The problems with rugby media and questions of meritocracy.
There are many things which make the Six Nations Championship great. The rivalry, the passion, the competition. Rugby fans all over the world look forward to the annual showcase and rumours about changes to the format will remain speculation for the foreseeable future. Rugby’s higher-ups wouldn’t dare tinker with their prize tournament.
However, just like any good thing in this world, with the good comes the bad, and the Six Nations is no exception. Year-round rugby fans would be lying if they said that the annual influx of casual fans was not tedious and recently the heated rivalry, that we all so desperately love, has become slightly too heated, especially on social media. But for me the crux of the issues with the Six Nations is the media.
Year-round rugby fans will be familiar with the ever-improving BT Sport coverage of Premiership and European rugby, which is both inclusive and detailed in its portrayal of the weekend’s rugby, continuing to be a thoroughly enjoyable experience and the flagship for rugby coverage. The characters on BT are a wonderful balance between likeable personalities and meticulously knowledgably rugby brains with Monye, Kay, Flatman and, dare I say, Healy, breaking down the game we love in a signature entertaining and comprehensive style. Furthermore, although I am not a regular consumer, Amazon Prime, Premier Sports, RTE, S4C and Stan are all great options for rugby viewing.
The BBC and ITV coverage is in direct contrast of this experience. The pundits are boring, and the commentators are frazzled and neither of them really know anything about rugby. This is nothing new, “jobs for the boys” and the nostalgia-ridden hiring process of former players has been in rugby, and all sports, for years. However, the aforementioned Monye, Kay, Flatman and Healy are all also former players and happen to also be brilliant rugby-minds.
The problem with these characters is that despite being great players and coaches in their day, they simply don’t understand the modern game at all. Instead of bringing in people who genuinely understand the complexities of the game, the BBC and ITV choose to have these has-beens pretend to know what they are talking about.
What is worse about these characters is that many of them are not only ignorant to new developments but they seem to have a phobia of them, frequently criticizing new laws or tactics that would make themselves even more outdated than they already are. Furthermore, they clearly have no intentions to actually engage with the fans who are watching or contribute to topical debates, something that BT do so well.
It should not be needed to be said that if you do not pay attention to a craft for 15 years + that you are not an expert in this field anymore. I achieved an A in my Maths GCSE but less than five years later I can confidently say that I have forgotten all of it.
Furthermore, rugby is not set in stone, the game is fluid and there are not definitive ways of doing things. The game changes faster and faster all the time and modern progressions and evolutions are making the game unrecognisable to the game played in the early 2000s. Add to this technological advances which increase the circulation of information and statistics and I believe it is safe to assume that modern coaches know far more about the game of rugby than their noughties counterparts.
Maybe it is just me, but this years’ soap opera was particularly tedious and hard to listen to, you couldn’t count on two hands how many times the commentators completely got a players name wrong, an unforgivable sin on the international, test stage. The comical combo of Butler and Jiffy, both Welshmen, were particularly hard to listen to with their tournament highlights including: “Gareth Biggar”, “Ross Harris”, “Johnny Nicol”, “Willis Halahola” and my personal favourite, “Monty Eye-Oh-Knee”, Not to mention Jiffy’s painfully over-simplified recommendation for Wales to “pick and go” and proceed to use the word ‘lateral’ over 10 times in one game.
If it is your job to comment on 46 men playing a game then it is the bare minimum of professionalism and courtesy to learn to say the player’s names correctly.
Meanwhile, the studio teams managed to repeatedly speak for 30 minutes after every game without actually making a single coherent or interesting point throughout the whole tournament. This could be forgiven if the coverage wasn’t intensely bias, despite this year showcasing one of the most exciting Italian teams of all time, I don’t think a single Italian player was mentioned in the analysis through the whole tournament, one can only assume the ‘analysts’ in the studio didn’t know any of their names.
To put it extremely bluntly, there are 15-year-olds who know more about rugby than these ‘pundits’ and it has become tedious to the point where it is almost a running joke. I can no longer watch a Six Nations game without cringing or being embarrassed for the game that this is the best we have to offer in our flagship tournament.
An even more confusing element to this narrative is that the BBC and ITV continue to ignore the genuinely knowledgeable an interesting former professionals. Ugo Monye and Maggie Alphonsi are very intelligent and articulate pundits who have both previously been employed by BBC or ITV and who were dropped for this years Six Nations coverage, Monye taking a backseat role on the highlights show.
You only have to look at the BBC Sport rugby homepage and you will see a who’s-who’s of 2003 World Cup Winners and 1990s coaches with opinions that match the years of their primes.
