Comment: Rugby becoming more like football isn't a bad thing - we should actually be happy about it
Rugby getting like football? Perish the thought, say some. Bring it on, say I.
The summary dismissal of Leicester head coach, Aaron Mauger, only 24 hours after he had helped get the first silverware of the season, the Anglo-Welsh Cup, into the Welford Rd trophy cabinet, prompted comparisons with the supposed knee-jerk sacking world of football. Richard Cockerill has gone from the self-same changing-rooms. Andy Robinson at Bristol. Changes at Worcester Warriors. Northampton’s Jim Mallinder reportedly under pressure, as if this were some new phenomena.
Whatever happened to loyalty? To fair play and decency? To giving a bloke a reasonable crack of the whip? Those value systems all went out of use long, long ago, banished to a dusty corner the day the game went professional in August 1995. Since then, the bottom line has become the significant determining factor, whether it be measured in hard cash or in prestige, the winning of leagues and cups, or at the very least being competitive in the higher echelons. That is the driver of the sport, for players as well as for coaches.
And far from complaining about that dynamic, we should be lauding it. The pursuit of success is what has made following English rugby such an engaging activity these last few years. Stuart Lancaster did it his way, and there were many high points as the All Blacks were beaten, only for it to end dismally and despondently at the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
The Eddie Jones makeover has worked wonders for the team itself as well as for the profile of the sport. And what drives Eddie? Failure and fear of the sack, that is what. He knew that if he didn’t get it right, if he didn’t manage to transform English fortunes, that his four-year contract would be worth only as much as the severance deal that would one day be negotiated.
Of course there are many other, more noble and appealing factors at work – the nurturing of talent, the quest for excellence, the probing of mental resolve, the expression of the athletic self - but they are all set in motion by that overriding consideration of getting it right or facing the axe.
It happens to players every week. The demotion, even humiliation, is a constant in their lives. George Ford in the Rugby World Cup, giving way to Owen Farrell, Nathan Hughes, going well, but down to bench duty against Ireland as Billy Vunipola returned. As for the concept of the one-club man, such as Lawrence Dallaglio at Wasps or, these days, Chris Robshaw at Harlequins, that umbilical cord is under strain once a player reaches a certain age and in danger of being deemed either surplus to requirement or beyond the reach of salary cap budgets.
So, yes, it is tough on Aaron Mauger. Very tough. It’s often the case that a manager or coach is sacked when they are supposed to have ‘lost the dressing-room.’ It comes to something that Mauger should be picking up his P45 with the backing of the Leicester players ringing in his ears.
And yet, what were the Leicester board supposed to do? Sit on their hands as the club were humiliated in Munster and Glasgow? Even Cockerill acknowledged that something had to give. Now, his former sidekick, Matt O’Connor, returns as the main man. It is quite normal that a new head coach should want his own people and backroom staff alongside. The Cockerill-Mauger intended collaboration of opposites did not work, the clash of styles and philosophies all very well in the good times but destined for the fractious end it did eventually generate.
Players have their part to play in all this as another popular Leicester figure, former Foxes’ manager, Claudio Ranieri, discovered to his cost. Tigers’ captain, Tom Youngs, was correct when he said after winning a full-on East Midlands derby at Northampton on Saturday that he and his teammates should bear responsibility for the Mauger situation in that they had not produced the goods on the field earlier in the season, only latterly getting that part of the sporting business right.
Change does not always bring an immediate change of fortune. Bath sacked Mike Ford at the end of last season yet went down to their heaviest league defeat (53-10) in 15 years against Saracens at Allianz Park on Sunday.
Rugby cannot pick and choose what elements of football it wishes to copy or bring on board. Certainly the prospect of morons singing anti-German songs is none too appetising. But, as we all know, that sort of brain-dead behaviour will never come to pass in rugby stadiums. Quite the opposite as the glorious tribal-fest that is the Six Nations has just shown. All that supposed inter-country antagonism, otherwise known as ‘let’s all gang up on England,’ and not a drop of drink spilled in anger.
Football is the most popular sport on the planet. And at a time when there is alarm in Australia at a drop-off in participation figures in rugby union, when proud but cash-stricken Newport Gwent Dragons are in the throes of a takeover by the WRU, rugby can ill-afford not to look at those sports with greater mass-appeal in the market place and not wonder what practices might be adopted. Club rugby has grown enormously over the last two decades with attendances still on an upward trajectory.
It is an insult to the millions of responsible followers to throw out the lazy and uncomplimentary insinuation that rugby is somehow going down the route of football. It is the nature of professional sport that there are sackings and hirings.
Quite rightly, there were tears from, and for, Mauger at the weekend. It is a hard, unforgiving world. But we would not want it any other way.