Boks facing All Blacks

The Ruffians Game

In 1531, Sir Thomas Elyot wrote that “Footeballe is nothinge but beastlie furie and extreme violence”.

Before William Webb Ellis picked up the ball and ran with it, there were many brands of football; rules were few and differed from village to village; there are old engravings showing players handling the ball; a crude form of rugby had been played for centuries in England and probably elsewhere before WWE achieved immortal fame.

Sir Thomas would not change his mind if he could watch a modern game of rugby; the “beastlie furie” is mostly under control but extreme violence is part of the game; as a normal citizen, can you imagine being tackled by the likes of Bakkies Botha or Willem Alberts? It quite possible you might die on the spot!

Rugby players are tougher than ever but still seem to spend large portions of their short professional lives on the side lines through injury. And they only have about fifteen years at most to practise their trade and to build up sufficient funds to support life after rugby.

And life after rugby could last a long, and painful time.

An ancient Scottish verse sums up the “beauties of football” pretty well:

Bruised muscles and broken bones
Discordant strife and futile blows
Lamed in old age, then cripled withal
These are the beauties of football.

In 1845 rules were published based on the game played at Rugby School and have been evolving ever since.

Of course, in these modern times football is just that, aka soccer, the game played by more sportsmen and women than any other – although I think lawn bowlers might be in with a shout, there seem to be loads of “white ants” in the world.

Modern football was formalised when the Football Association came into being in 1863;  the so-called “beautiful game” is a demanding sport in which acting talent is mandatory, required for “diving” when the opposition comes too close, and dramatic sliding across the turf on those rare occasions when a goal is scored, and of course the jumping all over each other immediately after the slide;  sometimes tempers flare and the players bite each other; this has led to calls for players to be allowed to carry their kit onto the field as flailing handbags are more in keeping with the spirit of the game.

There is an old saying about rugby and soccer: “Football is a gentleman’s game played by ruffians, and rugby is a ruffian’s game played by gentlemen.”

Rugby developed into two codes; in 1895 rugby league broke away from rugby union over the question of payments to players; 100 years later rugby union finally came clean and declared itself professional as well.

Rugby union is played in 100 countries; in South Africa we are well acquainted with the top dozen international sides as they feature on TV frequently; a little known fact is that 94 countries actually competed to play in the 2007 Rugby World Cup; we just didn’t get to see the qualifying matches.

The All Blacks were on the cusp of breaking the 17 consecutive international wins record held by NZ and SA but were held to a draw by Australia in August this year; and of course the Springboks beat them last week to finally put paid to an 18 game unbeaten run; but in fact that record had been broken when Lithuania beat Serbia in 2010. One wonders what language the referee spoke.

Enough of history; what is the future of rugby?

South Africa is probably unique in that it relies on its school system to provide rugby players to the various franchises – that is, the private and former “Model C” schools, which cater for the white and increasingly black middle class segments of society.

Certainly there is little input from the thousands of largely dysfunctional black schools; there are some notable exceptions, where dedicated head masters and teachers have tried to build a rugby culture against all the odds.

Other countries rely on a well-structured club system in parallel with school systems.

Whatever the system in place, come the last year of school, many thousands of rugby players depart the sport as players, never to be seen again. In South Africa alone, this figure probably amounts to over 5 000 boys per annum.

Only a small fraction continue, and they do so because they have size, speed and some talent on their side; those who just aren’t big enough – and that includes most first team players – are lost to the game.

In my view, the finest rugby to be seen is between well matched and well coached school sides; they play for the honour of their schools, and for each other, and generally in the spirit of the game.

Once all these thousands leave the sport, the small remnant who take up rugby as a professional career are trained to the level required to provide today’s gladiatorial spectacles.

It stands to reason that a huge amount of talent is lost when all these guys leave school; what a pity for the sport; maybe weight-group rugby would keep them in the game?

According to International Rugby Board data, these are the top thirteen countries in terms of numbers of registered senior males – and here I reckon these numbers include members of rugby of rugby clubs, not necessarily active players:

Rugby stats

*population figures rounded off

Some might argue that New Zealand’s figures should include those of Tonga, Fiji, Samoa and the Cook Islands as that is where they find a fair percentage of their professional players; however, this doesn’t alter the rankings.

The total population from which rugby players is drawn is also not so simple to estimate; England has a population of 53.5 million, but the vast majority follow soccer, and the English Rugby League probably has as many followers as Union; South Africa has anywhere between 50 and 60 million yet it’s rugby base is probably not ten per cent of that figure.

The middle rankers on the list above are the interesting ones – I believe that Japan and the United States are climbing the ranks; they both have impressive numbers of senior players already, but the percentage of players is a small fraction of the total population.

Now that the Sevens game will be on display at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, watch its popularity rise.

This could lead to an interesting future for the fifteen-man game; we have heard the cricketing pundits bewailing the effect the Twenty-over game is having on Test match attendances – will the same thing happen to Rugby Tests?

I think not – it is far more likely that Sevens will provide huge interest in Rugby Union in general; it is not beyond probability that the full scale game finds its way back to the Olympics as well – bear in mind that when rugby was last played in the full format at the Olympics, the USA took the gold medal twice, in 1920 and 1924.

All Japan and the USA have to do is work on that percentage figure; if Sevens is a hit in Rio, watch those figures rise dramatically!

Imagine the Eagles versus the Brave Blossoms in the Rugby World Cup Final while the All Blacks and Springboks watch glumly from the side-lines!


Categories: Close to Home


  • Michael Collier

    At the moment, a USA – Japan final would contain as many South Africans and New Zealanders as a Springbok – All Black final. “Van der Merwe with the conversion to win it for Japan?”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>