When I complain about this issue the usual retort is that because the Six Nations brings a significant viewership of casual fans, the coverage needs to be dumbed down to help the new and less knowledgeable fans understand the game.
No wonder the game doesn’t grow if we choose to dumb down and simplify the game for casual fans. This not only alienates the year-round fans but also will not interest new fans who will never know the nuances and delicacies of the test game. Surely no one can truly believe that Clive Woodward’s nonsensical ramblings are more interesting and appealing for new fans than a detailed Squidge Rugby analyst video.
Speaking of Squidge Rugby (Robbie Owen), he is probably the best case study we have for a real knowledgeable fan subverting tradition and breaking into the mainstream having written for BBC Sport an appeared on Scrum V. Why mainstream outlets do not pursue Robbie and other talented rugby minds to make content for them I do not know. A common retort is that it does not get viewership because casual fans don’t understand it. Well how the hell do we know that if we haven’t tried anything different from the same thing we have been doing for 40 years? I think I speak for the whole rugby community when I say we are proud of you Robbie and we want to see more.
While we are on the topic of people living off their previous career. Influential rugby journalist and 2021 rugby journalist of the year nominee, Stephen Jones, was in the news this week for demanding Eddie Jones, the coach who has been to three of the last five World Cup finals, be sacked and replaced by Clive Woodward, who hasn’t coached international rugby for over 17 years. I will let you form your own opinion about that. As a general rule of thumb, any ‘journalists’ who demand that coaches be sacked are not worth your time, simply because clearly they do not have anything interesting to write about.
My head was spun this week by a tweet in response to a tweet about this very subject, “It’s when you realise that writing professionally isn’t remotely a meritocracy.”
As I previously mentioned, nepotism and “jobs for the boys” is nothing new in rugby, but the idea that rugby media is not a meritocracy is a slightly more unsettling concept. Particularly for those in the industry or aspiring to be so, like myself, it is a disheartening thought that our hard work could never be rewarded simply because we didn’t play the game internationally in the 1990s and instead these over-the-hill “run it straight” merchants will get all the good gigs at the top level.
The popular media platform JOE uploaded a video this week which really exposed how backwards rugby is and what a tiny place it currently holds in the sphere of global sports. The video in question involved asking ‘rugby fans’ what they would take from the game of football into rugby. Football is the biggest sport in the world and the only true global sport, raking in billions of profits in multiple countries. However, these are rugby fans and so sure as day various Schoeffel and brogue-clad private school alumni stepped up and spouted the usual nonsense about how football is beneath them with one even completely committing to the tired stereotype by using the line which makes every real rugby fan cringe and cower in embarrassment “football is a gentleman’s game played by hooligans and rugby is a hooligans game played by gentlemen”. (He has clearly never watched Bakkies Botha, Peter O’Mahony or Israel Folau play). I could write another article on this topic so will keep my views short, but it is this snooty superiority complex which means that rugby doesn’t grow as a sport. Rugby is in no position to look down on other sports and currently has a severe image problem.
The intention of this article is not to incite a revolutionary overhaul of rugby media, more to criticize it. However, I feel it is my duty as a responsible journalist to offer some resolutions and alternatives to accompany my criticisms. Rugby media is in fact not all bad, lower down the tree there are many shining lights that display the beautiful sides of rugby.
The aforementioned Squidge Rugby makes consistently quality YouTube videos which show the analysis required and used at the top level of test rugby, but in a fun and easy to understand format.
Sam Larner makes extremely interesting Twitter threads breaking down individual moves and passages of play as well as his popular series, Whiteboard Rugby which explains complex laws and rugby nuances with just a whiteboard and a pen.
Murray Kinsella and the team at The42 make fantastic rugby content while Charlie Morgan at The Telegraph is one of the best rugby analysts in the community
The team at WalesOnline including Simon Thomas make extremely intellectual and engaging Welsh-themed content.
Other interesting characters on YouTube include TwoCents rugby who spends copious amounts of time researching to ensure that he understands the game and can comment with complete responsibility and impartiality. More than can be said for many of the pundits at the highest level.
To conclude, despite there being shining lights and silver linings to the mindless drivel that is mainstream rugby media such as BT and the popular social media creators who uphold our integrity and sanity as a rugby community. The annual coverage of the Six Nations continues to be an embarrassment and cringeworthy experience for hardcore fans. I beg anyone with any power or influence to take a step out of the dark ages and employ someone who knows about rugby past 2005 because we as rugby fans, certainly deserve better.