It was October 1990. I was 22 years old. Me, my wife and my new born son were in my parent’s flat down in Addington watching the impossible unfold in front of our eyes. Craig Jamieson was leading a Natal rugby team to victory in the final of the Currie Cup against the most disliked of rugby foes, the Blue Bulls led by none other than Naas Botha. When that final whistle blew at Loftus Versveld and Natal had beaten the Blue Bulls 16-12, the universe cracked open and pure, unbridled joy swept over the entire province of Natal. People in our high rise neighbourhood rushed out onto their balconies and into the streets, shouting, singing and waving Natal flags. It was bedlam. It was beautiful. And it was the best thing I had ever seen happen on live television.
It’s going on 27 years later now and I haven’t watched a full game of rugby on television since some time in 2014. The sport simply no longer holds any appeal to me at all. I have literally lost all interest. What went wrong?
I guess it all began when some bright sparks in charge of the Super Rugby competition decided to change up the format and include a few more teams back in 2011. I had no problem with more teams being involved but what I did have a huge problem with was the way they changed the format. When the Super Rugby competition was created way back in the early 1990’s and up until they expanded it to 15 teams, the format saw every team taking part in the competition playing each other at least once and fighting for log positions on a single table. The top 4 teams on the table at the end of the competition played in semis and then a final. This gave the rugby viewers around the world a wonderful variety of matches to look forward to in a season against a lot of different competition. Those bright sparks in charge of the sport in the southern hemisphere (SANZAR) then decided to split the competition into three “conferences”, each with its own table and chances of appearing in the finals, regardless of whether they had fewer combined table points than some other teams playing in a different conference. The format made very little sense to me and I guess to lots of other fans too. Under the new Super 15 competition South African teams could also conceivably play each other up to 6 times in one season if you took playoff matches in both Super Rugby and the Currie Cup into account. How exciting. Not.
As bad as the lack of oppositional variety became, something else happened to the sport that properly killed it off for me. They gave the TMO (television match official) additional powers to over-ride the awarding of tries by looking at possible infringements that happened earlier in the play leading up to a score. I remember one particular incident in a game the Sharks were playing where the TMO went back some 20 phases of play and adjudged that a pass made by them was illegal and that the try they had just laboured through a multitude of phases over several minutes to score was invalid. The referee said, “Okay” to the TMO and disallowed the try, which then completely changed the mood of the match and the morale of the players. And the supporters too. It happened all the time in that first season of rule changes and it made me so irate whenever it happened that I could barely stand watching anymore.
I get that the game needed to be refined, especially considering the disgusting way in which the Bulls were crowned Super 12 Champions in 2007. Steve Walsh, the referee of the final between the Bulls and the Sharks conveniently overlooked about half a dozen serious rule infringements by the Bulls that allowed Bryan Habana to score a ridiculous try after the hooter had sounded the end of that final. The conversion of the try put them a point above the Sharks and they won a trophy that they truly didn’t deserve. As hard as it was to swallow at the time (admittedly I still do not consider them champions that year), it was rugby. As a supporter you took the rough with the smooth. But the way they “refined” the game with the advent of the Super 15 and the new TMO rules totally ruined the enjoyment of the sport for me. I maintain that all they really needed to do to address the poor refereeing was have the TMO stop the game the moment they saw something wrong happening on the field of play. The TMO has a microphone feeding into the ref’s ear and could easily advise him of any problem before the play is allowed to progress to a tainted score. Or he could punch a buzzer that everyone watching or playing can hear and know that something went wrong. In American football the linesmen can throw a penalty flag to stop the game. Why can’t the TMO stop rugby in a similar way? The system of TMO involvement the last time I watched a game is completely wrong. It detracts so much from the spectacle that it makes it unpleasant to watch.
The IRB also made changes to the game’s rules that in my opinion overly complicated the way it is played, especially at scrum time. Setting up a scrum began taking up so much playing time that I’d wager almost 40% of the 80 minutes in a match is used up on just this one thing; crouch, touch, pause, engage. Fail. Repeat. Crouch, touch, pause, engage. Fail. Repeat. Who wants to watch that for even 5 minutes, let alone 20 or 30? Even at the schoolboy level it got so ridiculous that I once left a Glenwood vs College game at half time.
For me all this nonsensical change in rugby became too much to justify spending a significant amount of my disposable income and time on. I simply stopped watching and honestly, I don’t miss it all that much. My blood pressure is much more stable now and I’m enjoying not having to shell out almost a grand a month to Multichoice for their premium DStv package. The rugby was the only reason I paid for it.
These days I watch the English Premier League football and to be honest, it’s not half bad. For me the best thing about it is that the fans make the experience of watching a game worthwhile. They are singing, chanting, encouraging their teams on. The stands are always packed to the rafters at every single match. It’s a privilege for a football fan to go to a Premier League match (and they pay a whack for a ticket too!). The last time I caught a glimpse of a Super Rugby match on TV I was shocked at how empty the stadium was. Surely the sport’s administrators must see this too? How did they let this happen?
What would it take for me to come back to loving rugby? I don’t know. I think the sport needs a complete and total overhaul, not only of its rules, but also the competitions themselves. Every year it’s the same old thing. Super Rugby, Tri-Nations (or Championship as it’s now called), mid year tours, Currie Cup, end of year tours, 6 Nations. Same teams playing each other season after season. Repeated every year. It’s boring. On the international side it would be great to see a return to the days of proper month-long tours of other rugby playing nations where there are 3 or 4 tests played over weekends, then mid-week games are played against the provincial teams or clubs. That way you’d maybe play the All Blacks on tour once every 6 years or so, not every single season. The rarer an event is the more valuable it becomes to everybody involved.
I’d also totally roll the Super Rugby competition. Unless they play it like they used to pre-Super 15, where teams had to qualify to participate in the competition by being the best of their local leagues and then have to play all the other teams in the competition to win the title. What’s the point in beating your chest as the champion of a competition when you got to win it by putting on a good performance in the play-offs, but there were other teams that finished ahead of you in the combined table? Talk about your hollow victories. For Super Rugby I’d scrap the play-offs and the final too and declare the team with the most table points at the end of playing all the other teams the true champion. Done. You want the title? Qualify locally first, then win more games than everyone else in the running. Make it worth watching. Some rugby fans will bring up the issue of New Zealand and Australian sides having an unfair advantage in that they don’t have to travel as much as South African teams when playing every other team. Well, in that case why not play the whole 3 month competition in one country every year and rotate the host nation every season? They do it for the World Cup, why not for this cup? Super Rugby today is just rubbish. There’s nothing “super” about it anymore. Others may disagree but those stadium attendance figures don’t lie. I can’t be alone in my thinking.
Maybe one day rugby will become interesting again. Until then I live in hope that Everton will win the English Premier League. That would have me running around expressing unbridled joy for sure.