This weekend marks the start of the Rugby Union season with a bang. Twickenham, home of English Rugby, will welcome 80,000 spectators – supporters, friends and family.
We will see four London Premiership sides play back-to-back games in four hours of bone-crunching entertainment.
What is now an incredible day for the sport has only been in existence for a few years. That said, Rugby Union is only a young, slightly grumpy adolescent in terms of professional sport.
Back in summer 1995 Rugby Union changed forever. The professional sport we see today was born, and between now and then the hooligans’ game played by gentlemen has evolved. Beyond recognition from its humble muddy-kneed school boy beginnings?
Developments on of the off the field of play have seen rugby grow from strength to strength. Last season premiership games sold out Twickenham and Wembley – the home of English football.
This season welcomes trial variations in the laws governing the game, implemented on a global scale, September and January for the north and southern hemispheres respectively. With players getting taller, faster, stronger and scarier to boot, are these law variations a shift in favour of developing the sport, or perhaps just means to temporarily tame the insatiable hunger of the professional era.
No longer is it pie and mash on a Friday and an early night for players. That time is gone. Rugby is embracing, and has done for some time now, squads of physios, teams of strength and conditioning coaches, more backroom staff for individual analysis – play-by-play breakdown and review. All in the name of sport.
To be better, to be the best. Constant evolution. Or get left behind. It is professional sport after all. But what drives this?
Changes this season see the use of GPS monitors on players’ increase, quick line out options double, a five second use it-or lose it rule at ruck time and shortened engages to the scrum.
Coming with this is an extension to the powers of television match officials – the ability to site missed infringements real-time, and on request review two phases of play prior to any suspected score.
Transformation into the realm of the ultra-professional, or possibly commerciality is pronouncing its reign over rugby now too. It’s high-stakes. As the money increases, so does the pressure.
The pressure on players to perform, on the coaches and managers to deliver – on rugby as a sport to entertain.
Top flight sport is now entertainment. You get it everywhere. NFL, T20, Super Rugby . All fashioned for the viewer. Faster, harder, more hell-bent on domination. Will franchised sport be the death of the fun-loving amateur games we knew as children? Or will this just make our Saturday’s TV viewing a bit more lively?
Regardless of the eventual evolution of pro rugby, there is one thing for sure. This Saturday, this season in fact, expectations are high – people want to be entertained. With a healthy competitive sport in the middle there somewhere.
So as Harlequins, London Irish, Wasps and Saracens take the stage, people are yearning for the first score. It is coming, fitter, faster, and more brutal. More entertaining. Let us just hope it lives up to its billing now…
image: © pierre-selim