referees with re-packing won-scrums if they collapse, the elite game is spectacular.

The argument for rugby union’s survival is no longer about the demise of the traditional form, culture and tradition. That will stay as part of the difference, as a part of the genetic material of the game.

It will not become as distant as that of the original culture of the world game, soccer, which emerged in reaction to the violence of the Rugby game at Cambridge University in the 1860s. At that time soccer was considered the more “upper” of the upper-class sports!

Now consider its universal appeal and prevalence.

The future of all football globally will not proceed along some Darwinian pathway. Codes that are established will not become extinct like endangered species of mammals.

Global sport is now not about local preferences and traditions. It is about the link between the global media in what has been called the global media sport complex.

The global media sports complex deals deals with audience, advertising, products and elite sport. All elite sport, even the Olympic Games, is now a constituent of this global sports market.

If people watch it, the media will support it. If the media support it their clients, the sponsors, will follow.

Of the four major football codes played in Australia, Rugby union is played in more countries than all but soccer.

In fact, its flagship quadrennial festival, the Rugby World Cup, far outstrips, in terms of television and online viewers, all other individual football festivals save the soccer World Cup.

This year’s tournament may well single-handedly revive the entire New Zealand economy!

Rugby union football in Australia is not under major assault, though like all products in the global market it must be constantly mindful of the market forces and shifting consumer preferences.

Loyalties to one code are now no longer established at birth. While long-term fans are likely to stick with their favoured code, floating fans present a challenge.

Queensland Rugby league team’s 6th consecutive State of Origin series win will not see lifelong union supporters decamp and turn to league. Neither will lifelong league supporters go the other way after watching the Red’s victory in the Super 15.

However, it may have two major economic effects. Firstly the floating fans could be tempted to knock on the Reds’ door.

Secondly and probably more importantly, the corporate sponsors, particularly in Queensland, are beginning to move back into the market.

They had to contend with the GFC and recent natural disasters, but may well return to the definitive corporate football code.

Queensland Rail bosses were probably spitting railway sleepers - let alone chips - as the now “St George Reds”, dragon on their chests, ran on to Suncorp Stadium to do battle in a mythologically awkward battle against the Crusaders, in the Super 15 final.

Foxsports/Austar are the major force in the domestic media war relating to the Super 15, the upcoming Tri Nations tournament and, of course, the Rugby World Cup.

Viewing audience has grown through the 2011 Super Rugby season, as has the exposure of the associated sponsors, including Mercedes Benz, Qantas, Blackberry, and several finance houses.

The free-to-air carrier in Australia for the Rugby World Cup, the Nine network, would have also revelled in the Red’s victory over the Crusaders.

I gathered opinions from a selection of renowned academics from around the world about the future of rugby union beyond the 2011 Rugby World Cup.

Firstly, it appears that there is a consensus of opinions between the eminent Tonys.

Emeritus Professor Tony Mangan believed, rather surprisingly, that the chances of a successful expansion of the code “must be good” based on ever increasing levels of sponsorship.

He also touched on one of my own notions. That, as with the entire global sports market, there are some powerful nations that still seek political esteem through sport, and expense is no problem.

China in particular, Mangan believes, may well be looking seriously at both cricket and rugby as “eventual manifestations of geopolitical ‘soft power’.”

I am not sure about cricket but, if China wants to emerge as a rugby nation and applies itself to the task, keeping in mind that Rugby is back as an Olympic sport, it will do so!

De Montfort University professor Tony Collins concurs with the idea of the future status and likely success of Union, which for him is galling.

Despite his brilliant Social History of English Rugby Union, he is himself a ‘leaguie’ ‘fra wa back’.

He believes “rugby union will do just fine over the next couple of decades but will not fundamentally alter its position in relationship to other codes of football.”

Collins agreed with Mangan, who said Union was not under any threat, as the “sports market globally is expanding and all sports are experiencing a proportional growth.”

As they both reflected, rugby union will continue to be strong where it has always been strong.

Will new nations emerge that can challenge the hegemony of England, France, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia?

Tony Collins thinks not, but this is also the case in many other sports. Soccer is still dominated by the big European and Latin American soccer nations, for example.

In rugby union Argentina and Italy could advance a little, though the emergence of China as a world rugby power would be the only likely contender in the foreseeable, and even distant future.

French anthropologist Sébastien Darbon believed that the two magnificent codes, Rugby XV and Rugby XIII, would remain culturally intact.

He cautioned that the abolition or even the de-powering of the mêlée – the scrum in rugby union – would see the end of a unique cultural feature of this unique sport.

My concern with his comments lies with his assertion: “le spectacle est très souvent magnifique, surtout quand les Crusaders jouent!” which translates roughly as “the show is very often beautiful, especially when the Crusaders play!”