There are an estimated 14 undiscovered tribes in the Pano area of South America, the remote Amazonian borderlands between Brazil, Peru and Bolivia. Consisting of some 2000 ‘uncontacted people’ they are blissfully unaware of the wonders of the modern world, such as Vileda Magic Mops and All Day Breakfast in a tin. As soon as Professional Tribe Worrier™, Bruce Parry, has been humiliated by them on camera, then the rest of the world can sweep in and irreparably destroy their habitat, culture and beliefs forever. Sooner or later during this depressing process sport will come into things. Imagine the wonder on their patronised faces as a Mitre Delta football and pop up goals are produced and they quickly begin imitating the Wimbledon team of the early-Nineties. Then out comes the basketball hoop. Brilliant, all you have to do is get the ball through the hoop. Great fun. Then the bat and ball. Then the tennis racket and so on until the rugby ball comes out. This is where the fun stops. “What do you mean you can only pass it backwards?” They would incredulously ask. “What’s a scrum? Flankers? What’s the difference between and ruck and a maul? Wait a minute there’s two different codes with different rules?”” Sod this they’d soon surmise “We’re off to learn how to Happy Slap that looks like a more of a grin”. The ultimate point being, rugby is about as accessible as a Greek public-sector pension and it’s also deeply uncool and always has been.
Let’s get something out the way. I’ve been playing the game for 20 years and more. I’m from a world famous rugby hotbed, the Scottish Borders, and I love playing and watching the game. As a community sport it’s unrivalled. As a team sport it is like no other in its physical demands, mental endurance and sense of achievement. To watch it can be enthralling, awe inspiring, emotional and exciting. But it’s definitely not cool. There’s nothing edgy, controversial, sexy or iconic about it. There are no totems of sporting cool from the past or present to rival the likes of George Best, Ayrton Senna, John McEnroe, Muhammed Ali, Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins or Seve Ballesteros. Gareth Edwards? Maybe. Gavin Henson or Jonah Lomu? Not really. Johnny Wilkinson? Definitely not. Basically, when Danny Cipriani is as close as rugby has to an iconic maverick, then the sport has serious image problems in general.
Rugby is about as accessible as a Greek public-sector pension and it’s also deeply uncool and always has been.
The mistake people make with Rugby is that it is largely a participation sport. Most fans of rugby are somehow connected to the game as a player, former player, club committee member, family of player, etc, etc. Football, for example, is consumed by all sections of global society. In fact, I would guess, that the majority of football fans do not actually play the game. Ditto for many other sports, with the possible exception of golf. Either way, with rugby you’re either part of it as a sport or not. The floating sporting consumer may watch a key Six Nations game, the Challenge Cup Final or some World Cup matches but beyond that they’ll not give it much thought. Wimbledon on the other hand captures the wider British public, as do major football tournaments and, as we are all constantly reminded, so does the Olympics. This lack of accessibility is not the sole reason though, oh no, it’s deeper than that. This goes back to that familiar feudal British hang up. Class.
Let’s be honest about rugby, particularly rugby union, it’s largely a sport for posh boys. Yes there are exceptions in Wales, Scotland and the likes of Cornwall but mostly it’s played and watched by well educated, middle class, floppy haired guys who like to go out in flip-flops and participle in stunt drinking. You know the type, moustaches in November, quilted jackets, collars up, bottles of Magners, taking their clothes off and vomiting on pony-club type girls. It’s a turgid and well-worn stereotype but it really hasn’t changed for years. There’s no great amount of difference from their counterparts in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties except Barbour jackets have given way to Abercrombie &Fitch hoodies. This foppish tribalism provides a protective social barrier that turns most normal people off wanting to join in and keeps rugby culture self-perpetuatingly marginalised. There’s also an embarrassing self-righteousness about rugby. With crushing regularity I’ve heard some Alan Partridge rugby type comment on football violence with the old adage about the lack of crowd segregation at rugby matches. “There can be 70,000 fans at Twickenham all drinking and mingling without a spot of bother” they spew as you feel that all too familiar cocktail of cringe and anger bubble up in your throat. “If that Rooney had spoken to a rugby ref like that he’d have lost his team 10 yards” Oh god, here we go again.
Let’s be honest about rugby, particularly rugby union, it’s largely a sport for posh boys. Yes there are exceptions in Wales, Scotland and the likes of Cornwall but mostly it’s played and watched by well educated, middle class, floppy haired guys.
It’s exactly this exclusivity, self-righteousness and complete and utter lack of accessibility that keeps rugby from ever being cool. People within the sport of rugby will never understand that crowd violence at football and the casual movement in particular made it cool to be part of football. A bit dangerous, a bit edgy, fashionable and well…cool. They’ll never get that Bjorn Borg and the like spawned fashions on the terraces, nightclubs and beyond that JPR Williams never could. Nor will they see the merit and sleek iconic symbolism of the likes of Robin Friday, Michael Jordan, Daley Thompson, Anna Kournikova or Babe Ruth. Until then, rugby will remain awe inspiringly physical, a great participation sport but never, ever, under any circumstances will it be cool.
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