There was a time when rugby union was more popular than association football. This incredible and true fact takes us back to the 1860s when rugby was invented in Rugby, Warwickshire, UK. The game of rugby became the new trend in sport even though football or soccer was played at that time. On the up, the first official Rugby Union formed in 1871 but remained an amateur classified sport, this meant that there was no payment, salaries or contracts for players, so, most players had to have employment in order to live. This created the first down-side as many players wanted to go professional and earn wages as obtaining leave permission from their jobs hindered training and being available to play in matches, So, in 1895, 21 northern UK clubs split from the RFU to form Rugby League where players could earn salaries from playing a different type of rugby as RL has no scrums and rules that allow the game to be faster and without long breaks.
The rift between the RFU and RL lasted decades as neither body acknowledged each other, the north went pro but south UK remained amateur. In the meantime the Football Association turned professional in 1885 and 3 years later there were 12 clubs operating on a pro-basis with players under contract. Rugby Union did not go professional until 1995 and this may explain why other professional status sports became more popular overtime as the talented players could acquire lucrative contracts and dedicate themselves full time to their chosen activity while Rugby Union lagged behind the pro trend.
In the 1930s rugby was the world’s leading and most popular sport played or spectated with baseball and basketball coming in 2nd and 3rd respectively, however, by 1940 rugby had dropped to 2nd place and basketball took the top spot. In the late 1950s football exploded in popularity and zoomed to 1st place as the most popular sport and has remained there ever since. Although rugby has surged in recent years especially after the RWC 2019 in Japan with a billion people tuning in to watch it rugby occupies 9th place in the 2020 world’s most popular sport charts with cricket now in 2nd place and hockey claiming the number 3 spot. One of the main reasons for rugby dropping down the world popularity chart is the fact that rugby union remained an amateur sport until 1995 whilst the majority of other sports became professional entities much earlier and therefore attracted the big international global sponsors eager to render financial support for federations and players. Forecasts for the 2023 RWC in France is predicted to exceed all expectations both on and off the field for everyone participating and the generous sponsors of course.
The first official professional player recorded was England’s Mike Catt in 1995, however, there has always been some obstacle jumping stories over paying players and one of the funniest comments on this situation was highlighted by Australia’s super quick winger who played in the 90s pre-pro era, David Campese, he remarked, ‘I’m still an amateur, of course, but I became a millionaire 5 years ago’. Many players received appearance money from sponsors privately to wear or be seen with their products.
Refereeing a match can be quite a task at times and some decisions were left to the discretion of the referee. Naturally, in the big games a wrong or controversial decision can change the state of play and incite the tempers to flair. So, to counteract this and achieve a more fair and correct decision rugby introduced the TMO (television match official) in 2001. Extra cameras strategically placed in hot spots to determine with more confidence a just decision should the on pitch referee require it. The equivalent In football is VAR, (video assistant referee), the recorded videos are replayed on the giant screens for the public and the referees to see if the play action was within the rules of the game. Also, the spectators can hear the referee speak to players on his decisions during the game via a fixed head microphone. These technological advances and aids in rugby allow better decision making and the supporters are kept informed in real time.
When you have 2 sets of opposing forwards forming a scrum it can get messy sometimes. 16 blokes weighing over a 100Kg each is a huge feat of raw strength pushing against each pack of 8 for the ball, so, to regulate this mighty interlocking of the 2 teams a scrum procedure was introduced to protect players from injury, the ref has 3 stages to set the scrum. First stage the command is Crouch, this is where each team assembles the scrum formation without contact with the opposing team scrum but are ready to engage. Second stage command is Bind, this is when the opposing teams interlock and make contact but no pushing yet. Then the third stage command is Set, this is when the teams take up the dynamic pressing ready for when the ball is put into the scrum. Once the ball is in then the real pushing starts. This procedure enables a safer way to implement scrums which are thoroughly enjoyed by all the spectators but can go wildly wrong if proper timing commands are not given. The Crouch, Bind, Set procedure was brought in in 2013.
By today’s standards on a professional player level, rugby players are still low earners in comparison to other sports. Top players in the UK just about reach a £1m a season which is chicken feed when you consider top football players reach stratospheric levels of earnings, Lionel Messi earns approximately £61m per season plus his image rights contracts! Rugby will continue to grow in popularity especially women’s rugby and many countries around the world have taken rugby on board and investing in the future, this will ensure that rugby rises again in being one of the world’s most popular sports. There are still many upsides in rugby to come and we shall see them in the build up to the next RWC in France in 2023. In the meantime, check out the various countries in Europe alone holding tournaments especially at club level, rugby is on its way back. You can find rugby tournaments in the most unusual places like Bulgaria, Lithuania and Poland with its Krakow Rugby Festival offering a weekend of competitive rugby with all the trimmings of the Rugby Spirit included on and off the pitch. It all starts at grassroots levels and these unlikely rugby nations will one day figure in major competitions.