The Herald is running a series looking at rugby and its place in our national psyche - The Book of Rugby. While rugby at the top level - the All Blacks and Super Rugby - is humming ahead of the British & Irish Lions tour, what is happening at lower levels is a cause of concern for some.

Rugby has evolved massively since the game was first played in New Zealand in the late 19th century. And the rate of change has increased even more rapidly since the sport went professional following the 1995 World Cup. Dylan Cleaver looks at the sport's attempt to woo audiences and the increasing concerns around safety.

Rugby is healthy at the elite levels - but what of the grassroots? As clubs struggle to remain the focal points of their community, Dylan Cleaver canvasses the view on rugby's frontlines in the north, east, south and west of the country.

The British & Irish Lions tour is four days from kicking off and will be our biggest rugby event since hosting the 2011 Rugby World Cup. Dylan Cleaver asks where the sport sits in our national consciousness and how is it likely to shift, if at all, in the future.

Chapter 3. The Product

"Rugby's adherence to tradition is admirable, but it must find ways to break down its constituent parts in a fashion that captures a generation that is short on attention."

- Scotty Stevenson

New Zealanders are rugby's most devout disciples. They are also its loudest blasphemers.

The two work hand in glove. While rugby as a product, particularly as played here, is so much faster and more ambitious as to almost make it unrecognisable to the game our forefathers played, it still faces a raft of accusations on a weekly basis.

The rules are confusing.


The season is too long.

The competitions are boring (and in Super Rugby's case, nonsensical).

It is increasingly unsafe.

Sport is one of those subjective pursuits where you see what you want to see but when you watch clips or tape of old games it is hard not to come to the conclusion that rugby is a vastly better game in the post-professional era.

Until 1996 rugby never had to worry about entertaining the masses. So, much more often than not, it didn't.

It was a game that was designed for the benefit of its players that, seemingly by accident, became popular in certain pockets of the world - most notably New Zealand, Wales, white South Africa, the south of France and in the moneyed schools of England, Scotland, Ireland, Australia and Argentina.

The sport's glue was its amateurism; its vision was inward.

The first national provincial championship - won by Bay of Plenty - was played in 1976, close to 100 years after the game was introduced here. Until then representative rugby was bound together by the Ranfurly Shield, and a loose connection of traditional and negotiated fixtures.

BoP's inaugural triumph came five years after a seismic event in New Zealand's rugby history: the 1971 Lions tour.

Longtime sports writer and observer Phil Gifford recently described the 1971 tourists as being as "beautiful as a punch in the mouth". He was indulging in what we could term proactive retribution, in the expectation of a barrage of insults aimed at New Zealand rugby from the north over the next month.

He was aiming for where it would hurt most, because he '71 Lions are considered by many as the apex of British and Irish rugby. Names like Barry John, Mike Gibson, Gareth Edwards, Ray "Mighty Mouse" McLoughlin and Willie John McBride are revered.

Their effect on New Zealand rugby was not, as is popularly mythologised, to turn every five-eighth into a clone of John, or to have kids from Kaitaia to the Catlins dreaming of being like Gibson (who, as Gifford pointed out in the same column, went an entire half of the fourth test without handling the ball). What Carwyn James' Lions did was to send New Zealand rugby into a spiral of self-doubt that seemed unthinkable after the dominance of Fred Allen's teams of the 60s.

What followed was a period of stultifying rugby. It was imperfect timing for such an imperfect product because 1972 saw a new phenomenon in New Zealand - the live telecasting of test rugby.

Television might face an uncertain future but it is impossible to understate its transformational influence on New Zealand rugby.

From the macabre coverage of the 1981 Springbok tour - which turned a lot of neutrals off the game - to the made-for-TV tournaments of today, the square box has transformed the sport.

The World Cup was a boon for the sport and for the broadcasting of it. While the inaugural tournament in 1987 seems folksy by comparison to its 21st century incarnations, the sight of John Kirwan racing the length of the field to score against Italy and Serge Blanco scoring a last-minute try in the corner to lead France over the Wallabies in the semifinal left an indelible mark.

By 1995 apartheid had ended, thus reactivating one of the sports biggest markets and a young New Zealander of Tongan descent, Jonah Lomu, was making a bold-faced statement on the athletic potential of the sport.

Allied to this was the emergence of pay TV operators who were making exclusive sports content a battleground. With this backdrop, rugby hurtled towards professionalism at a pace even its fustiest administrators could not deny.

(The influence of rugby's bastard child, league, should not be overlooked either. If rugby was bogged down by tradition and confounding laws, league was a blue-collar upstart whose simplicity and clever marketing was attracting not just eyeballs but, because it handed out ever-increasing pay cheques, the 15-man code's best players).

Rugby was the domain of the state broadcaster until 1996 when Sky purchased the rights to the All Blacks, which it holds to this day. Its grip on rugby remains strong - estimated to be $90 million worth of investment each year - even as streaming technology threatens its decoder-based business.

Although Sky would never so baldly admit this, they need rugby more than ever. The day after the 2015 World Cup final was known in some quarters as Black Monday, as rugby fans called in to the switchboards to disconnect their service. It is a pattern repeated to a smaller degree at the end of every All Black season.

