Hard News by Russell Brown


Rugby has a problem

Man, did you see the end of the Breakers game yesterday? I flicked over from watching the Black Caps' serviceable win over Afghanistan – hey, Vettori passed 300 wickets and Ross Taylor finished not-out – to witness the kind of thrilling, literal last-second win that brings back fans for the next season.

Thereafter, there was a prety good duel between Australia and Sri Lanka on the TV, following the previous day's magnificent upset of the Proteas by Pakistan at Eden Park.

Saturday also saw the Warriors flatter to deceive in the opening round of the NRL; unleashing some young firecrackers but running out of puff as they always seem to early in the season.

And then, also on Saturday, there was the Blues against the Lions at Albania Stadum. To be honest, I've barely watched a minute of this year's rugby Super 15. It's kind of hard to care about rugby in February while there's a Cricket World Cup on.

But my team, the Blues was back from the road in South Africa to play yet another South African team who they really ought to beat. That, I thought, ought to be worth a look before I went out to to my friend's birthday party. Well, they didn't – and it's really, really wasn't.

The Blues' cluster of All Blacks hurled themselves at a team of doughty no-names, dominated possession and territory – and somehow contrived to lose in a particularly dispiriting fashion.

It was dull. Really dull. A suffocating modern rugby defence just swallowed up every bit of enterprise a poorly-acquainted Blues backline could come up with. Scrums collapsed and reset and collapsed over whole, static minutes. And somehow (I went out before the match ended and I still haven't had the heart to find out), the also-rans won.

I think there are several components here. One is clearly the Blues, who are like some sort of experiment in making the least of talent. The second is the nature of the Super Rugby competition, which next year will incorporate even more teams into its confusing conference format. The lure of bigger money overseas has stripped out a tier of skilled players from the New Zealand game. And I'm beginning to think think that All Black coach Steve Hansen is right to fret that the game itself has a problem. As Paul Lewis put it in a column about Hansen's remarks, "rugby is boring. It's more boring than a boring borer beetle in Boreham."

To be fair, international rugby is fine. When you watch the All Blacks, you're watching the best team in the world, and that doesn't get old. But I'm not sure I'll bother going to a rugby game this year – and this is the game I've followed nearly all my life.

Lewis and Hansen both seem to suggest further rule changes, as if we haven't enough of those in the past decade and a half. Perhaps that's the only way forward. But you'd hope that whatever change is deemed necessary next, it won't just make things worse in a new way.

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