Sky also get Sanzaar's inaptly named Super Rugby, a competition spanning four continents that has chopped and changed formats and teams in the misguided belief that expansion was, by definition, success.

It is hard to think of a competition that has endured as many negative headlines as Super Rugby and yet... Sky's numbers are well ahead this year than they were last.

05+ 05+
Average AUD Average AUD %
2016 YTD 64.13 1.54
2017 YTD 76.97 1.84
2017-2016 diff.+12.84 +0.30
2017-2016 % diff.+20.0% +16.7%

The message seems to be: the competition is terrible, but we'll watch it out of spite anyway.

Perhaps the importance of television and the broadcast rights that fund the game are best articulated by NZ Rugby chairman Brent Impey, himself a former television executive, when it was announced that Super Rugby's format would once more change.

Never once referencing the fan, Impey said: "Sanzaar is delighted that its major broadcast partners have... agreed to the restructured format within the existing broadcast agreements. Our broadcast partners are an important stakeholder and their vision for Super Rugby moving forward is the same as ours."

Rugby is a tough game for the outsider to understand. Its beauty and its curse is that both teams have the opportunity to battle for possession in multiple areas of the game, from scrum to lineout to breakdown to kick-chase.

"Over the years rugby has recognised the need to attract a new market, but at heart it remains a conservative sport," says broadcaster and passionate fan Scotty Stevenson. "The very fact it has laws rather than rules gives some credence to this point, and those laws can at times work against moves to simplify the sport for a larger audience.

"Although in theory the sport is simple, its many moving parts and subtleties of execution encourage well-worn generalisation as opposed to deep analysis."

Even its most committed, analytical audience can be driven to distraction by the shifting sands of the laws. The game can take an entirely different shape from week to week based on what appears to be the whim of the referee.

"When you watch a game one day and a ref rules a certain way, then you see the same thing happen the next day and it's reffed differently, that causes massive confusion in the casual fan," says recently retired test referee Chris Pollock. "I'm not sure that's ever going to change though."

Whenever Pollock was buttonholed by punters, there were invariably two areas of contention: tackle and scrum.

"One of the great parts of our sport is that it has these areas of interpretation, or grey areas, but it's also one of its great frustrations," he says. "You look at the most popular sport in the world, football. It's also the simplest. The two things are not unconnected."

Pollock, who works as director of sport at Hastings Boys' High School, said the breakdown was the area of greatest difficulty to officiate.

"The breakdown happens so fast. You're there and you can probably find five faults if you wanted to but what you take is a snapshot in your mind and rule on that," Pollock says.

"Every ref will have a slightly different snapshot of the same thing.

"There are times when you're watching the game the following day to review your performance and you see the same breakdown differently and realise that if that was the snapshot you had at the time, you would have ruled differently."

That scrap for possession at the breakdown is also a flashpoint for perhaps rugby's greatest challenge in the next decade: safety.

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With heightened concerns over the long-term effects of concussion in particular, the sight of oversized humans turning themselves into missiles to "clean out" at the breakdown is one that jars with many parents whose kids might be contemplating playing the sport.

The modern player is bigger (see graphic). The modern player is faster. The improvement in training methods, the ability to train fulltime and have access to the best supplements has seen players be able to carry more muscle and more bulk without sacrificing speed.

Yet the brain remains the same organ as it ever was, trapped inside the same hard shell.

"The reality is rugby has a risk of concussion and developing a concussion, but so do a lot of sports," says Players' Association tsar Rob Nichol.

"The issue is how it's dealt with.

"Rugby has been really poor, contact sports have been really poor, in dealing with it."

Nichol believes increased awareness has led to a massive cultural shift away from the macho imperative of the not-so-distant past, where to admit to pain was to admit to weakness.

"Are we where we need to be? Not yet but we're getting there, it's starting to trickle down and in New Zealand we're probably the best in the world [at recognising and dealing with concussion]."

It is difficult to properly assess the impact of concussion and the threat of serious injury on playing numbers, but it would be a safe assumption that it has a negligible effect on viewing numbers. The gladiatorial aspect, as crass as that may sound, is one of rugby's great attractions.

As rugby enters the highly digitised era, it is worth pondering the sport's future and how it can stay relevant to generations who want entertainment and engagement all with the swipe of an index finger.

"Rugby's adherence to tradition is admirable, but it must find ways to break down its constituent parts in a fashion that captures a generation that is short on attention, big on data, and more in tune with the listicle than the mystical," says Stevenson.

"New Zealanders will always be capable of holding a conversation about the game. It remains a part of our DNA, an inescapable backdrop to our daily life. It is imperative that the game takes a high-tech, easy-talk approach to growing the game internationally. New Zealand can help drive this revolution."

While we might look upon the history of rugby in New Zealand as a continuum, you could mount a persuasive argument that there were two distinct eras: pre- and post-professionalism or, rephrased, pre- and post-pay television. When Stevenson talks of the next "revolution" he talks about how the game is packaged for the consumer, not necessarily the game itself.

Within all this talk of change, it seems appropriate to end with a constant: the All Blacks are still really, really good. And that won't stop us complaining.